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Celebrating the authentic Old West

Wellsville festival is in its 30th year, with new venues and hands-on exhibits

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WELLSVILLE — The story of the Old West cannot be told with one voice. A chorus — often in harmony but sometimes discordant and clashing — is necessary to provide the complete narrative.

Between the years of 1820 and 1920, as the West was explored, settled and developed, the voices of the mountain man, the soldier and the prospector blend with the voices of the pioneer, the cowboy, the farmer and his wife. But also included must be the voice of the American Indian.

You can hear all those voices at the American West Heritage Center, which provides a living-history look at the past on its 160-acre site in Wellsville. And they are especially celebrated during the center's Festival of the American West, which runs this year from July 27-Aug. 4.

The festival provides hands-on history, says Ronda Thompson, executive director of the AWHC. "As you talk to the interpreters at various sites, you can learn why people lived as they did, what they ate, the lifeways skills they used. You learn what was important to them." You can even milk a cow or help build a log cabin.

The center has a number of venues, including a Pioneer Settlement, showing life between 1845-70; a Frontier Town, 1870-1900; and the Jensen Historical Farm, interpreting the years between 1880-1917.

During the festival, other venues are established: a Native American Encampment, focusing on 1820-80; a Mountain Man Area, 1822-40; a Military Encampment, 1863-90. Eventually, these will all become permanent fixtures at the site.

The festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and it continues to grow and evolve to meet changing needs, says Thompson. A major shift occurred in 1998 when the festival, which started at Utah State University and was held on campus, moved to its permanent location in Wellsville. The center is now operated by a nonprofit foundation in partnership with the university and is being developed into a permanent educational resource and visitor attraction.

In line with that, another significant change will occur: This is the final year for "The West: America's Odyssey," the multimedia pageant that started it all.

In future years, the festival will be scaled back as well. As more venues become permanent additions, there will be less need for special additions. "We want the entire summer to have a festival atmosphere," says Thompson. There will be ongoing entertainment and likely a theatrical production. "The pageant has been a wonderful part of the festival. Though it will not be used in its entirety any more, the content of the pageant will be preserved."

There will be no extra charge for the pageant this year as there has been in the past; it will be included free with a ticket to the Great West Fair.

For people who have loved and enjoyed the pageant in the past, this will give them one more chance to see it, says Thompson. "And if you've never been, this is your chance."

Just in time for this year's festival, the center has also made a significant addition. The new Shoshone Encampment was dedicated in June and is the first part of what will eventually be a complete American Indian village.

"We are very excited," says Thompson of the Shoshone addition. "For one thing, this is one of the only places in all of North America where you find American Indians showing their culture as it was in 1835, before contact with white settlers."

The festival worked closely with members of the Northwest Shoshone tribe, which has curated and written the text for an exhibit of artifacts in the Interpretive Center, and an authentic shelter of branches and leaves has been built, where members of the tribe will demonstrate and share aspects of their culture. They are also working on a buffalo hide-covered teepee.

Rios, a member of the Shoshone tribe (who asked to be identified by just his first name) and one of the site's interpreters, says he hopes this will be a place of importance to his people. "For our people, it is about family and traditions. We want our children to know what their mothers and grandmothers grew up on."

In the early 1800s, the Shoshone were a nation of semi-nomadic gatherers, hunters and fishermen who lived in small extended-family groups. They traveled with the changing seasons and visited the valley that the Heritage Center now overlooks. "It is not about surviving but about the things that helped us survive: family, respect, values." Those may be neglected in today's busy world, he says, but they are reflected here.

He also hopes that visitors who come to the site will be able to step back and look at what is important in their own lives, their own families.

And he hopes they will get a better understanding of history — of the Bear River Massacre, for example. A display in the Interpretive Center tells the story of this 1863 event, when Col. Patrick Connor and his soldiers wiped out a settlement of 200 Shoshone men, women and children. "There was no winning side," says Rios. "And in the end what matters is only what is left and what use you make of it."

A lot of people tell him they think it was a bad thing to have happened to his people, and it was. "But it has happened to every culture. Everyone has been conquered. Ours was the last to happen on this land. But it is still happening in other places where ethnic groups can't get along."

"We are so pleased to have this addition to the center," says Thompson. "We need to hear this side, too."

Other voices tell other parts of the Western story:

Can you imagine living in a small, dark dugout? asks Nicole Robinson at the Pioneer Settlement. "This is patterned after the one mentioned in Charles Nibley's journal. And there, he says his mother looked on it as a palace. It wouldn't be a palace to me, but compared to living in a wagon on the prairie, it was to her."

The mountain man had two enemies, explains Jeff Westerman, "Indians and weather. Weather killed more than the Indians ever did." To survive, a man had to know how to build a fire from scratch, how to use a musket-loading rifle, how to tan leather and make clothes. "If he was starving, the first thing he would eat would be his moccasins. Then, the fringe off his shirt — it might have brushed up against food and cooking pots from time to time so it might have extra protein."

Everything has a story, says Kaye Shackleford, even decorative arts, such as lace-making. She demonstrates how to make bobbin lace at the historical farm. "Lace was once very prestigious; only royalty could wear it." But for the pioneers, it represented beauty. Think what it would have meant to be able to decorate a baby's dress or a wedding gown with something pretty.

Cooking on a wood stove is hot and tiring, "but you get used to it," says Jill Durrant, one of the cooks in the old farmhouse. "And I think it makes the food taste better."

Or, says Jeani Anderson Jenks, "maybe it's all the hard work that goes into it that makes it taste better." Seeing how labor-intensive everything was at the turn-of-the-century really helps you appreciate what you have today, she says.

And appreciation is what it's all about. During the festival, there will be other demonstrations of old-time skills, other expressions of heritage, other stories from the past.

But they will all add up to this: a better appreciation of the past and its influence on the present; a better understanding of the multivoiced chorus that sings of our heritage.

E-mail: carma@desnews.com