OKANOGAN — At this year’s Okanogan County Fair, Thursday, Sept. 6, one of its attractions will feature a practice that is eons older than the fair itself.
Riverside resident Sheryl Curtis and her “Old-World Oxen Living History Display” will offer a glimpse of life that dates to 14,000 B.C. – the use of oxen as beasts of burden.
On a scale of history that vast, the use of oxen are principal players in opening the West to colonization seems almost contemporary. But much has changed in the 150 years since the surge of westward immigrants began. Curtis’ reenactment camp is designed to provide hands-on examples of some of the hardships the pioneers endured together with a close-up look at living examples of the huge oxen that pulled their heavy loads.
The display is a success with children because once Curtis sets up her camp, youngsters get to participate in a variety of pioneer activities just the way the old timers did them. Youngsters learn about chuckwagon cooking, coffee grinding, butter churning, setting up camp and doing laundry by hand. They also get up close and personal with Curtis’ gentle giants oxen.
The real stars at the fair will likely be Curtis’ two purebred brown Swiss oxen, Saul and Noah. Both are four years old but Noah tipping the scales at 2,940 pounds, weighs 170 pounds more than his span partner at 2,770 pounds.
“It was terribly difficult for these animals,” said Curtis of the pioneer oxen. “They pulled loaded wagons weighing as much as 3,000 pounds. They pulled them up mountains. Their legs broke. They died of starvation.”
Curtis, who bills herself as “Bullwhackin’ Kass,” has taken her encampment to community events from California to North Dakota. Her 19th Century historically-accurate pioneer camp, complete with covered wagon and tools, depicts life as it was way back when. Credit for its authenticity goes to one William Henry Jackson, a 23-year-old New England greenhorn who signed on as a bullwhacker with a wagon train from Nebraska to Salt Lake City in 1866.
Jackson kept a diary of his trials and observations while driving a freight wagon across the plains that provided a realistic rather than romanticized description of what it was like.
The Old World Oxen Living History Display is bound to give visitors a greater knowledge of what it took for their ancestors – and the animals on which they depended – to survive and even thrive.