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Living History on the Oregon Trail : If your children think a car trip is dull, let them experience a few bumpy miles in a covered wagon.

July 18, 1993|EILEEN OGINTZ

CHIMNEY ROCK, Neb. — The covered wagon bumped and creaked and swayed its way slowly across the prairie to Chimney Rock: 1 1/2 hours to travel fewer than three miles to the famed pioneer landmark.

"I could ride my bike faster than this," 7-year-old Regina offered. The wagon stopped at the base of the odd-shaped clay spire--a natural formation standing nearly 500 feet high--and the kids clambered up the crumbling rock.

Children did the same thing 150 years ago, as their westward-bound families reached this spot--a place famous with settlers as representing the end of the plains. Diaries from the time indicate that the travelers stopped to celebrate the progress they had made, carving their names in the rock (long worn away). That year, 270 men, 130 women and 600 children packed everything they could into 10-by-4-foot wagons, hooked them up to oxen or mules and set out from Missouri to escape a bad economy and disease by embarking on the grueling six-month, 2,000-mile journey to the fertile Willamette Valley of Oregon.

"They had less room than in a station wagon," said Jim Renner, interpretive director for the Oregon Trail Coordinating Council. (I thought of that as I surveyed our crammed minivan in the midst of a 10-day car trip west from Chicago.) "That's why, unless you were sick, you walked--most of the time barefoot."

From the beginning, this was a family affair with children far outnumbering adults. The journey marked the beginning of the migration of more than 400,000 Americans west: a feat being celebrated with much fanfare across the country this summer and fall.

Certainly there's no better time for a family to learn a little pioneer history. Along the trail there are 125 historic sites and 300 miles of deep ruts left by pioneer wagons to see. (For more information, contact the Oregon Trail Coordinating Council at 503-22-TRAIL or each of the six state tourism offices: Oregon, 800-547- 7842; Missouri, 800-877-1234; Kansas, 913-296-2009; Nebraska, 800- 228-4307; Wyoming, 800-225-5996, and Idaho, 800-635-7820.)

Ask about activities and places that are especially geared to children and families. You can load a wagon at the National Frontiers Trail Center in Independence, Mo., for example, or hook up with the official Oregon Trail Sesquicentennial Wagon Train for a day as it makes its way across the original route until Labor Day. (Daily rates start at $39; call 503-223-6191.)

Or in "Are We There Yet?" the Portland, Ore., Children's Museum exhibit devoted to pioneer children, kids can try out sleeping around a campfire or playing with pioneer toys. At Fort Laramie in Wyoming, a popular outpost, children can learn about life along the trail from historical interpreters dressed in period costume.

Julie Fanselow, author of "The Traveler's Guide to the Oregon Trail" (Falcon Press, $11.95) suggests an Oregon Trail scavenger hunt: "Make a list of things the kids might see along the way--a covered wagon, a wigwam, a wagon wheel rut, a fort."

After two days of stopping at various Oregon Trail sites along Interstate 80 in Nebraska--Fort Kearney, Ash Hollow and Windlass Hill--my husband and I agreed it was a fun way of giving the kids an understanding of what it had taken to settle this country.

If your kids think a long car trip is dull, tell them about what kids endured along the Oregon Trail: day after day of walking barefoot in all kinds of weather, eating the same diet of beans and bread and coffee. "One of the hardest parts (for children) was the boredom," said Susan Butruille, who wrote "Women's Voices from the Oregon Trail" (Tamarack Books, $14.95). Thousands of children got sick; one in five died as the result of illness or accidents. Children wandered off never to be seen again. But for those who survived, it was the adventure of their lifetimes.

By the time the families reached Chimney Rock, Neb. (now a National Historic Landmark), where we'd chosen to experience a bit of the Oregon Trail on our way west, they had already logged 500 miles and been on the road for more than a month.

"Chimney Rock was like a highway sign to them. They looked forward to seeing it. They knew they were on the right trail," said Patty Howard, who with her family operates Oregon Trail Wagon Train, near Chimney Rock.

The Howards organize overnight, three- and six-day wagon treks across the prairie--complete with meals of pioneer beef stew, bacon and beans, sourdough bread and "vinegar pudding," a kind of lemon pudding, Howard explained. (Call 308-586-1850.)

We opted for a night in one of their 10-by-20-foot log cabins on the prairie ($40 for the night). The kids were delighted when the rooster in the hen house next door woke us at dawn. (I could have used more sleep.) Unlike the pioneer families, we had a small bathroom, electricity and comfortable beds, but the size of the cabin gave us a sense of the tiny spaces that families endured.

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