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Radio pioneers

“I take my hat off to all those thousands of pioneers who crossed the Plains by ox team, but I’ll tell you what,” Jacob Berrang said, “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 over 200 people, were accepting an official welcome from Medford Mayor Earl Gaddis. Nearby, their dog Pal stretched out on the sidewalk with a disinterested eye on the proceedings.

They had left their Connecticut home in December 1920, walking beside a 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 their Connecticut house burned down, Jacob looked down into a hole filled with nothing but black ashes. Right then, he decided the time had finally come.

Salvaging whatever he could find, he loaded his roofed “covered wagon” with an oil range, an icebox, gas lights, two beds on top of the roof, a water tank, and drawers in a kitchen cabinet overflowing with utensils. Jacob and Catherine didn’t forget their radio.

Attached to the couple’s three-oxen wagon was a cart stuffed with supplies for a horse, a cow, a cat, a dog, some chickens — and yes — the oxen.

“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 said 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 would get him to Medford nearly a day ahead of schedule — not much when compared to their 1,233-day trip, but every moment counts.

Even though Catherine and Jacob had 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 on a Phoenix farm and opened a restaurant and store called “The Covered Wagon.” Just outside the restaurant door, they put their homemade ox-drawn house on wheels.

When Catherine passed away in 1945, Jacob continued to live in Phoenix. He died five years later and joined Catherine in Siskiyou Memorial Park.

“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 is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.