Prairie Schooners
By Dick Duerksen

Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger walked all the way from St. Louis to the west coast. Each of their steps, and those of other fur-trappers, followed trails well-worn by Shoshone, Blackfeet, Crow, and other Native Americans. And a couple Spanish padres.

However, one of the very first wagons to lumber across Wyoming’s South Pass and into Ft. Bridger on the Green River, carried two protestant missionaries, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. On their way to Walla Walla in the Washington Territory, their wagons needed so many repairs that they were forced to winter with Bridger.

That was 1836, and their journey marked the opening of the Oregon Trail. By the late 1840’s more than 50,000 people were traipsing across the west to set up farms in the Willamette Valley or to become rich in the newly discovered gold mines of California.

One estimate says that each year 20,000 of those were children!

Mostly, they walked. Fifteen to twenty miles a day, when the roads were easy. Two miles a day in the mountains. –Unless they had to disassemble the wagons and haul them, and their animals, up a cliff or across an impassible ravine.

Some tried to ride in the wagons, but a couple hours of that jostling, dusty, unpadded adventure was about enough for anyone to take. Walk, bounce, or ride one of the animals that wasn’t pulling. Those were the options.

Each wagon carried a ton of goods, stacked neatly in the morning, jostled into confusing piles during the day, much of it discarded beside the trail by evening. Ft. Laramie, in Wyoming, became known as “Camp Sacrifice,” a dumping ground for piles of stuff travelers once thought they needed.

No one knows how many Prairie Schooners followed the ancient Indian trails, but you can still find traces of the ruts they made in each of the six states the Oregon Trail crossed.

Of the hundreds of thousands of pioneers who began the journey, many fell in love with Iowa, Nebraska, or Kansas where they planted wheat and potatoes. Thousands more lit out for California’s gold or Salt Lake’s temple.

Nearly 100,000 settlers made it all the way to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the “Heavenly Land” they had dreamed about, sung about, and walked toward for bazillions of exhausting steps.

The Prairie Schooners quickly grew mossy and deteriorated in Oregon’s rain, becoming memories parked in front of your cabin to remind the neighbors that you had “made it!”

Then Ford made pick-ups, and interstate highways covered the old ruts. No one needed Prairie Schooners anymore.

Until 2017, in the Willamette Valley community of Springfield.

“There are far too many homeless people in our community,” a local pastor said.

He said it to his congregation and to the Rotary Club at their Tuesday meeting. Several others agreed and began saying it to their families and friends. Other pastors, from many different denominations of caring people, agreed and set to planning new ways to help people who were truly in need.

One believer painted the picture clearly. “Food, water, mattresses, clothes, electricity, toilets, and a dry place to sleep while listening to the rain.”

Another added, “Good food, pure accessible water, clean toilets, hot-and-cold showers, nice warm clothes, good-sleeping mattresses, and a place to call HOME!”

The Saint Vincent DePaul Society worked out an agreement with the city for a portion of their parking lot to be used as a, “Car Park,” a place where “people who had lost everything except a vehicle,” could park safely. It has good lighting and provides access to toilets. It’s always full.

The city helped transform an old building into showers and toilets, and arranged with some of the homeless folks and their friends to serve as janitors.

Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and a score of church congregations banded together to assure access to good food, pure water, soft mattresses, warm blankets, and anything else the homeless folks might need.

New agencies offered job placement and training, housing referrals, and education.

“But, we still need houses!” one of the pastors said.

“What about covered wagons? Like the ones Grandpa used to get here!”

It’s not important who suggested it, but it is important that a team decided to move on the idea: Four feet wide, and about ten feet long. Beautiful white canvas cover. Rain-safe. With electrical and water connections, a port-a-potty and a microwave.

“And a safe place to park.”

People began building Prairie Schooners. One church built several on their parking lot. Another built two and gave them away.

One family visited the “Prairie Schooner Works” and made friends with some of the homeless people who were helping with the construction.

“Nice people,” they saw, “but really down on their luck!”

The family went home, prayed about what they had seen, and decided that their 2017 Christmas presents would be to build a Prairie Schooner in their garage and then give it to someone who really needed a home.

Working on the Schooner House was much more interesting than watching TV. Or playing video games. Or anything else.

At Christmas, when the Prairie Schooner House was complete, water-proofed, painted, wheeled, bedded, blanketed, microwaved, connected with a port-a-potty, and ready to go, they called the folks at St. Vincent DePaul and offered their gift to “someone who needs it.”

The caregivers at St. Vincent DePaul knew just the right person, and also knew right where the Schooner could be parked, and called Pastor Lutz Binus.

It’s now Mary’s home. Parked safely under a street lamp beside the Springfield Seventh-day Adventist church. Connected to power from the Adventist Community Services building. Sporting a regularly-serviced Port-a-Potty.

“It’s my home,” Mary cries. “I still cannot believe so many people care about me. Imagine! My home is a Christmas present handmade for me personally by a family of Christians. It’s like living in God’s house!”