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1959 wagon train reunites 50 years later

Moths have munched on the scrunched old hat stored in the shop of the Krouse family ranch for the past half-century.

"It's full of moth holes and beat all to hell," acknowledged Phil Krouse as he held it up for inspection. "After I found it, I went in the house and looked in the mirror. The guy looking back at me was also kind of moth-eaten and beat up.

"But it still fits," added the Applegate Valley resident. "I'm going to wear it in the parade."

With that, the wagon master of a 1959 4-H wagon train from Jacksonville to Corvallis 50 years ago this month to celebrate the state centennial plopped it on his head.

Krouse, now 67, and members of the historic 225-mile wagon trek across the state will be celebrated Saturday in Jacksonville during a parade and reunion as part of the state's sesquicentennial observances.

Krouse was elected wagon master by the 42 4-H'ers from the countywide Empire Builders club. The project was inspired by former Jackson County Extension Agents Glenn Klein and Marilou Garner Perris.

Among the 4-H'ers on the trek were Medford residents Linda Cornutt Sindt, 65, and Sharon Coffman Williams, 67, both students at Crater High School. They joined Krouse, who graduated from Grants Pass High School, on Monday at his family farm to reminisce about the remarkable trip, mostly along old Highway 99.

"The girls had a great big tarp we slept on," Sindt recalled. "We would put our sleeping bags head to toe. If it rained, we would pull another plastic sheet on top. It did rain, always at night."

Krouse still has one of the five wagons that made the 13-day journey, an 1899 farm wagon built in Portland by the Mitchell, Lewis & Staver Co. The 110-year-old covered wagon will be featured in Saturday's parade.

Klein bought the wagon in Scottsburg for $25. He later sold it to Krouse for the same amount he paid for it.

"Dad and I worked on it," Krouse said. "We took this one wheel apart and put new leather on it (at end of wooden spokes). We had to build a fire bigger than this wheel, get the rim red hot and dropped it over the wood. We then poured water over the tire which made it tight."

Several of the wagons used in the trek were reconditioned by students at Phoenix, Eagle Point and Crater high schools.

Heading out from Jacksonville, the wagon train spent the first night at the Krouse ranch where Krouse continues the family tradition. The second night, following a parade through Grants Pass, was spent in Merlin.

They made Wolf Creek by the third night where they were joined by a three-member pack train from Curry County. That included Rose Walker, now 88 and still riding horses, who also will participate in Saturday's parade.

A truck with hay and grain for the animals also followed the train along. The goal was to complete about 20 miles a day, although the wagoneers spent a day and a half resting at one point.

"We had Jesse James as our cook," Williams said of the train's chef, who alledgedly had a blood-line connection to the notorious bandit. "They had a trailer they had turned into a kitchen. They followed us along."

The 4-H'ers, some as young as 13, rode horses, sat in wagons or walked along the route.

"When we came to steep hills — Mount Sexton and Canyon Creek Pass — everybody got out and walked," Krouse said. "Some of the kids walked most of the way."

Sindt and Williams recall having walked nearly all the way.

"I remember we had to do laundry in Roseburg," Williams said. "We got into this car to go to the laundry and I was terrified because we were doing about 20 miles an hour. I just knew we were going to crash. When you've walked from here to there and you get into a car ... ."

Each girl was required to have a dress, bonnet and French culottes for the trip. Sindt still has her blue calico dress with sun bonnet, which Williams' granddaughter is expected to wear in Saturday's parade.

"We didn't have any place to change clothes," Sindt said. "An amazing sight would have been a field full of young women using these dresses as tents in the morning to change clothes."

The boys wore Western clothes. Krouse, whose hat came from Gibson's Saddlery in Medford, carried an old .30-30 caliber Winchester to help look the part of a wagon master.

"I remember in Canyonville the night the kids from town came in and spooked the horses," Williams said. The next evening one of the horses died.

"That was a traumatic experience," Sindt said.

"But they put another horse on the team, and we kept going the next day," Krouse said.

For them, the trip, as well as their 4-H experience, changed their lives, Sindt said. Among the trek's veterans responding to the reunion are four ranchers, one farmer, two retired school superintendents, an attorney, three teachers, a food-service administrator in a large hospital, a veterinarian, an acclaimed photographer and two retired female Air Force colonels, said Sindt, one of the retired colonels.

"I started out as a pretty shy young kid," Sindt said. "I really did not want to go on this wagon trek. But the 4-H is about building leadership. The wagon trek experience helped me grow up."

Williams has been on the executive board of the Jackson County 4-H Leaders Association for 15 years and has served as chairwoman and secretary over the years. She still works each year at the county fair.

"4-H has been one of the highlights of my life," Williams said. "It has given so much to me."

Based in part on his wagon-master experience, Krouse was selected as one of two 4-H boys sent from Oregon to the national 4-H conference in Washington, D.C. He also attended the national 4-H club congress in Chicago, where he was awarded scholarships to pay for his first year at OSU.

In addition, as an OSU student, he was selected to be part of the international farm youth exchange to England and Wales in 1964.

"The wagon trip put me on the map," he said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

From left, Sharon Coffman Williams, Phil Krouse and Linda Cornutt Sindt were part of a 4-H group that took a 225 mile trek by wagon train from Jacksonville to Corvallis in 1959 in the wagon behind them. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Jim Craven