Sweet-smelling camp fires, the neighing of horses and the occasional bone-rattling cannon blast greeted visitors walking the “Timeline of History” at Saturday’s Campfire & Candlelight event at Fort Vancouver.
On the newest end, living historians dressed in World War II attire discussed 1940s-era rations, tents and medical equipment with visitors young and old.
On the older end, young volunteers got to try their hand at the early-1800s French practice of tomahawk throwing, while a band of raggedy-clad musicians played 1800s sea chanties.
In the middle, beside the Civil War reenactors, sat Bill Morehouse, 91, part of the Buffalo Solider’s first-time exhibit at the event. But Morehouse isn’t just a living historian. He also lived the history.
He was stationed at Vancouver Barracks in World War II, from 1944 to 1946.
“I was stationed here in that barracks right up the hill there,” Morehouse said, pointing toward the now-boarded-up barracks buildings. “Back then, we had prisoners of war here, Germans on one side, Italians on the other, right here on this field.”
Morehouse said he used to escort some of the Italian prisoners, as a guard, over to Portland so they could go out to eat on occasion. But it was a tricky role.
“They made me stand outside the restaurant, because blacks weren’t allowed inside back then,” he said. “So they’d go in and eat, and I’d wait, and then I’d escort them back.”
Morehouse was a quartermaster and a truck driver at the barracks back in the war, and after some convincing, he agreed to wander up the historical timeline from the Civil War Buffalo Soldier era to the World War II exhibit to see if the kids were doing things right.
“We had those pup tents here when I was in basic training,” he said, pointing to low-lying canvas tents on the ground. “But we didn’t have those aluminum forks — that stuff is new.”
As another living historian set to boiling a pot of water on a camp stove, Morehouse chuckled.
“We didn’t have gas stoves,” he said. “We had C rations and K rations. And we got two cartons of cigarettes with 10 per pack, whether we smoked or not. If you didn’t smoke ’em, you could sell ’em, so I quit smoking and sold mine.”
He also took note of the M1 rifles at the exhibit.
“We had 1903 and 1917 rifles that had been packed up from World War I,” Morehouse said. “You had to clean them three times a night to make sure they passed inspection.”
Still, most of the exhibit seemed accurate, he said, looking at a 1940s-era stretcher.
“I was on one of those when I broke my leg in training,” he said.
As Morehouse poked around, the living historians and onlookers gathered around to listen to his stories.
Christopher Miller, who was dressed as a 1940s-era Army Ranger, said he was grateful to learn from Morehouse.
“Anything I can gather from (people who were here in World War II) to help me portray their story is great,” Miller said. “I hate to say it — it sounds morbid — but these guys won’t be here for much longer, and there’s so much we can learn from them.”
Morehouse also remembers when the Portland airport was a 36-hole golf course, where he once worked. He also worked at the Hanford nuclear site in the late 1940s.
“I had a lot of friends there back then, and most of them died of cancer,” he said. “I don’t know why I’m still around.”
He also still rides horses with the Buffalo Soldiers group, which he joined in 1995.
“Yeah, I still ride,” Morehouse said. “I’m too old to walk.”
Buffalo Soldiers stationed at Vancouver Barracks were cavalry troops, so the Pacific Northwest Chapter brought a couple horses with them to the exhibit, to the thrill of many young visitors.
Frasier Raymond, 63, who recently became president of the 9th and 10th Northwest chapter, said in his short time he’s learned a lot about life during Civil War times.
“The only thing I really don’t care for about those guys way back then are the clothes,” Raymond said, touching his lightly broken-in blue military pants as the afternoon sun blazed. “This is pure raw wool.”
He said he was surprised to learn about Buffalo Soldiers riding with Teddy Roosevelt, and he was thrilled when he learned there were black mountain men in the region who worked as fur trappers in the 1800s.
There are many rumors about where the black troop divisions got their buffalo moniker, he said.
“Some say it was the buffalo coats they wore,” Raymond said. “But I heard that it was either because our hair was like the wool of the buffalo, or that our fighting spirit was like the buffalo. The buffalo was revered by the Indians, and they gave us that name, so we consider it a badge of honor.”
As he spoke, kids swooped by in groups to pet or feed the horses in the exhibit.
“Horses are a great way to get kids interested in history,” he said.
So is tomahawk throwing, which Andrew McConathy taught to about 30 young volunteers in the oldest section of the timeline.
“It was a French pastime,” McConathy said. “The voyageurs brought it with them. The natives actually thought it was hilarious. Their rule was, ‘Never throw your ax.'”
But that thought didn’t stop young visitors from enjoying the old game.
Grace Coplin, 12, didn’t manage to embed her ax into the wood target but said it was pretty fun, anyway.
“It was a lot harder than it looks,” Grace said. “The axes were a lot heavier.”
Her 10-year-old brother, Wyatt Coplin, was more enthusiastic.
“The axes feel kinda cool,” Wyatt said. “It’s kinda like throwing a stick. Well, it’s a little heavier because it’s got that metal part on the end.”
And their younger sister, 8-year-old Hannah, also enjoyed tossing a few axes at a target, she said.
“I like that you actually get to throw things,” Hannah said.
Overall, the family said they had a terrific time learning about local history at the event.
“I really like history, so I like to just listen to them talking,” Grace said. “And I really enjoyed the games.”
“I like that you actually get to do stuff and try stuff here,” he said.