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News / Clark County News

At Fort Vancouver, an 1840s Christmas comes to life

Thousands take trip back in time to experience a Hudson’s Bay Company holiday

By Jeffrey Mize, Columbian staff reporter
Published: December 14, 2019, 9:49pm
8 Photos
Volunteer Al Williams, center, offers tips for how to spin wood tops Saturday to Stephan Laabs, 7, left, and Iridium Jewel, 7, both of Vancouver.
Volunteer Al Williams, center, offers tips for how to spin wood tops Saturday to Stephan Laabs, 7, left, and Iridium Jewel, 7, both of Vancouver. (James Rexroad for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

In the 1840s, Native Americans and fur trappers would come to Fort Vancouver to trade their pelts for blankets, beads and other goods.

Christmas was one of the few times the Hudson’s Bay Company, which established Fort Vancouver in 1825, granted leave to all employees. That made the fort a happening place for dining, drinking, dancing and other merriment to celebrate the holiday season.

Saturday’s Christmas at Fort Vancouver event brought thousands to the reconstructed fort to see, hear and experience what life was like more than 170 years ago, when Great Britain was the world’s dominant power early in what became known as the Victorian Era.

The event was held under gray but largely dry skies, which might have accounted for the steady stream of attendees. Shortly after noon, Aaron Ochoa, chief of interpretation at Fort Vancouver, estimated 3,000 people had passed through the main gate during the first two hours, with three more hours still to go.

Children played graces, a game that dates back more than 200 years where two dowels are used to toss a wood hoop back and forth. The game was to be played by girls so the movements somehow would help them become graceful ladies.

Others played an even simpler game, hoop and stick or hoop rolling, where a large wood hoop is pushed along the ground.

Attendees could observe volunteers working in the fort’s blacksmith shop. They could watch volunteers baking bread and churning butter in the bake house. They could touch beaver pelts in the trade shop and imagine what it was like to barter for blankets, ceramic pipes, beads, baskets, gunpowder and shot.

Matt Hazen, a volunteer in the trade shop, said if the Hudson’s Bay Company did not have an item, it could order it from its London headquarters.

Keep in mind, that required a ship carrying the order to sail around Cape Horn, on the tip of South America, and then all the way up and across the Atlantic Ocean to England. The requested item would need to be carried back to Fort Vancouver using the same lengthy sea route.

“If you wanted something, you better really want it and not need it right away,” Hazen said.

At a nearby counter, Mike Riley showed ceramic pipes, tobacco, beads and other items that would be traded for pelts in the 19th century.

“Back then, everybody smoked,” Riley said. “They started their children smoking at about 6.”

In the carpenter’s shop, volunteers helped children use a miter saw to cut off a short piece of dowel, smooth its rough end and gently tap it into a pre-drilled wood disc to fashion a basic but nifty top.

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“The kids are supposed to decorate them when they get home,” said Jim Anderson, a volunteer who help kids assemble their tops.

Volunteers prepared enough materials to assemble 900 tops.

“Last year, we did a little over 600,” Anderson said.

At a different table, Al Williams showed kids how to give their finished tops a whirl, including using a string launcher to really make it spin.

The boys and girls who built tops have grown up with computers, video games and other electronics. Yet something as simple as piecing together their own wood toy and watching it spin brought more than a few smiles.

“Top of the line toy in the 1840s,” Williams said.

Near the fort’s west end, Jeff Richardson of Academia Duellatoria, a Portland school teaching “The Noble Art of Defense” with swords and cutlasses, explained the difference between weapons. The 1804 British cutlass, he said, was shorter than a typical sword so it could be used on ships without striking overhead ropes.

Richardson even let kids hold a cutlass, although National Park Service rules required him to keep a firm grip on its tip at all times.

Those who attended Saturday’s Christmas at Fort Vancouver could get into the holiday spirit by watching singers and dancers.

They also could make wreaths, craft potpourri ornaments and sample a nonalcoholic version of wassail, a traditional holiday drink.

Shortly after 4 p.m., Fort Vancouver announced that “children of all ages” made more than 725 potpourri bags, nearly 1,000 wood tops and more than 1,000 wreaths.

But the real stars of Saturday’s show are the 100 volunteer re-enactors in costumes who gave the event its historical look and feel.

“It usually rains every year, but they still come back,” said Ochoa, chief of interpretation.

A journal by Thomas Lowe, a Hudson’s Bay Company clerk who recorded nearly daily entries, provides a treasure trove of information about life at Fort Vancouver, including during the holidays, Ochoa said.

For Saturday’s Christmas event, wreath making remains one of the most popular activities, he said.

“They’re not only learning, but they are taking away a piece of history,” Ochoa said.

Columbian staff reporter