Wearing his signature striped capote, volunteer George Johnson, 86, greeted visitors and many old friends during the 25th anniversary celebration at for the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center on May 25th.
George has been recognized twice as Trail Tender of the Year, was chairman of the Trail Tenders and now serves on the board. Over the years, George has volunteered more than 4,000 hours at the interpretive center.
“It just didn’t seem like that many hours,” he said. “It was a lot of fun!”
While he was still working full time, George’s wife, Clarice, started volunteering when busloads of school children visited the center each spring.
“She bragged and bragged about the experience,” George remembered. “When I retired in July 1993, I started volunteering too.”
When Clarice volunteered, she wore a pioneer-style dress. George wanted a capote to wear when he volunteered. First, he and his wife made a trial capote with a wool Army blanket. Then they set to work making a capote from a Barron Woolen Mill blanket woven from the wool of sheep his kids raised as 4-H projects.
“My wife sewed my capote first on the machine,” George said. “Then I did all the blanket stitching.”
George, who had done some Dutch oven cooking on family camping trips, started demonstrating Dutch oven cooking for the Memorial Day and Labor Day events. He made stew, beans, vegetables, and bison meat. But he said his specialty was biscuits.
Would he share his recipe?
“Yeah! Right out of the box!” he laughed. “Bisquick and milk. Pat ‘em out with my hands on a breadboard. Cut them into squares with my knife.”
Then he offered the biscuits to visitors.
“Sometimes they got too dark, and I’d tell people: ‘Get your knife out and you can scrape them down to any color you want!’” he smiled.
He said he enjoyed helping visitors and answering their questions.
“You walk through there—and it’s just like you’re on the Oregon Trail,” he said. “There’s an emphasis on never giving false information.”
When visitors asked him a question he couldn’t answer, he asked Sarah Le Compte, who was the curator at the time, but now is the center’s director.
“Sarah always researched and found the answer,” George said. “Two of the most common questions were how many people came on the Oregon Trail and how many people died.”
George said he enjoyed interacting with visitors and sharing Oregon Trail stories. One of his most vivid stories came from a woman whose grandparents traveled on the Oregon Trail. They had buried two of their three children along the trail. After a year of living in Oregon, the husband told his wife he wanted to go back East.
“But his wife said no,” George recalled. “She’d buried two children on that trail and didn’t intend to bury a third. They stayed.”
Like many volunteers, the Oregon Trail is part of George’s own family history. His great-grandfather was a wagon master on the Oregon Trail in 1863. Unfortunately, there is no diary of the family’s journey, but George has passed the stories down to his children so they can pass it on to theirs.
When Clarice got sick in 2010, George had to hang up his capote and take care of his wife.
“My wife and I both fell in love with that center up there,” George said. “It was just something you wanted to do.”
Become a volunteer
Do you have skills and hobbies you’d like to share with others? Are you a gardener? A seamstress? A cook? Do you like to do crafts? Would you like to dress in a pioneer costume and be an historical interpreter?
You can be a Trail Tender volunteer at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center—just like George and Clarice Johnson. Even if you have just a few hours a month, you can volunteer and share your talents.
Wearing a costume and interpreting living history
Demonstrating pioneer-era crafts
Maintaining our interpretive trails
Sewing and mending pioneer costumes
Cooking old-time meals in a Dutch oven
Gardening in our heirloom garden
Demonstrating blacksmithing and flint knapping
Greeting visitors in the lobby
Helping at some of our special events