August 28, 2003 11:00 pm
PAST RINGS TRUE: Eastern Oregon University student Jasen Hansen examines a bell he helped make which honors the Hen Party. Gerda Brownton of La Grande, the last surviving member of the Hen Party, looks on. (The Observer/DICK MASON).
PAST RINGS TRUE: Eastern Oregon University student Jasen Hansen examines a bell he helped make which honors the Hen Party. Gerda Brownton of La Grande, the last surviving member of the Hen Party, looks on. (The Observer/DICK MASON).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff

This intriguing group of women last met 38 years ago and has only one surviving member.

They were on course to become a group that time forgot — until this summer.

The Hen Party is the group in historical question. Its members made a name for themselves by meeting annually from 1935 to 1965 for a two-week horseback trip into the Wallowas. Their story reveals much about life in Northeast Oregon during this era.

Theirs is a tale that has been secured by members of a class at Eastern Oregon University. Students in the Public Art and Service Institute class at Eastern have prepared an oral history of the Hen Party and made a bell commemorating the group. The students' work has anchored a piece of Northeast Oregon's legacy that was in danger of being buried by the sands of time.

"It was an interesting part of history that was at risk of fading away,'' said Rob Davis, an English/writing professor at EOU.

Davis and Doug Kaigler, an EOU art professor, taught the Public Art and Service Institute class.

The oral history the students captured is based on an extensive interview with Gerda Brownton of La Grande, the last surviving member of the Hen Party. Brownton went on Hen Party trips in 1946, 1948 and 1951. Being a part of the Hen Party was not something to be taken for granted since one had to be invited.

"It was a real privilege (to be invited)'' Brownton said in the oral history.

Membership criteria included possessing mountain horseback riding skills and ability to mix well with the group.

The Hen Party took its trips in August. The women normally rode from Cove to Red's Horse Ranch and then followed the Minam River. They would stop at places such as North Minam Meadows, Steamboat Lake, Swamp Lake and Blue Lake.

Hen Party members in addition to Brownton included Jean Birnie, Louise Epling, Mima McGuire Cooper, Edna Seitz, Julia Gilstrap, Esther Badgley, Doris Williamson, Marty Reece, Jean Hassel, Regina Quaintence, Margaret Revis and Enid Bottice. This list may not include everyone who was a part of the Hen Party.

The trips were led and organized by Birnie, a woman who knew much about horsemanship and wilderness survival. Birnie provided many of the horses for the trips but more importantly leadership and inspiration.

"She just shone out. Her personality was just absolutely fabulous,'' Brownton said.

Birnie's leadership was most evident when the women encountered the most frightening portion of their route — a granite hillside that had stair steps which horses had to be walked up. It was called the Granite Stairway.

"It was a really scary place whether you were going up or down,'' Brownton said.

Members of the party would often ask Birnie if they really had to go up this route. Birnie would reply: "Well, yes and you can do it. Be strong, be proud and you can get your horse up here.''

Birnie not only inspired, but she also educated others about life.

"Jean raised our consciousness about things more than you could imagine,'' Brownton said.

In its early years, before it was known as the Hen Party, men came on the trips. Once World War II started, the group became one exclusively for women since so many men were in the military.

The group selected its name after its earlier years but it is not known why it was chosen.

The trips were made long before the days of Gore Tex, down sleeping bags and fancy packs. Instead the Hen Party members carried all of their gear in canvas saddle bags.

In addition to camping gear the women also brought copies of the Saturday Evening Post, one of the most popular magazines of that era.

"We always had a magazine along of some kind, so if it rained and we had to be in camp we'd have something to read, although we were never wanting for words,'' Brownton said with a laugh in the oral history.

The women also brought a sheet of canvas to put up between two trees.

"We never bothered with a tent because we all liked to sleep out under the stars,'' Brownton said.

One popular feature of the trips was that they cost little to go on. They allowed people to travel without really leaving home.

"People didn't travel in the depression days unless they were rich. (the attitude was) ‘See the world that you have,' '' Brownton said.

Brownton today lives in La Grande and is still an active outdoors woman, one who walks or hikes two hours a day "rain or shine.''

Davis feels fortunate that his class had the opportunity to help preserve the story of the Hen Party. It was an illuminating experience for everyone involved.

"We gained not only a feeling for it what it was like in the mountains but we also learned what it was like to live in La Grande then,'' Davis said.

The EOU professor was also struck by the influence the Hen Party trips had

on those who participated in them.

"They had a great sense of adventure and they enjoyed each other's company,'' Davis said. This was a formative experience in her (Brownton's life). It shaped her life and others. It colored the way she viewed everything else in life after that,'' Davis said.

He was also impressed with Brownton's appreciation of Northeast Oregon's outdoor wonders.

"She sees the mountains as wonderful and magical. It makes us feel that we are living in a very special place on earth,'' Davis said.

The students in the EOU class who helped prepare the oral history and the commemorative bell were Ron Blincoe, Dawna Blincoe, Tom Clarke, Jasen Hansen, Kelly Smutz and Risa Tanzawa.

The oral history Davis's students made is 20 pages long and will be available later in area libraries and through Eastern Oregon University's Web site. The commemorative bell will be mounted at a home in Cove near where the Hen Party trips started each year. Details on where the bell is displayed will be announced later.