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American West fest offers escape to the past

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Simple thing, a broom. Bits of straw attached to a pole; used to sweep away life's dust. You might not think twice about a broom — until you meet a man like Dick James.

James makes brooms, and he does it the old-fashioned way, the way the Quakers made them in the late 1700s, when they began plaiting the tops and making them flat instead of round.

Talk with James for a while, and suddenly you are not only thinking about how and where broomcorn grows but also about the evolution of useful things and about the history of humankind's interaction with its world.

What James does for brooms, Don Jensen does for caned chairs and Vernon Baker does for blacksmithing and Barbara Campbell does for quilts and Timothy Foltz does for boots.

These are just a few of the people you will meet when you "escape to the past" at the 29th Annual Festival of the American West now under way at the American West Heritage Center on U.S. 89 in Wellsville.

And it's not just the bits and pieces of life that you can learn about. Other volunteers and demonstrators help you explore the events and processes that made up life in the Old West.

You can visit a Mountain Man camp; stop by a Shoshone village; learn about military life; step into a pioneer dugout; hang out on an old farm. In all of these places you learn something more about history between 1820 and 1920; something more about what made us what we are today.

If you're lucky, you might get to sample beef stew and biscuits with Fred and Chris Graham at their Mormon Trail Encampment.

Or, step into Sam Jackson's turn-of-the-century campwagon. "I don't call it a sheep wagon," says Jackson. "Sheep didn't camp in it." But Jackson did — at the age of 11 when he learned the shepherd's life.

And, there's nonstop entertainment that celebrates and explores the West: cowboy poetry readings, melodramatic musicals, storytelling, trick roping, singing, dancing, fiddling, picking, plucking and foot-stomping.

And a World-Champion Dutch Oven Cook-Off; an American Heritage Quilt Show; some fine craft vendors; a variety of tummy-pleasing vittles.

"It's really, really good," said cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell, who performs at the event. "I love this festival."

Other nights at the Festival will be filled with the multi-media pageant "The West: America's Odyssey." Hosted by Robert Peterson and with taped narration by the late Jimmy Stewart, this is the one that started it all.

New with the 2000 festival is the first appearance of the New Buffalo Soldiers, a California-based re-enactment group that highlights the life and times of black soldiers. There's also a new pavilion to house the nightly Dutch oven dinners.

Since coming to this site and being taken over by the non-profit foundation that runs it, the American West Heritage Center has enjoyed tremendous success, said USU President George Emert. "And we expect to see new facilities each year."

Emert was on hand for the dedication of another new addition to the Center, a windmill — that enduring symbol of rural Western farms — that rises above the festival grounds.

Funded by Utah Power, through the PacifiCorp Foundation, the windmill is part of a two-year $50,000 grant that will also enable the Center to add a permanent display tracing the history from candles to electricity, said PacifiCorp.'s Bill Landels, who was here from Scotland for the windmill dedication.

"The vision of the people here is tremendous," said Landels, "and it's just a wonderful setting."

E-MAIL: carma@desnews.com