Fort Walla Walla Days
Clo was quite interested in learning more about Walla Walla, and so we decided to check out Fort Walla Walla Days. It's an event that happens in the beginning of June (yes, I know this article is quite late) every year and tries to re-create what it was like in Walla Walla at the beginning of the 20th century. Most of this is new to me too, and I was quite interested in learning about the connections our home base town has to the past.
The environment is surprisingly similar to what I imagine what it looked like when the fort was in active use, the most recent nearly 100 years ago. If you ignore the travel noise and don’t look at the fence at the edge of the park, the way the grounds are situated at the base of a small hill in a protected valley made me feel very much outside of the city. The smell of the forge being worked by a smithy and the various campfires in use around the area definitely added to the period feeling.
The Walla Walla Fort was initially established in 1856 by Lieutenant Colonel Edward Steptoe of the 9th Infantry Regiment. It was most active for the next fifty years, until in 1910 the flag was lowered by soldiers from the 1st Calvary and the fort was closed. It was later reopened for training and support of WWI, and finally in 1921 it was turned over to the Veterans Administration.
The event over the weekend was focused on the period in the late 1800’s/early 1900's, trying to recreate what the situation may have been during a day in the daily life of the inhabitants. Clo and I arrived a few minutes after it opened at 10am on Saturday, and wandered around for a while to get a general feel for the place. The museum itself seemed rather nice, but we didn’t spend much time there and instead went outside to the fort area where the reenactors had (very literally) set up camp.
The reenactors were one of the aspects of the event in which I was most interested. Even though the overall space is not huge, there were a lot of reenactors; in total I believe it was close to 40 of them. Blacksmiths, fur traders, pioneer women, leatherworkers, cowboys, stagecoach drivers… the list went on and on. I wasn’t sure how the “feel” would be while talking to them – would they always be in character? Would they talk to me in the 3rd person, 1st person, something in the middle, what? In the end it was rather easy to talk to all of them, because the one thing that shone through each and every one of them was the passion they had for the topic.
Bev Ellis was one of the first we spoke to, and besides her passion being very clear, I actually learned quite a bit. She is a member of Daughters of the Pioneers, which requires they have family that moved to the region before the ~1850’s (different for WA and Oregon), have to fill out a lot of paperwork to prove it, etc. She has been involved in the group for nearly 30 years, ever since she and her husband moved back to Walla Walla after he was done with his military service. Her parents lived here at the time as well, though they have since passed away.
Philip and Quintin were another really interesting duo. Father and son blacksmith, they had been doing it together for 24 years. They are from Richland and participate in a few events every year. They often bring their own equipment, but for this event the fort actually has all of their own equipment and they can use it. They also work a lot with boy scout groups. Interestingly, the forges that people like them use are mainly all produced before the 1960’s – no current manufacturers of the type of forge used by most "period" blacksmiths. Philip became involved at 6 years old and started making things as a kid, and some of his friends still have the things they made at the time.
Two others that I found interesting were Ron from Walla Walla and Tom from Bend, Oregon. These two, along with a couple of others who wandered in and out, were guys were acting as a group of “cowboys” bringing animals to sell to the military. They had a chuck wagon, were cooking pork & beans over a camp fire and were going to eat it too. Later in the afternoon they fired period-era weapons as a demonstration, and allowed children to fire them as well. Ron had a background of restoring wagons and that’s how he got involved – he has been doing it about 15 years so far. Tom is from a background in LA working on films to build sets and special effects. He’s been doing it for about 40 years so far and it’s actually part of his business. He also does reenactments on trains, for parties, fake bank robberies, etc. He works around the northwest with various organizations and for different groups. It’s obviously his passion, and one he has managed to make a living with as well. I really enjoyed meeting people who were so involved and interested in what they were doing, and sharing it with and educating others.
Overall, the the passion of each reenactor was very impressive to observe All of the volunteer effort put in is amazing. The way each of them became involved is different, but it’s always because it was something they enjoyed (history, either period or personal) and wanted to donate their time to do something with it.
From a personal side of things, I’m curious how this goes across to the volunteer opportunities that I am planning to pursue, and to areas where people choose to spend their time to help/inform/etc others. It was quite an entertaining weekend.