Archive for Sunday, January 31, 1993


January 31, 1993


Oregon Trail travelers of the 1840s struggled with rain storms that produced muddy mires and swollen rivers, cholera that killed loved ones and forced their burial on the desolate prairie and the enormous physical demands of keeping livestock and wagons moving westward on the difficult journey.

One hundred and fifty years have passed since the trail, which ran through Lawrence, hit peak use as the country's busiest ``transcontinental highway,'' but its place in history hasn't been forgotten.

Sesquicentennial festivities are planned all along the route this year, from Independence, Mo., to Oregon City, Ore. On Kansas Day, the first in this state were staged.

"The Oregon Trail played a huge role in the settlement of the West and in the course of American history," said Sonya Woertz of the state Division of Travel and Tourism, in launching the year's activities. Her office is coordinating Kansas' celebrations.

ROUGHLY 172 miles of the trail lay within the state's borders. Other states through which it passed were Missouri, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon.

The first official anniversary tributes in the state were Friday with activities at the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka and the premiere at Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, of a musical about the trail. Both events involved Lawrence residents.

Called "Overland", the musical starred Lawrence High School senior Drew Starlin and was directed by Cory Danielson., a Lawrence native who now lives in Kansas City.

Starlin, 18, played a young farmer from Independence, Mo., headed for the Willamette River Valley in Oregon, which coincidentally is his family's home.

"Oregon always has been a part of my life," he said in an interview during rehearsals. "It's definitely been an interesting show."

He said his father, grandparents and cousins live in the Willamette Valley now and his mother was born near there, so he had no trouble envisioning the beauties that the pioneers only hoped to find at the end of their journey.

"OBVIOUSLY I don't have a true perspective on all the hardships," he said, referring to weather extremes and deaths along the trail, "but . . . we realize they were there."

Guest director Danielson now heads a group called Music Theatre for Young People, based in Wichita and Kansas City. She said "Overland" was written by two Los Angeles playwrights and staged by a Kansas City theatrical group called Two Trails West.

The play tells the story of four families going on the Oregon Trail in search of land.

"It's a period-character study of the hardships of the times," Danielson said. "It's about the pioneers themselves."

At least two other theatrical productions are part of Kansas' sesquicentennial tribute, and both will be performed in Lawrence.

JUDY BILLINGS, director of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce's Convention and Visitors Bureau, said both productions were part of what this city was offering tour groups interested in the trail's history during the coming year.

The productions are Kay Kuhlmann's one-woman show, "Daughters of Courage," which chronicles life on the journey as witnessed by women who lived it. The show, also performed Kansas Day at the Topeka museum, is among activities tour groups can elect for their Lawrence agenda.

The other production, Billings said, is "Going to See the Elephant," which will be performed April 29-30 and May 6-9 by the Lawrence Community Theatre, 1501 N.H. That play, created by Karen Hansel, is about women's experiences on the frontier and the Oregon Trail.

Through the chamber, tour groups also can select a combination slide show and tour on the Oregon Trail presented by historian Katie Armitage. The slides set the stage for a short bus trip along the trail that takes visitors past Blue Mound and the Wakarusa Crossing and over Mount Oread, following in the pioneers' wake.

ARMITAGE, who also presented Oregon Trail food demonstrations Friday at the Topeka museum, said she tried to "put a human face" on the Oregon Trail pioneers for her bus tour participants.

Through the chamber, she said, she already had quite a few tours booked. In addition, Armitage is in charge of Kansas University's Elderhostel in May and will include instruction on area historic trails in its curriculum.

She also continues to work with staff at the Topeka museum, particularly Mary Madden, on Oregon Trail food research, including the kinds of food and how it was packaged for travel on the trail.

"Food was over half the weight in the wagons," Armitage said, "and extremely important for the four- to six-month journey."

Madden has prepared "a wonderful teacher's packet" on the Oregon Trail, Armitage said.

ANOTHER option for tour groups, Billings said, is visiting the Elizabeth M. Watkins Community Museum, where an exhibit titled "Passing Through" tells of different historic trails in the area.

Steve Jansen, director of the museum, said, "just as we have passers through now, we had passers through then."

Among 1840s travelers to the area, he noted was Charles Robinson, who later would help found Lawrence and become a governor of Kansas.

Jansen said diaries and letters of the era show Douglas County was impressive to such early travelers and probably was the last reliably "hospitable" land, from the standpoint of feed and water for their livestock, they would see until arriving in Oregon.

Robinson, in this area on May 13, 1849, wrote, "Went up on a high roll of land, where I had an extensive and enchanting view of this seemingly boundless and ever-varying prairie. . . . All is still save the grazing of the cattle, and the concert of birds, which is composed of a great variety of songsters. The cooing of the prairie hens, heard in every direction, constitutes the base (sic); the loud cawing of the crows, the tenor; the fine sweet voices of the ground and small birds, the treble; and a noise as of distant wild geese, the alto."

JANSEN noted with interest that Eastern Indian tribes, who were relocated to this area, trail travelers and early settlers from the East all responded the same way to the geography "Where are all the trees?"

Today, he said, with so many trees now growing, it's hard to imagine what the area must have looked like then.

Billings of the chamber said that rounding out local attractions for Oregon Trail tour groups was the annual fiddling and picking championships in August, a celebration of a musical style that was popular on the trail.

In August also, Clinton Museum, in the Bloomington area of Clinton Lake, is working with Watkins museum to stage a major observance of the 130th anniversary of Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence. The Oregon Trail ran through Kanwaka, one of the Clinton Lake communities, after leaving Lawrence.

ACCORDING TO Martha Parker, executive director of the Clinton Museum, working plans center on a re-enactment, by the Missouri Civil War Reenacters Assn., of a Quantrill splinter group's passage through the Clinton area after the Lawrence raid, as well as bus tours along the Oregon Trail and past other sites and a public barbecue.

Among other Oregon Trail activities planned across the state is a festival in June at St. Marys to commemorate the arrival of trail travelers to the Catholic Indian Mission there and a re-created wagon train that will spend three days in August driving from Westmoreland to the Hollenberg Pony Express Station near Hanover.

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