I took a research trip over the hill and across the Willamette to Champoeg (pronounced “shampoo-ee”). If you’re curious what life was like in Oregon in the 1850s, then I highly recommend a trip to the Newell Pioneer Village.

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I came on a Saturday afternoon, and since I was the only guest at that time, the docent gave me a personalized tour. There’s a replica (a bit larger than the original) of a log cabin, with authentic furnishings, many of them donated by descendants of pioneers who came west on the Oregon Trail. Up the path is the Newell house, which was the “posh” house on the hill when it was originally built. When the town of Champoeg was destroyed in a great flood, the Newells ended up sheltering most of the town. The attic houses a collection of inaugural gowns worn by the First Lady of each governor of the state of Oregon. There’s also a selection of quilts and of native baskets and tools.

My interest on this trip was the school. The original Butteville school and jail are on the grounds. The jail is sited about 10 feet away from the school. I needed to research details about schools in Oregon, so the docent unlocked the cupboard and brought out several textbooks from the era to show me. She also provided lots of information, the sort of details that often get missed. It was like having access to my own personal historian.

When you’re writing history, there’s always the worry that you’re going to get some details wrong. It really helps to be able to walk through a piece of history, to stand where your characters would have stood and experience something of what life would have been like for them. If you get a chance, go for it. This site is less than a quarter-mile from Champoeg State Park, which has a nice exhibit on the native people of the area as well as some bike trails and a campground. Fun!