MONTPELIER — The National Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpelier is much more than a museum.
It has the displays and artifacts one would expect from a museum — including a shaving kit circa 1935 donated by a local family. But you can touch almost everything inside the center, and tours are given by employees playing roles created for them using actual events taken from diaries of the trail’s actual pioneers.
“When you come in the front doors, you’re in 1852. That’s the way we keep it,” director Becky Smith told EastIdahoNews.com.
Smith, who gives tours when things get busy, plays the role of Caleb the gunsmith’s wife. Jeff Johnson plays Texas Jeff, a former Texas Mountain Man turned trail guide. The entire presentation is an interactive song-and-dance.
“It’s called an interpretive center,” Smith said. “The reason why we really enjoy the (term) ‘interpretive center’ is because most museums are ‘don’t touch.'”
Visitors can snoop around the art gallery or look at some displayed memorabilia from the mid-to late-1800s. Admission to the interpretive living history tour ranges from $5 for children, ages 4-7, and $12 for adults.
On the tour, guides offer their character’s first-hand accounts of trail life, from gathering provisions in Independence, Missouri, to camping in Clover Creek Territory, Oregon.
Johnson, who holds a college degree in education with an emphasis in history and science, happened into the museum in 2019. When he left that day, he had a new job that allows him to share his passion for history while exercising his skills as an educator.
“This place is — this isn’t a job for me, this is fun,” he said. “I get to do something I love every day.”
The living history tour wouldn’t be complete without a test ride in the back of an oxen-pulled covered wagon. While pioneers almost always walked the trail, the trail center allows visitors to sit in a wagon “pulled” by a team of hydraulic oxen to experience what the ride would have been like.
“Hydraulic is much better than live because the cleanup and feeding schedule is way better,” Smith joked.
The four-minute wagon “journey” is accompanied by audio recordings pulled from the diaries of Margaret and Abigail Scott — sisters who journeyed to Oregon with their family in the 1800s.
Then another actor takes visitors on a tour of a camp, offering tales of pioneer life.
Emma, one of the actresses, has been playing the role of Mrs. Carpenter on tours since she was 11 — she is now 17. When she isn’t telling her tales about bear attacks and heirloom rocking chairs, she trains new actors, like 14-year-old Boston, who plays Mrs. Adams.
Boston said that she encourages her classmates to take the tour. Emma said that playing the character of a midwestern wife is a bit tougher when her friends are in the crowd.
“It’s harder to do with people you know,” she said. “With people you don’t know, you’re never going to see them again, so you can go all out.”
Open since 1997, the center is the brainchild of a collection of local businessmen who came together to develop the idea with two purposes in mind. First, to educate visitors on the Oregon Trail and the role southeastern Idaho played in it. But also, to drive economic development.
The equation has worked for much of the center’s existence, though visitor numbers have fallen off since COVID. According to Smith, the center brought nearly 50,000 visitors to the town, primarily by way of tour buses.
“It brings a multitude of visitors from all over the world into little old Montpelier, Idaho,” she said.
The center has also hosted an annual quilt show every summer since 2008. There, locals can sell their homemade quilts to visitors without surrendering any of the profits. Sales made at the shows over the years have paid medical bills, college tuitions and ranch payments, Smith said proudly.
If there is one thing the center doesn’t do properly, Smith said, it is, tell the story of the trail from the native perspective.
“It’s often said that, what happened to the Native Americans was inevitable. But the way it was done is unconscionable. We need to learn from out history,” she SAID. “My only sadness about this building is that we do not tell the Native Americans’ side of the story. If I had money from a rich uncle, I would add onto the building and add that part to this because we’re only telling one side of the story.”
She has spoken with visitors to the center whose lineage ties them to the native roamed these lands before the U.S. expansion. During those conversations, she has collected stories she would like to see added to the tour.
Like one of a hunting party which, on its way out to the hunt, saw a white woman and her five children. The woman was using a pie plate as a shovel, digging a grave for her husband.
As the party was returning to its village, they again saw the woman and knew her to be in distress. So the party hunted for her, then escorted her through the Nations to Fort Laramie.
“You don’t hear those stories very often,” Smith said.
Along with the stories — whether they paint a complete picture or not — the center has curated a great deal of artifacts from the age of the trail.
“If you brought an antique appraiser back there, he’d go out of his gourd,” Smith said.
Anyone interested in more information about the The National Oregon/California Trail Center can visit its website — here.
The center is located at 320 North 4th Street in Montpelier. It is open Wednesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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