By Dixie Pettit
Walking a 4.8-mile loop within the San Diego Country Estates, 72 young historians got a small taste of what it might have been like for pioneers heading west so many years ago.
The Barnett Elementary fifth-graders were the latest participants in “Westward Ho!” Fifth-grade teacher Judy Gunnett came up with the idea for the event, and the trek last Friday morning was the 16th annual living history day for Barnett students.
“The kids just love it,” said Gunnett. “We had no absences today and everybody dressed up.”
Just where did the idea for a wagon train come from?
“I was at an Oregon Trails conference in Utah and a group of junior high students used to do something similar on their school grounds,” said Gunnett. “I decided we could do it here but step it up a notch and make it a little more authentic.”
Sure enough, students set out with supplies, wagons, and grit to brave a morning of heat and hardship on foot. The travelers were greeted at forts, stage stops, and watering holes along the way, experiencing various trials and tribulations the early pioneers went through on a different scale.
Students have earned “Gunnett bucks” throughout the school year that need to be rationed and spent wisely to purchase provisions and vittles along the way.
“They have to learn cooperation in order to make this work,” said Gunnett. “Teams of four need to spend 52 Gunnett bucks just to begin the journey, then additional funds are used to purchase hats, food or other supplies along the way.”
This budgeting of dollars paid off for some when supplies of vanilla ice cream proved to be scarce and had to be purchased from the early few who were in line first.
“Wagons Ho!” became the repeated cry heard throughout the morning. Early in the journey the group was ambushed and looted by Indians—a very real threat to settlers. Stolen items were later seen at a general store but had to be bought back with the season’s hard-earned Gunnett bucks.
The morning progressed with stops for the group at forts for spittoon practice, a buffalo hunt, and watering holes aplenty. McGuire’s General Store was a stage stop outfitted precisely to the declarations made by Emily McGuire, 10, according to mom Margie. “Because of all the research Emily did we set it up this way.”
McGuire’s was decked out with a pot of beans, glass bottles for the beverages, a campfire, and cacti. Though unclear whether snared or shot, even wild game (a bunny and a duck suspiciously resembling one seen on a commercial) hung from the nearest tree. It seems this stage stop was the turning point from child to adult as many students (male and female) left the mercantile sporting a new mustache purchased there.
It was a morning of seed-spittin’, critter-shootin’ and a rippin’ good time. (Please note, no actual critters were wounded during the drive. Although deemed a “buffalo hunt” by the trail boss, no actual buffalo were spotted. The students did take aim, however, at several critters with band guns and let the rubber projectiles fly.)
As the group pressed forward, casualties mounted and hazards of the trail became obvious. One young traveler had a run-in with wildlife. Trail Boss Gunnett fixed up that bee-sting right nice. Inclement weather brought a deluge at Fort Espina, dousing the travelers with what at first seemed a welcome change to the heat but turned heavy clothing into an uncomfortable steam bath of sorts a short time later.
Undaunted, the seasoned trail boss pressed the group forward. When the mercury rose higher, another traveler was lost to the unforgiving heat of the desert sun. Inclines seemed longer and steeper as pioneers pulled, pushed, and worked together to get wagons up the hills. Sweat trickled past the hatbands and down the cheeks of the trail blazers. Sunbonnets offered little relief to the young ladies sporting long dresses with long sleeves.
“It’s like 80,000 degrees out here!” declared John Doyle, 11. No, young Doyle, it was only 74.
Dwindling water supplies were replenished at watering holes. Tin cans and cups dipped into water barrels before the thirsty throng took refuge in the shade of an ancient pine. In the distance, towering mountains offered a hint of what hardships might be faced if the road took them that way. Lucky for them it didn’t.
Two-and-a-half hours, two casualties, nine stops, and one experience richer, the weary pioneers headed on the last trail to Fort Barnett. Though the hunting party bagged a couple of snakes, a beaver, coyote, turkey, and ever-elusive pansy-patterned prairie panda, survivors of the journey opted for the hot dogs, beans, and fruit offered by the keepers of the fort.
Giddy with success, several young men returned to the fort with an immediate need to raise a ruckus. To the dismay of onlookers a gunfight broke out amongst the youngsters, but the situation was quickly brought under control by Marshal Monica Hester. Guns confiscated, troops fed, and supplies put away until next year, 72 fifth-graders retreated to the inner walls of Fort Barnett — and air-conditioning.