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25th Anniversary Story: Volunteering

Both volunteerism and a keen interest in the Oregon Trail flow through Rachael Nickens’ blood. When she was 17, she started volunteering in the gift shop managed by the Trail Tenders, the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center’s volunteer group. Her grandparents, Si and Joan Allen, were among the center’s first volunteers.

“The Trail Tenders volunteers are such a positive connection for me,” Rachael said. “It amazes me that so many people put in so many hours for free because their heart is in it. They genuinely care.”

Rachael started helping her grandparents with wagon encampments. “Grandma was always the pioneer gal with the lemonade,” Rachael recalled. “She and the Trail Tender ladies—the ‘Sew and Sews’—gathered at my grandma’s house and they sewed costumes, dresses and potholders.”

Many years later, Rachael was hired as the Trail Tender bookkeeper in 2006. Then she went to college to become a park ranger through the Pathways program. When she graduated, the Bureau of Land Management hired her as a park ranger at the interpretive center.

Now Rachael creates educational and outreach programs. She dresses as a pioneer and brings the programs to life—both at the center and in the schools she visits. One of the kids’ programs she teaches is about food on the Oregon Trail. She talks about hard tack, then she and the students make hard tack together. When the students taste hard tack, it makes the Oregon Trail experience more real for them.

“I never thought I’d be back here working,” Rachael said. “We’re all connected to our history. As I get older, I appreciate that more. This is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.”

All four of Rachael’s children have volunteered as costumed interpreters at wagon encampments with their mom, just as Rachael did with her grandparents. “It’s come full circle. Maybe one day my kids will be adult volunteers here, too.”

Are you 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 Rachael, her grandparents, and her children. Even if you have only a couple of hours a month, you can volunteer and share your talents.

  • Interpreting history and nature

  • Demonstrating pioneer-era crafts

  • Maintaining our interpretive trails

  • Helping create and install special exhibits

  • 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 special events

  • Helping with visiting school groups