Three years on an Oregon trail

Jacob and Catherine Berrang listen to the radio that kept them company on their three-year journey from Connecticut to Oregon in the 1920s.

"I take my hat off to all those thousands of pioneers who crossed the plains by ox team, but I'll tell you what," said Jacob Berrang, "none of them did it with a radio — that's some distinction, I think."

Just a month before his 61st birthday, Jacob and his wife, Catherine, surrounded by more than 200 people, were accepting an official welcome from Medford Mayor Earl Gaddis. Nearby, their dog, Pal, stretched out on the sidewalk, keeping a disinterested eye on the proceedings.

The end of their tale

In 1936, two teenagers from Longview, Wash., stole a car in Medford and drove to Phoenix, where they held up two businesses, including the Berrangs' Covered Wagon. Jacob, then 73, resisted, was severely beaten, spent a few days in the hospital, but survived.

When Catherine passed away in 1945, Jacob retired and continued to live in Phoenix. He died five years later.

They had left their Connecticut home in December 1920, riding their homemade, ox-drawn house on wheels. Their 20th century crossing of the plains had taken them a leisurely three years, four months and 16 days.

"My house burned down," Jacob said, "and I just decided to build my own house on wheels and go to a warmer climate."

For years, J.W. Birkholz, an old friend living in Central Point, had begged the Berrangs to come to Oregon and raise apples. When the Connecticut house burned down and Jacob looked down into the hole filled with ashes, he decided their time had finally come.

Salvaging whatever he could find, he equipped his roofed "covered wagon" with an oil range, an icebox, gas lights, two beds on top of the roof, a water tank and a kitchen cabinet, with drawers overflowing with utensils. They bought their radio along the way.

A cart pulled behind the wagon by one of the couple's three oxen carried supplies for not only the oxen, but also a horse, cow, cat, dog and chickens.

"The old Oregon Trail was one of the best roads we found," Jacob said, "but we didn't see any of those bleached skeletons the pioneers saw so many years ago."

They bought supplies as they went from town to town, financing their journey by selling picture postcards of them sitting with their animals beside their wagon.

Each night, they stopped alongside the highway or pulled into a campground, where they built their campfire and listened to their radio. The oxen seemed to enjoy the radio even more than the Berrangs.

Jacob joked that the radio had actually saved them 22 hours at the end of their journey. While traveling through Bend, he said he heard of a "shortcut" over the Greensprings Highway that got him to Medford nearly a day ahead of schedule — not much in the context of a 1,233-day trip.

Even though Catherine and Jacob walked most of the way across America, had lost and replaced two of their oxen, and did all of their washing, cooking and sleeping outdoors, they had no complaints.

"We had a lovely time," Catherine said. "Housekeeping duties are limited when you travel this way, and I'm sort of sorry it's over."

They settled down in Phoenix, farmed and opened a restaurant and store they called "The Covered Wagon." Just outside, they put their old ox-drawn house on wheels.

"There are sure a lot of interesting things to see in America if you take your time," Jacob said. "You certainly meet a lot of interesting people."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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