Wagons Ho

Special to Sierra StarJune 17, 2014 

Over four days in May, 50 fifth-graders from St. Joachim's Elementary School in Madera and Charleston Elementary in Los Banos learned some of the hardships their ancestors faced on their quest to settle in California.

Within their basecamp in Kelty Meadow above Bass Lake, the students learned to follow the directions of outriders and mule skinners for safety, and to help each other achieve common goals. They learned what life was like without cell phones and video games, but most importantly, they experienced some of the same challenges as their ancestors. They lived and practiced the values of courage, commitment and cooperation.

"It was one of the neatest experiences I have ever had — watching Trevor (his son) and other kids live like they did during pioneer days," parent volunteer Brian Massetti said. "Some of these kids have never been camping, and they learned to drive the wagon, feed the animals, prepare meals and cook in Dutch ovens. They saw the value of hard work and learned they need to be responsible for their actions."

Massetti also saw first-hand how much effort Michael Tomazin and his crew put into making this experience happen, how good Tomazin was interacting with the students and getting them to help out with specified activities or chores.

Tomazin has participated in the Wagon Train for five years, and this year was his first as Wagon Master.

"We do this because we believe in the importance of learning the values of our western heritage through experience, instead of a textbook," Tomazin said. "When you read a book on what the 300,000 pioneers accomplished crossing from the eastern U.S. to the western U.S., it's impossible to imagine just how difficult that was to achieve."

These students didn't have to imagine, they got a small taste of pioneer life during two unique field trips when they — along with three historic covered wagons, three mule skinners (wagon drivers), six outriders (cowboys on horses), their teacher, and parent volunteers — returned to their pioneer roots.

Like most students, they had studied the pioneers in the classroom, but this was different. They discovered what it was like to sleep under the stars and walk 12 miles a day.

Each day started at 6 a.m. with feeding the livestock and preparing breakfast. The cowboy volunteers, along with the students, helped prepare the wagons and hitch the mules.

After breakfast and the flag salute, students began their day's wagon journey. They soon experienced the many rocks, bumps and ruts along the trail, which motivated them to voluntarily walk behind their wagons.

The outriders scouted ahead and also stuck close to the mule teams to help the mule skinners keep their animals under control.

On the first day out for St. Joachim's students, the wagons rolled six miles to the trail head for Fresno Dome, north of Oakhurst. Students walked through patches of snow and climbed to the summit at 7,539 feet, to be rewarded with a breathtaking panoramic view 100 miles in every direction. Some students opened their mouths to taste the clouds that blew across the granite dome.

Every night around the campfire, Wagon Master Tomazin read from the actual journals of western immigrants and mountain men.

The wagon train also took the young pioneers to Nelder Grove to see the redwood trees. Many of the students had never seen the Giant Sequoia and were amazed to experience these 2,500 year-old giants up close. That night, John Muir (Frank Helling) came to the campfire and told stories about his adventures and his campaign to preserve the wilderness for future generations.

The final adventure was a 13-mile ride to meet the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. On the way, the Charleston students discovered that a giant oak tree had recently fallen, blocking the trail. Just as the real pioneers faced numerous obstacles, the students were forced to use a handsaw and much hard work to clear the trail.

Once the problem was resolved, the wagons were driven to the forest loop, circled, and students waited for the train to arrive, which was carrying their parents, who had boarded at the Highway 41 station. Parents and child reunited, and together they were transported back to modern times as they rode the historic steam engine.

"My goal was to give these students a great experience, while exposing them to some of the worthy values the pioneers possessed — like perserverance and hard work, the ability to push on when things get hard and to understand that goals in life take time and energy," Tomazin said.

Most likely, Tomazin will never know how this experience affected the futures of these students, or how these values will guide them in making decisions later in life. Giving back to the community without asking for anything in return is a philosophy Tomazin was raised with, and it guides him to this day.

His father, an immigrant, was chased out of Europe during WWII at the age of 14, hopped a ship, crossed the Atlantic, jumped ship in New York and ended up on the New Jersey docks. Almost immediately, a stranger walked up to him, handed him a meatball sandwich and a cup of coffee, and took care of him for the next couple of weeks. The stranger was a Red Cross volunteer.

"That single act of kindness made quite an impression on my father," Tomazin explained, "and he and my mother emulated this attitude throughout their lives and instilled that value in me."

Power of the program

Tomazin and all the volunteers have made this trip possible year-after-year, donating their time and providing their own horses and equipment. Believing in the power of this program and the difference it makes, Tomazin has created the Western Heritage Foundation (a non-profit corporation) to continue what celebrated teacher and historian Bill Coate of Madera began 20 years ago — a unique, experience-based program.

Because it runs about $5,000 per trip and costs the participants nothing, Tomazin hopes to raise funds to replace worn equipment, including $20,000 for a very large trailer to haul the mules and their equipment, and a 16X18-foot enclosed trailer for food. He's also hoping to attract some younger members so this program can continue well into the next couple of decades.

Donations or information: michael.tomazin@gmail.com

Note: Mike Tomazin and Morgan Voorhis contributed to the writing of this story.

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