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Eugene's Frontier Heritage Festival provides a weekend of hands-on history

A Frontier Heritage participant describes pelts to visitors on the second day of the event.
Brian Bull
A Frontier Heritage participant describes pelts to visitors on the second day of the event.

Furs, fiddles and flint could be found among frontier fans at the Lane County Fairgrounds this past weekend. Right inside the large exhibit hall, Donna Wynn and Ernie Connelly played fiddle and banjo, respectively. Their music transported visitors to an era well before microwave ovens, smart phones, and cable television.

Eugene’s annual Frontier Heritage Fair offers an engaging look at Oregon’s pre-industrial history, and has been doing so since 1992. Local history buff Melody Morrell has been helping organize the event every year since.

Tables and booths displayed firearms, tools, and materials common during Oregon's infancy.
Jasmine Lewin
Tables and booths displayed firearms, tools, and materials common during Oregon's infancy.

“It’s just fun to organize it, to see it come together," she said. "I’ve been doing it a long time and I’m proud of the fact that it’s still going on, and still popular, and we get a good turnout of folks coming here.”

Morrell and her husband are part of the Fort Umpqua Muzzleloaders, a re-enactment club in Lane County that promotes historical recreation and muzzleloading shooting. It’s also a sponsor of the Fair.

Though the muzzleloaders themselves may have been a little too loud to fire at the exhibit, vintage firearms from the 1800s lined the tables of the auditorium.

Morrell’s table also featured an array of Northwest Native American art, including colorful replicas of petroglyphs, wooden tools and sculptures. Though none of the items are for sale, Morrell said they’re a wonderful opportunity to teach about the past.

“I think that’s an important part of the show, that it isn’t just about people coming here and selling things, and for folks to come and buy," she said. "We want to educate them too, we want them to see a little bit of the history. I think that there’s a lot we can learn about Native Americans and we’re always happy to feature that in our show if we can.”

Another display showed the various Native American tribes that populate North America, including dozens that once called the Pacific Coastline home. Disease, wars, and colonization saw most Indigenous peoples driven away from their ancestral lands and put onto reservations. Many were consolidated later as confederated tribes (including the Grand Ronde and Siletz here in Oregon, among others.)

A few tables over, an impressive collection of metal contraptions sat next to an old-fashioned calligraphy station. Don Kaulitz is a blacksmith as well as a calligraphist, and has been since the 1970s. The metal artifacts, which he identified as historic cookware, can be bought and used in a modern home. Kaulitz said that his blacksmithing work is mostly done in the 18th and 19th century style. The calligraphy is done with goose feather quills.

“I started out mostly as a knife-maker and a hatchet maker, and I’ve sprouted out into other things," he said. "In college I studied lettering calligraphy, so I’m selling some quill pens and some of those supplies as well.”

Kaulitz said what he likes most about blacksmithing is if you don’t have a tool, you can always make one. But like the muzzleloader firing demonstrations, the blacksmithing is done before the fair, lest the fairgrounds get filled with smoke and intense heat.

A visit to the Frontier Heritage Fair

Singing Creek Education Center, which focuses on hands-on history for kids and families, was also present. The organization hosted activities like corn husk doll making and beading to keep the next generation of history lovers engaged.

Visitors milled in and out of the Frontier Heritage Festival over the weekend. Many crossed the eras by taking photos of the vintage firearms, beeswax, and handicrafts with their smartphones.

Planning for next year’s Frontier Heritage Festival will begin soon.

Jasmine Lewin was a freelance reporter in 2022 and 2023. Originally from Portland, Oregon, Lewin wrote for the University of Oregon quarterly magazine Ethos before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
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