Sunny Valley center spotlights the Applegate's pioneer past

SUNNY VALLEY -- When Betty Gaustad first discovered the Applegate Trail, she was an elementary school student in tiny Black Hammer, Minn.

In that little one-room brick school house, we had history and pioneer books all the way to the ceiling, recalled Gaustad, the eldest of six children. That's where I learned about the Applegate Trail. Our mother (Irene) was a real history buff who wanted us to learn about history.

Never mind she was roughly 1,800 miles away and lived more than a century after the trail was blazed by the Applegate brothers: The young girl never forgot the tales about the hardy folks who first traveled the historic pioneer trail in 1846.

Fast forward to 1974 when she, now an adult, and her family bought a ranch in Sunny Valley near an old covered bridge. That's when her mother discovered the Applegate Trail ran right across their property.

We found out the trail wasn't marked and that nobody knew anything about it, Gaustad said. That was very disturbing to me.

So she decided to put the old trail back on the map by establishing the Applegate Trail Interpretative Center on the property within a shout of Interstate 5.

Working with local residents and her family, she founded the non-profit center created by a public-private partnership. The center is directed by the Applegate Trail Society.

Her brother, Dennis Gaustad, built the building. Her daughter, Jacquelana Ladd, helped design the center.

Betty Gaustad, who owns a grocery store, gas station and restaurant in the tiny hamlet, even mortgaged some of her property to build an interpretative center she felt would do the pioneers justice.

We wanted this to be a modern museum, Betty Gaustad said. We wanted the storyline to flow and the artifacts to show that storyline.

And this story really hasn't been told, she added. We wanted to do that.

Gaustad had worked as a flight attendent for United Airlines for 11 years, and had spent her off hours visiting museums the world over. She had her fill of dusty, lifeless museums and intended to capture the vibrant lives of those who traveled the trail some 150 years ago.

From the outside, the building looks much like the 1860 Grave Creek Hotel would have looked, judging from old photographs.

But visitors get a surprise when they step inside the 5,400-square-foot building.

They are greeted by a growling bear in the first display which reflects the story of the trappers who settled the Northwest.

Around the corner is a three-screen theater on which an 8-minute film depicting the struggles faced by the pioneers. Local residents, dressed in period garb, star in the film made in Sunny Valley.

I told people from way up in the hills who came down to my store that I wanted them to be in a movie, she said. And they were wonderful, all of them.

Inside are displays of artifacts that reflected life in those distant days, from mining gear to the local mercantile operated by S.B. Pettengill.

There is even a copy of the bedroom in which President Rutherford Hayes stayed during his visit to the Grave Creek House in 1880.

Countless other relics are displayed, from black-powder rifles to documents once held by pioneer Jimmie Twogood, who made a donation land claim in 1851 on the site where the center now stands. Twogood is the first settler to have made a land claim in the area, according to research by local historian Larry McLane, 67, of Wolf Creek.

McLane, author of First there was Twogood, a book about local history, said the center has put the area on the map.

I didn't think I would ever see something like this in my lifetime but it has always been a dream of mine to have something that would tell the story the public could see, said McLane whose ancestors settled in the area in 1851.

This has a theme that is a wonderful way of telling our history here, he said, adding, Betty is one of those people who get get the job done. She's very dynamic.

Standing before a huge mural of a sunny Sunny Valley is a replica of a wagon like that used in the 1846 wagon train on the trail. Built by local residents, the wagon is hitched to two stuffed oxen.

There is also a gift shop in which the wares of local residents are sold.

They stayed longer in Sunny Valley than probably anywhere on the Applegate Trail, Gaustad said. They were out of provisions by the time they got on this side of Mount Sexton.

They also stayed to bury their dead. The grave for which the stream was named belonged to Martha Leland Crowley, 16, who died of typhoid in Sunny Valley on Oct. 18, 1846.

Her grave is about 150 feet past where the covered bridge is, Gaustad said. That was the crossing. It's not marked but we know where it is.

She was 5'6, very statuesque -- the average woman was only 4', 10 in those days, she said. She was a golden-red haired beauty. She was quite the crusader. She would always say, `Onward, Christians.'

Outside the center is the original 1929 Sunny Valley grange hall made of logs.

We moved it from out of the blackberry bushes about a block away, she said. Being history buffs, we couldn't let it crumble away.

Gaustad, who was first attracted to the picturesque valley while flying overhead in a jetliner, says the Applegate Trail she found on the ground is every bit as rich in historic lore as the one she first read about as a child back in Minnesota.

But I do have one regret -- my mom died in January just before we opened, she said. That was heartbreaking for me. She would have loved this.