Almost anyone who's gone through the fourth grade in Boise since 1991 has probably met Cal Clevenger and his wife Marla. You might vaguely remember a daylong field trip called Wagons Ho at Veterans Memorial Park, where you tried lassoing, or branded slices of stumps, or washed clothes in an old-fashioned tub and a washboard. Maybe you remember the Dutch-oven lunch with thick chunks of potato, peas, gravy and biscuits. Clevenger and his family have been the driving force behind the hands-on history lesson for 23 years now, and sat down with Boise Weekly to talk about almost two dozen years of offering a special kind of Western education.
How many kids go through your program every year?
We [Cal and his wife, Marla] do no less than 50 programs and no more than 60. It's seasonal, so in the spring, we'll do 40 programs. We have no less than 6,000 kids a year, and that's just the schools. We do a lot of civic events, too. We've gone as far as Mackay, Homedale and Mountain Home, as well as Sun Valley and Hailey and hit most of the schools in between. We're working on a winter indoor program to expand to Twin Falls schools.
And this is your full-time job?
There was a period of time where I lived every young man's dream. I was not only a fireman, I reserved for the Garden City Police and I was allowed to be a cowboy. They let me do the program with comp time, vacation time and holiday time. Now I'm retired from all those other things.
What inspired you to start this?
We started this as a project that our family could do as a group. We got the wagon from a car lot in Nampa, and all it came with was the wheels and the axle, two sideboards and the tongue and floor. We built everything else that summer with no power tools. Our kids, my generation, my parents' generation and my parents' parents' generation were all involved. For one summer, my wife and three kids and four generations worked on this wagon to make it original.
Then someone said, "You oughta try the schools."
How'd it go?
In my opinion, it was pretty much a disaster. I mean, the kids had fun, but we weren't organized. So we spent that winter trying to organize this program. Over the course of 23 years, we've boiled it down to this, the things you see today. Each station takes about the same amount of time so when we rotate, we're smooth.
What do you hope the kids get out of the field trip?
We want them to have a better understanding, a better appreciation of what it was like to be on the frontier between 150 and 200 years ago. We study between Lewis and Clark and the railroad period. The trick is that it's hands-on. It's fourth-graders, so the kids that don't do that well in the classroom excel with the hands-on activities. It can make learning history fun. History was not my favorite subject.
I was going to say, did you wish you had something like this when you were growing up?
I wish I did, because I was the kid that was sitting in the classroom, looking out the window, wishing he could be doing something else. I had no interest in reading a book and memorizing dates and times and names. If I could build a bow and arrow, if I could shoot a gun, or throw rope, that was fun and inspired me to do other things.
You actually sleep out here in Veterans Memorial Park when you visit?
Yep, right there in that teepee. We've got bathrooms, we've got running water, we've got the kitchen [pointing to the Dutch oven over a fire pit]. We're set. We live in a house like anybody else, in Caldwell, but when we hunt and when we camp, we generally take the wagon and the teepee. If it rained, the cowboys would sleep with their heads under the wagon and their feet by the fire. A lot of these kids, when they eat their lunch, they're sitting just like the cowboys would.
Do you have a favorite moment over the past 23 years?
I think that we get to enjoy the letters. [All the students have to write a letter at the end of the day.] And the letters are something that allows us to see ourselves, our program, through the eyes of a fourth-grader. Now if you look at the simple things we're doing today, most adults say, "Now why would you want to polish a piece of wood with a rock?" Or, "Why would you want to wash clothes or rope or do any of those things?" The things that we're doing today were either suggested to us by our own children or ideas that we got from kids that wrote us letters with suggestions. They tell us their likes and dislikes. They kind of direct us to where we are right now.
Cal, do you think you were born in the wrong era?
I think I would have very much enjoyed to be this age, as a fourth-grader, and be able to get on a wagon train and experience that adventure. I think I would have enjoyed that immensely. The thing that I would not have enjoyed was the lack of medicine and the lack of health care on your journey. I just turned 61. Most of your pioneers didn't last past 50. Thirty was usually the average.
Most people would never take an interest like this so far.
I've always been interested in rust and dust. I've collected things over the years that when I saw them, I didn't know what they were or what they were used for, but they were interesting to me. I found out later that those things were actually used on a wagon. There's a pride about those simple tools that you're using.
How long will you continue Wagons Ho?
: As long as we have our health. This is a very demanding program and we do a lot in a very short period of time, but I think it's made us bond as a family. It's not easy and there's a lot of fires that we have to put out and a lot of hoops we have to jump through, like permits for the parks and coordinating with schools and lost and found. There's a lot to it. More than what you see. The shopping, the repair. But we still have a drive. It's still exciting to us, because no two days are the same. It's been a : very rewarding journey.