Tom Ross: Pioneer picnics preserve living history |

Tom Ross: Pioneer picnics preserve living history

— Pioneer picnics are as Western as sagebrush and much more than a mere social occasion. The annual gatherings are a way to refresh the collective memory of a community and renew important ties to the old days.

Even the smallest memory can provide insight into the way people in frontier towns like Steamboat Springs once lived.

Phyllis Stehley Allen, 85, who plans to attend Routt County's Pioneer Picnic on Sunday, never will forget her first trip to Steamboat on a steam locomotive in 1948.

"I was wearing a new light blue suit and a white hat," she recalled this week. "When we got to Steamboat, they were all black and sooty."

Her uncle Jack Stehley, who ran the Penney's store in Steamboat in those days, made it up to her.

"He outfitted me in blue jeans, a cowboy hat and boots — the works," Allen said.

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She's a remarkable woman who has been living with multiple sclerosis in Steamboat's rugged climate for 70 years.

Old-timers and young-timers of every generation are gathering across the West this summer for their own version of the traditional pioneer picnic.

They gathered in historic Brownsville in Linn County, Ore., from June 17 to 19, for what is considered Oregon's oldest continuing celebration.

The first pioneer picnic in Brownsville was held in 1887 to host a reunion of people who emigrated on the Oregon Trail.

In Callaway, Neb., on June 24 to 26, in the heart of the Seven Valleys (65 miles northwest of Kearney) they played historic carnival games in the town park to celebrate pioneer days.

Up in the lava fields of the Magic Valley in Camas County, Idaho, they'll be enjoying the music of the Old Time Fiddlers in the Fairfield Town Park in a picnic that is expected to last from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

If a person were really hungry and really ambitious, they could plan a long summer road trip, rambling from one pioneer picnic to another, all across the American West.

The stories told would be priceless.

— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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