March 26, 1981
“The time is right to unveil my dream project with you.”
First sentence of a letter from Lyle Spiesschaert, Washington County Extension Agent, to Acting Assistant Director, Duane Johnson, Oregon State University.
If anyone ever needs to know how the idea of the 4-H Wagon Train was conceived, there it is. Lyle doesn’t like to take credit – he is fond of saying that if you want something to get done, you have to give it away. In this case, once the idea was proposed, Lyle gave it away to a trio of Teamsters. But we know from that letter that Lyle certainly proposed the 4-H Wagon Train and modeled it after other similar youth programs he researched in other states. Then, in spite of the doubts and concerns of the academic machine behind the 4-H program, the first 4-H Wagon Train left from Hillsboro, Oregon on July 10, 1982 with 125 people and 78 horses.
Lyle says the time was right for there to be a wagon train because the tri-county 4-H was in need of an event that fostered cooperation rather than competition, was family oriented and would appeal to both girls and boys, and engendered an appreciation for the beauty of Oregon’s outdoors. The time was also right for the draft horse community, as Teamsters were still farming with horses and those with the base of knowledge needed for the wagon train were ready for a new challenge.
The three Teamsters who spearheaded the effort and laid the lasting foundation for Lyle’s dream project were Lyle’s dad, George Spiesschaert, Morris Everude and George Horner. They were the ones who designed and built the first 4-H Wagon Train event, along with input and hard work from many other people who were involved in the first and stayed involved to build the program for many years thereafter. They figured out what it would take to outfit and supply the group, including wagons and horses and food and water for people and animals. They planned the route and led the group down the trail. They studied and calculated and made lists and collaborated and organized. Their families, particularly the Teamsters wives who hosted frequent meetings, were also a major part of the effort.
It’s hard to imagine planning for that first 80 mile trip, assisted by a only few modern comforts and conveniences (but no cell phones!) along the way, much less planning a 2,000 mile trip from St. Louis to Oregon City. It’s mind boggling to think about what those first westward pioneers had to do to make that trip, with no comforts or conveniences. None. “Fun” wasn’t part of it, it was all about survival. Hauling the right type and amount of supplies made the difference between hunger and misery, if not life and death. (I know some of you are thinking ’bout that Wagon Trail video game you played in elementary school in the 1980’s, right? “You have died of dysentery” was the most common way to end the game.)
The first 4-H Wagon Train, according to Lyle, was not much fun. The miles and days were long and the nights were cold. But the adversity of that first year is what brought people together and seems to be the glue that still sticks the group together today. And of course, every year the planning got better and the stories of the volunteers who support the 4-H Wagon Train today will amaze you – coming in future posts on this blog.
George Spiesschaert died rather suddenly of pancreatic cancer 20 days after completing his third year of the 4-H Wagon Train. Morris Everude and George Horner carried on the tradition for more than two decades after that. I had the pleasure of speaking to a few young ladies who were the 3rd generation of Everudes to grow up participating in the wagon train and hopefully someday there will be a 4th generation of Everudes involved in the program. The tradition continues – in my case, with the very same wagon George Horner drove for all those years and all those miles. The more I learn about the 4-H Wagon Train, the more I am committed to helping keep this unique tradition alive in our community.