STUDENTS DESIGN HISTORIC DISPLAY

September 07, 2001 11:00 pm
DISPLAYING HISTORY: Sarah Edvalson prepares an exhibit of pioneer clothing and other artifacts at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. (Baker City Herald/S.JOHN COLLINS).
DISPLAYING HISTORY: Sarah Edvalson prepares an exhibit of pioneer clothing and other artifacts at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. (Baker City Herald/S.JOHN COLLINS).

By Mike Ferguson

For The Observer

BAKER CITY Imagine if two trained people went through your attic, picked out all the best stuff, researched and published your family history, and then filled an entire room with your artifacts.

They wouldnt lay out your treasures garage-sale style. Instead, every piece would be lovingly displayed, complete with an informative sign and perhaps a brief history.

Youd feel pretty glad that youd saved all that old stuff, and even more glad that somebody had taken the time both to explain it and to share it with others.

You might even pay them for their efforts.

In a way, thats how Sara Edvalson and Robert Marshall III spent their summer and visitors to the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center are reaping the benefits of their hard work.

Edvalson, a graduate of Eastern Oregon University, and Marshall, who returns this month for his senior year, won fellowships this summer to work their way through the interpretive centers warehouse (officially its called a curative storeroom) and decide which stored items they wanted visitors to see and learn about.

Their work is on display at the interpretive centers Flagstaff Gallery through November.

Early in the process, the two elected to focus exclusively on 19th century non-mining artifacts. Edvalson handled the quilts, clothes and literature, while Marshall learned to remove rust from old tools (stagecoach jacks, for example) and created displays of maps, old bottles and other containers.

The pair worked under the direction of the museums curator and historian, Sarah LeCompte, and Kelly Burns, the exhibits coordinator.

Edvalson and Marshall said it was the trust of the two BLM employees that allowed them to succeed at their job.

They didnt have time to do all this, so they brought us in and let us just get after it, Marshall said. Our whole time here was spent getting this up and operative.

A critical early decision was made to limit the scope of what could be displayed.

To begin, we needed a theme, and we decided on everyday objects, Edvalson said. What did people use at the time, and what did it say about the culture of the time?

A displayed copy of the Oregon Statesman from Nov. 7, 1864, for example, reports on President Lincolns re-election and also contains a dispatch from Czar Alexander of Russia.

From the very beginning of the time white people settled in Oregon, she said, people have stayed in contact with whats going on in the world.

Her research into the titles of books that settlers brought with them indicates that the pioneers werent backward. In fact, they read a lot of literature and history.

And the women sewed lots of quilts, which they used as a medium of exchange. A nice-looking quilt or $20 might gain a family passage over a river crossed by the Oregon Trail.

The most impressive quilt on display is also the most famous: it was hand crafted by Elizabeth Hart Spalding, one of the first white women to cross the Rockies.

While Marshall spent a fair amount of time preparing tools for the display, it wasnt all work and no play. Part of his research included discovering which sports and games were played by the areas settlers and which gender played which sport.

It was OK for women to bowl and play lawn tennis, he said. But it was just the men who played polo and cricket and shot rifles.

It was during the 1830s, he said, that doctors began to encourage children to engage in outside activities to promote health. Up until then, people avoided the sun as much as possible, in part because the tans we covet today were not fashionable then.

It was their sense of vanity and not practicality that drove women to wear the colorful bonnets we now associate with the era. But, Edvalson said, the design of the bonnets presented a safety issue.

One made around 1835 shows why: women walking alongside a covered wagon would sometimes get their foot caught in a wagon wheel, she said, because the wide bonnets completely cut off womens peripheral vision.

It was like a horse with blinders on, she said.

Men of the era werent immune to a sting by the fashion bug, either. A beaver top hat, from around 1850, illustrates the fact that beaver were hunted so extensively during the mid-19th century that nutria had to be introduced into Oregon in part to prevent the mens hat industry from collapsing.

Other more everyday items dot the new exhibit. A can of Winslows Green Corn, c. 1870, is there, along with a candle box that Marshall says must have hung near a familys fireplace.

So, too, are womens and girls dresses and shawls. Some are machine stitched, and others sewn by hand. In those days, women used old dresses for patterns. It was just about 1850, Edvalson said, that the McCall and Butterick companies introduced their dress patterns.

For more information on the new display, the following Web site will contain a link within the next two weeks: www.or.blm.gov/NHOTIC.

Mike Ferguson is a reporter for the Baker City Herald.