Tag Archives: interpreters

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

25th Anniversary – Oregon Trail people

“Asking an interpreter a question is like taking a drink from a fire hose.”

-Robert Fudge, NPS

One of the folks you might meet when visiting the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is Park Ranger Jeremy Martin.  One of the many duties of a park ranger here is interpretation. Jeremy provides a variety of programs and research and writes educational materials. He provides front line customer service to visitors, mentors seasonal staff and volunteers, and answers all kinds of questions from the public.

Jeremy grew up in the South. He became a park ranger because of an experience he had at Florida Caverns State Park when he was 12.  “The ranger let me turn the lights off in the cave.  I was hooked. I wanted to be a park ranger. It may change that kid’s whole life simply because you let them turn the lights off.”

He went to college for forestry and worked for several national parks including Great Smoky Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, Wind Cave, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon. He started working at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center four years ago. “This job allowed me to explore and teach more human history.”

“People tend to think of the Oregon Trail as one dimensional and tragic. But 90 percent of the people who started the trek made it to the Willamette Valley.  They started new lives. I like to bring it into modern perspective.  People have thought of the Oregon Trail as a lone wagon blazing a trail across a virgin continent, but by the 1850’s, it was a mile wide, 2,000 mile long junk yard. There was trash and dead animals. It was dirty. There were even vendors selling goods along the way, especially at well known camp sites such as Independence Rock and Fort Laramie. It was hot, dusty work with lots of people.”

Center staff create all the interpretive programs here. “It’s not a script or a play. It’s a message. There’s a reason we’re telling the story. It’s to answer the questions: Who cares? Why is this important to the listener? The stories I like to tell are more offbeat.  A story lying there under the surface. We have a lot of diaries to pull from, and many of them document the day to day life on the Trail. I’m more interested in the eccentric.”

Two of Jeremy’s program use living history – based on true-life characters: mountain man Joe Meek, and pioneer horticulturist Henderson Luelling.  “When I’m doing Joe Meek, people light up because they may have read about Joe. I even got to meet one of his direct descendants. I also got to meet some of Henderson Luelling’s descendants.” Luelling brought the first grafted seedling fruit trees along the Oregon Trail. Many fruit trees in the Northwest today originated from his trees. “He was a vegetarian on the Oregon Trail. He brought his wife and eight kids on the trail. His wife gave birth on the trail. He brought two full wagons of saplings on the Oregon Trail. It was said that he took better care of his trees than he did his own children, and even called his trees ‘his little darlings.’”

Jeremy also does flint knapping, black powder shooting demos, nature walks, teaches Leave No Trace,  leads activities for kids in Thursday Outdoor Club, schedules interpretive programs, and plans some special events such as Meet the Pioneers.