Skunk Train to Yesterday
By Mac Gardner
A historic steam engine transports northern California Scouts 100 years into the past to experience the Wild West and other colorful moments from days gone by.
On a brisk September morning, the wail of an old steam locomotive breaks the stillness in Fort Bragg, Calif., a city on the Pacific coast, 200 miles or so above San Francisco.
Most of the passengers preparing to board the waiting train are present-day tourists. Interspersed among them, however, are cowboys, miners, loggers, Indians, and even a few hoboes. These passengers, like the steam locomotive itself, seem to have stepped out of bygone eras into the present.
It's not a dream or Hollywood movie in the making. The costumed passengers are Boy Scouts, ready to experience the Old West as part of the aptly named Historical Camporee, conducted by the Yokayo District of the Redwood Empire Council (headquartered in Santa Rosa, Calif.).
All aboard the Skunk Train
This excursion is the California Western Railroad's "Skunk Train." Passengers are welcomed aboard, not by a foul smell, but by a cheerful "Twinkles the Skunk" character.
Chuck Yates, camporee chief, directs traffic - checking with troop leaders as they arrive and making sure camping gear is loaded onto the red caboose bringing up the rear of the eight-car train.
But as the conductors yell their final "All aboard!" some new characters arrive. It's the Black Bart Gunfighters, a colorful group of costumed performers who specialize in "Old West shoot-outs and stunts." The cast of characters includes "The Rev. John Cameron" and "Sassy Fras," bandit "Ridgewood Jack" and schoolmarm "Miss Lilly," and dance hall gals "Red Rita" and "Becky."
Miss Lilly (actually troupe co-director Amelia Nelson) steps out of character for a moment to explain that the Redwood Valley-based Black Bart gang is available for appearances at rodeos and other events. "We have fun performing Good Turns like this," she says.
The two-and-a-half-hour ride to North Spur, the camporee site and train turnaround, is a beautiful journey through the crisp Pacific air, most of the way alongside the clear Noyo River and its bubbling rapids, past old logging sheds, a 19th-century cemetery, summer homes, and through groves of ancient redwood trees.
Conductor Bob Reid, a grizzled 37-year railroad veteran, keeps up a lively chatter on the public-address system. He's asked about the train's unusual "Skunk" appellation.
"Old trainmen who traveled with the steam locomotives said that the fumes smelled like a skunk," conductor Bob replies, "and that term stunk, errrr... stuck."
About midway on the trip, "Rita" casts a practiced eye across the crowd and gloats, "I've found me a man!" And, by golly, so has Becky.
With Ridgewood Jack's help, the two dance hall girls drag their blushing, chosen mates - Erik Robison, a cowboy from Troop 45, and Noah Poppelreiter, a hobo from Troop 75 - before Rev. Cameron. The rapid "shotgun marriages" end quickly and amicably.
With whistle blasting and steam clouds rolling in its wake, the train "Ssch-ssch-shooches" into North Spur. As soon as the passengers detrain, the Black Bart gang has its final performance - a "train robbery." The resulting smells of black powder and locomotive fumes mingle to produce a memorable aroma of the Old West.
Camping in hobo heaven
Eager to set up camp, the Scouts unload their gear in minutes and head for their sites. All units except one camp in a meadow.
Hoboes (the role chosen by members of Troop 75, chartered to Ukiah Elks Lodge 1728) are ostracized by society and forced to set up a "hobo jungle" on the outskirts of camp, out among the redwoods and oaks.
To get in the spirit of the camporee, Troop 75 Scouts use blanket rolls instead of backpacks. No sleeping bags are allowed, and tin cans are used instead of cooking kits - although the dry weather requires that cooking be done on gas stoves.
Scoutmaster Randy Beckler plays his part well. Patched trousers and shirt, worn-out boots and a holey hat mark him as the worst-looking bum around. The others are also oddly dressed; "We're in seventh heaven with these outfits," says Beckler.
As the hoboes adjust to their wrong-side-of-the-woods site, other troops enjoy more comfortable locations in the meadow.
Steve Prochter, Scoutmaster of Troop 77, chartered to the Redwood Valley Lions Club, is the most fancifully dressed Native American at the camporee. He looks like a chief - and directs his 15 busy loggers in an appropriate manner.
Another crew of loggers (Troop 85, chartered to St. Francis Council 4025 Knights of Columbus, Fort Bragg, Calif.), follows an apron. Roberta "Bobbie" Duffy, troop committee chairman, is dressed like a pioneer lady from the late 1800s and is a fill-in for an ill Scoutmaster. "More salt," she advises, as her team prepares a pot of beans for supper.
Cowboys like peanut butter
Probably the most extensive research resulting in quality costumes is shown by the cowboys of Troop 45, chartered to the Galilee Lutheran Church in Kelseyville, in the neighboring Mount Diablo-Silverado Council.
Scoutmaster Mike (Tex) Riley says the troop heard about the Historical Camporee on the "Scout grapevine." "We just made a few phone calls, and we sure are glad to be here."
The cowpokes have worked hard to look the part - wearing boots, spurs, long duster coats, and well-worn hats. Old saddles, canvas bags and panniers, cattle hides, and ropes litter their campsite. Even an old Sears Roebuck & Co. catalogue, partially bleached by the sun, lies nearby.
While the "pokes" are eating lunch, a passerby makes fun of what appears to be noncowboy grub - peanut butter.
"Hey, believe it or not, that's legal!" replies Nick Morales. "Our troop is 'living' in 1898 this weekend. One of our guys saw on the Web that peanut butter was invented in 1890, so we're right in step."
Each Scout in Troop 45 has assumed the identity of a historic character. Most tell you "who" they are in a few well-chosen words, except for one Scout who offers a more elaborate accounting.
"I'm Sean Riley," he explains, "and I was born in 1898. Dad left home to fight in the Spanish-American War, and I never saw him again. I just gradually moseyed my way west." There follows a story about rustled cattle, a posse, and a long hunt for the bandits.
But Sean Riley is really Sean Riley. "We're lost in a 1898 time warp," Scoutmaster Mike explains. "Each of our boys did a lot of research on western history. They picked a person and story to live this weekend, but use their own names."
Nik (Hoss) Conant, huskily built like his nicknamesake from the old "Bonanza" TV show, has selected the life of an apprentice blacksmith. "I'm not very good at it yet, but I'm learning," he confesses.
Life in 1898
In the afternoon, Chuck Yates leads a group of Scouts who have already started work on the American Heritage merit badge. "Creating interest in this exciting merit badge was one the biggest reasons for the camporee," he points out. "Scouts who work on this badge will certainly learn to appreciate events, places, organizations, or people from the various periods."
Yates notes that the camporee patch shows an 1898 date. "However, we haven't specified any special era for the weekend," he explains. "Troops have flexibility."
In another popular demonstration, Brian Gully gives the boys a chance to make redwood shakes (unshaved shingles used to cover barns and shanties) with a shake splitter. An assistant Scoutmaster with Troop 75, Gully coaches Scouts as they pound with the rawhide mallet.
"Don't patty-cake it!" he shouts. "Use your muscle."
Once they get the idea, the loggers swing hard, making beautiful shakes about 6 by 24 inches and 1 inch thick. The mementos are stashed away in their packs for proud showing back home.
Robert (Bob) Glover brings laughs with his presentation about the strange language of Boonville, a mountain community not far from the camporee site.
"The language is called Boont or Boontling," he recounts, "and it began about 1890 with some Boonville kids. They wanted to talk about stuff without their parents knowing what was being said."
Glover is skilled at using humor to keep an audience enthralled - he used the same approach in more than 65 appearances on national TV, including three on the "Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."
Miners get their time, too. Troop 72 (chartered to Potter Valley Fire Department) labels a site with a handmade sign, "Potter Valley Mining Company." After learning how to properly use tools, the miners try to move an old, open cart on a rail spur. They agree that they need more boypower or a better grease job on the rusty cart wheels.
Merit badge work
An unplanned need arises early in the afternoon: Several Scouts want help on the Railroading merit badge. The need has an easy solution. The head conductor on the trip to North Spur turns out to be Gary Milliman, president of the California Western Railroad. (Twinkle the Skunk at the train station is Carolyn, Gary's wife.) Milliman knows railroading and Scouting. (He is a Silver Beaver Award recipient and a member of the Redwood Empire Council executive board.) He works on requirements with the interested Scouts and arranges follow-up counseling on the merit badge.
The night is cool, about 40 degrees, and in the morning the campers relate how they passed the night. "In words of two syllables, I was CO-LD!" says a shivering logger from Troop 85.
"Despite my one blanket, it was comfortable under our branch-and-twig shelter for awhile," a Troop 75 hobo begins boastfully, but then he confesses that "spiders kept dropping on my face and chased me out under the stars."
John Tindall, a Troop 75 assistant Scoutmaster, probably has the most memorable experience. During the night, he feels a weight on his head, awakes to shake it off, and then smells a strong odor. Shining his flashlight, he spots the beady eyes of a skunk backing slowly down the trail.
After breakfast and an arm-to-arm walk-through to clean up camp, the Scouts reload the caboose for the return trip to Fort Bragg. On the way, Chuck Yates, Doug Crane, and some of the adult leaders critique the Historical Camporee. The group consensus:
- Do it again! But encourage more costumes. The gangs who really "got into it," such as Troop 45 and Troop 75, seemed to enjoy themselves the most.
- Give lots of advance notice so troops and Scouts can do proper research. Other possible vocations are farmers, fur traders (Russian), fishermen, sailors.
- Line up more reenactors like Bob Glover and the Black Bart Gunfighters to add spice and excitement.
Back at Fort Bragg, Chuck Yates makes a final comment as he watches the troops depart. He quotes the American Heritage merit badge pamphlet: "Fun, interesting, exciting, that is what your search into America's past can and should be."
With a satisfied smile, he says, "I think we did it."
Mac Gardner, a former Scouting magazine staff editor and professional Scouter, lives in Eureka, Calif.
Some Tips for Time Travel as a Program Feature
Living history can be used as a program activity at many levels, from the unit through district and council events. Here are some tips for getting started, finding resources, and ways to creatively use the program.
Start anywhere, anytime
It's not necessary to wait for a camporee to have an in-depth experience with life in past eras.
You can get some historical exploration going at your troop level.
First take a gander at the American Heritage merit badge pamphlet, BSA Supply No. 33398. All states and the District of Columbia have state historical societies, and they're all listed in the pamphlet. However, the pamphlet suggests starting research in your own community.
You probably have a county historical group or a land trust office at which you can check old families, places, and records. Watch for plaques or signs on old buildings (inns, hotels, railroad depots, farms) or at marked historical spots in your travels and then follow up. What happened here? Why? When? Who did it?
City and county monuments, state and national parks usually have handouts and pamphlets available. They may also have good locations for local camp-outs.
Local chambers of commerce usually have similar materials available. Above all, don't forget your local libraries.
Involve reenactors, historical groups
The Black Bart Gunfighters, who participated in the Yokayo District historical camporee, are named after the real Black Bart of the 1875-to-1883 period. Many historians call him the most famous bandit in California history because of his penchant for leaving poetry at the scene of his robberies.
Bad Company, a book by Joseph Henry Jackson (University of Nebraska Press), gives this as Black Bart's last effort:
I rob the rich to feed the poor,
Such characters and events add color, excitement, and fun to your troop event research. Which local groups and reenactors would help you as the Black Bart Gunfighters did at the camporee? There are usually plenty to pick from - those with special interests in black powder, Revolutionary War or Civil War, "mountain men" or "pioneers," railroading, blacksmithing, old-type printing, sailing, etc.
The American Heritage merit badge pamphlet lists many fictional accounts along with some old movies that might add interest. Hunt around! And don't be afraid to ask for help.
Find the 'Boontling'
For many years, historians have tried to record local dialects and old folk songs. Many are slight variations from the norm and can be easily understood.
However, one vanishing language is a complete mystery to outsiders - Boontling - as partially explained by Bob Glover at the Historical Camporee (in Mendocino County).
The Mendocino County Historical Society has produced a pamphlet about this strange language, which seems to have no basis or regular rules. A few of the words:
October 1999 Table of Contents
Copyright © 1999 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.
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