Skits shine light on fort history

Performances have made lantern tours even more popular

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter



If you go

• What: Fort Vancouver Lantern Tours.

• Where: Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, 1001 E. Fifth St., Vancouver.

• When: Tours start at 7 p.m., visitors should arrive no later than 6:30 p.m. Event takes about 1.5 hours. Dates are Nov. 3, 17; Dec. 1, 15; Jan. 5, 19; Feb. 2, 16.

• Cost: $10, $7 for children 15 and younger. Reservations are required; waiting list only still available for Nov. 3 and 17. Accommodates 75 people per tour.

• Information: 360-816-6230 or Fort Vancouver.

On a dark night, lit only by lanterns and candles, three oddly dressed young men at Fort Vancouver reluctantly decided to open a mysterious love letter written on Oct. 1, 1851.

Inside the neatly folded page was a message so personal that they had to stop, flustered by its embarrassing content.

“Dear allan if you are to me as I am to you that will do. Mind you and dond marry one that is out there and I will not marry one that is here till you come,” the woman wrote to an unidentified man at the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The young men, playing out this scene in 2012 as part of the Fort Vancouver Lantern Tour, had to react to this startling display of sentiment as if they were really clerks at the fort back in the mid 1800s.

And back then, such talk was considered almost pornographic, said Cassie Anderson, a park ranger and youth volunteer coordinator.

“That would be a really personal sentiment,” Anderson said. “It sounds mild today, but it would have had a lot more emphasis back then.”

The letter used in the skit is real. It’s included in the book “Undelivered Letters to the Hudson’s Bay Company Men on the Northwest Coast of American, 1830-57.”

The rangers who wrote the play with Anderson decided to use it, and other materials dating back to that era, in the performances to make them as

historically accurate as possible, she said.

“The language we use comes from quotes, oral histories and other mis-delivered letters,” she said.

Fort Vancouver switched its approach to the lantern tours by adding the skits two years ago, which has made the events even more popular, said Aaron Ochoa, a ranger.

“It’s more engaging than it was in the past,” Ochoa said. “Before it was a lecture tour, where a park ranger guided you. Today’s tour is much better.”

Visitors stroll along and watch several short skits set in the fort’s various buildings, with a ranger available to answer questions without disrupting the performances.

As they walk along the grounds, participants carry lanterns that are very similar to lighting used during that time, Ochoa said.

“Adults get a standard tin lantern, and for the children we have a safety lantern that’s still lit, but it’s made from a different material,” he said. “By far, this is one of our most popular programs at the fort.”

Educating youth

The fort has about 700 volunteers from the community participating in its programs, including about 100 youth participants that range from 9-year-olds to high school students.

For the youth volunteers, lantern tours are a favorite, Anderson said. They’re good training for the fort’s September Campfires and Candlelight event, where re-enactors improvise their roles and act as if they were living in a military camp in the 1850s.

Learning about the way people talked in the fort’s heyday is something younger volunteers love to giggle about, but its also a great history lesson, Anderson said.

“What I see is the kids having a lot of fun with what people considered proper back then versus today,” Anderson said. “Participating in these skits gives them a rare chance to speak like a character from the 1840s -- but it’s also a safe environment for them to gain confidence in public speaking and performance.”