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Lights, Action, History

The High Desert Museum living history volunteers live and breathe characters from the past

There’s never time for Frank Graham, 70, to get bored in retirement. He’s taken on several different personalities to keep himself occupied. There’s the army sergeant, the sheriff, the train station agent, the sawmill operator and finally, Santa Claus.

No, Graham isn’t a spy or into theatre. He’s a volunteer for the living history programs at the High Desert Museum. The cultural and natural history museum south of Bend has a team of people playing roles from the area’s past to better illustrate to visitors the lives of early settlers. While visiting the museum, it’s not uncommon to encounter a living person wearing a full-length cotton dress, or a sheriff’s badge and side-slung six-shooter. Don’t be surprised if their dialect seems right out of a Western movie either—volunteers, like Graham, take their historic performances very seriously.

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The Five (Historical) Faces of Frank

Standing before a beautiful mural of a towering high desert butte and a cart loaded with cartography supplies in the Museum’s Spirit of the West exhibit is army sergeant Frank Graham of 1855, who’s the military escort for the Columbia Southern Railway expedition survey team. “We explore the Western lands here, and as a military escort, I’m more of a scientist, naturalist and cartographer,” he explains authoritatively, surveying the landscape behind him. “We use rods and chains to measure off the land.”

Playing a sergeant in the military comes naturally to Graham, who has a commanding presence at a height of six inches shy of seven feet and who in real life grew up all over the world as a child of an Army soldier. After graduating from the University of Oregon with a history degree, Graham decided he would also join the military, and is a proudly decorated Vietnam veteran who retired as an Army Lieutenant Colonel after 26 years of service. He’s been volunteering at the Museum for 15 years.

As a self-proclaimed “history nut,” Graham loves researching his fictional characters in detail, bringing as much real life history as he can into his roles. He meticulously scouted out the most authentic U.S. Army uniforms of 1855, right down to having exact reproduction brass buttons made for his uniform. But with authenticity comes some drawbacks. “Those wool uniforms are bloody hot in the summer,” says Graham with a wink.

If Graham tires of the wool, he has several other choices in wardrobe, one for each persona. A few dioramas beyond in the Spirit of the West exhibit is the mining boomtown of Silver City, Idaho, circa 1885. Here, Graham becomes the law. Visitors find him in a sheriff’s hat in front of an iron fence, greeting them with questions. “Did you ride your own horse here today? Or did you ride the stage?”

Silver City was the first city in the territory to have telegraph service and a daily newspaper—both are evidenced in the exhibit. At least $60 million dollars worth of precious metals were mined in the area, and the Museum’s Silver City has a Wells Fargo Bank and the Chinese Hai Lo Mercantile. “Silver City sits on the edge of these Owyhee Mountains,” says Graham, rubbing his long white beard. “Thousands have come here to seek their fortunes in gold, silver and ore.”

Graham’s other three personas round out his repertoire—at last year’s “All Aboard! Railroads in the High Desert” exhibit, he was the train station agent for the Columbia Southern Railway in Shaniko, Oregon, 1904. At the Lazinka Sawmill exhibit on the Museum’s outdoor grounds, Graham wears the well-worn, pine-scented, sap-stained work cap of a burly steam-powered-sawmill operator.

But the character he loves playing comes around only once a year—Father Christmas. With his long white beard and green flowing floor-length velvet robe and cape, Graham makes an imposing yet gentle presence. “It’s the Victorian era, before there were any mall Santas,” he explains, saying he finds this role the most rewarding because of the wide-eyed children who gaze upon him in awe. The role exemplifies what living history can do to enhance the interpretation of the past through a personal connection. “I love creating a relationship with the visitors, and working to see some spark of interest in them. I love to see them having a good time.”

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Tippling Along the Oregon Trail

In the Spirit of the West diorama, visitors encounter Caroline, a weary Oregon Trail traveler. She sits in a slump next to a broken-down covered wagon, with a large wooden wheel off to the side. Her face is partially shrouded by her prairie bonnet. In her hands are a flask and a bible. In the background, a baby wails. Caroline opens the small clear glass bottle and takes a long swig of the caramel-colored liquid.

Anna McGranahan, 85, has been playing Caroline, the weary traveler, at the Museum for more than 11 years. “So let’s see, Caroline is fond of whiskey and also smokes a pipe,” says McGranahan with a smile. “She’s drinking on the trail, and you would too, if you had to go through all the hardships she’s had to go through in 1853.” But she admits that on set, it’s only tea she swills.

She based her character, Caroline, off of her own great grandmother. “It was known my great grandmother truly was a tippler,” quips McGranahan. “Every summer, I go back to the cemetery where she’s buried and apologize to her for portraying her in such a manner, but she really was a character for her time.”

McGranahan represents the era, and her grandmother, in dress, too. “I even wear her original petticoat, underneath my costume,” says McGranahan, gently raising the hem of her long prairie dress to show off the frilly white petticoat beneath. “But I don’t wear a corset on the trail. You know some women did, can you believe that? Caroline was a liberated woman for that time.”

McGranahan researched the history of women on the Oregon Trail through historic archived diaries for her role.

“These women were fantastic, and realistic about the trail. They weren’t blinded by the dream of the great West,” says McGranahan. “Their men were out for the big adventure and to homestead land until they owned it, but the women always knew they’d do all the work they’ve always done, but now it would be done outside.” On the trail, everyone walked alongside the wagons.” Each family could only carry 2000 pounds on the wagon, which included their food, supplies and tools. At a couple of army forts along the way, they could resupply their stores with coffee, tobacco, bacon and whiskey. “Did you know one out of every ten people taking the Oregon Trail died? It’s a miracle any of them made it.”

McGranahan sometimes takes off her grandmotherly bonnet, slips into a rather sexy, early 1900s dress, and plays Beulah Mayhew, a “Madame” that kept a house of ill repute in Silver City. “On her way out west her first husband drowned in the Colorado River, and when she got here, she had to start a business,” says McGranahan, who, like all THDM living history volunteers, comes up with her own storyline which is then researched for historical accuracy and vetted by the museum’s staff. “Beulah ends up marrying a wealthy doctor, and they buy a three story home with indoor plumbing, much to the envy of the neighbors.”

In McGranahan’s real life, she has been a hard-working wife to a retired local physician, and mother to eight children. All her children are grown with their own kids, which gives McGranahan lots of time to play either Caroline or Beulah. “What I love best is being very still on my stool, and people think I’m a mannequin, and then I’ll say, ‘hello there’, and sometimes they jump back scared to death,” says McGranahan with a hearty laugh. “We’re always supposed to stay in character, but one day a little girl, probably about four years old, asked me a question about my role, and I didn’t have an answer, and she told me I should Google it. This made me laugh so hard; can you imagine what people on the Oregon Trail would’ve done if you’d have said, ‘Google it’?”

Sourdough Sam Mans the Stage

Sourdough Sam drives a stagecoach over dangerous rutted roads, sometimes fording a river or two along the route, frequently in inclement weather, all while calming spooked horses and preventing stagecoach hold-ups. “All in a days work,” says John Maloney, who plays Sourdough Sam at the Concord Stagecoach exhibit by the Museum’s entrance.

Maloney, at 89 years old, looks every bit the part of a rugged stagecoach driver, with his bushy white moustache, cowboy hat, real buckskin shirt and heeled cowboy boots. “Back in the late 1800s, there were more than 500 stage coach miles in this area,” says Maloney. The coach line went to Prineville, LaPine, Bend, Madras, Shaniko, Klamath Falls and other towns in the high desert region. “The coach models were available to hold anywhere from four to 12 passengers, and the Concord stage used four to six horses depending on the size of the coach and terrain.”

Maloney looks so authentic some museum visitors have thought he was a statue, and will touch his shoulder to feel the buckskin costume, or have their kids sit on his lap.

When Maloney flinches, they get a scare and Maloney gets a laugh. His acting skills may channel an old friend and Southern California neighbor of his—the ultimate idealized cowboy, John Wayne. “John was one of the nicest, most sincere friends I ever had,” he explains, adding that it was the Duke who asked him to do stunt work in some of his films. “I was, at the time, the president of my judo club, so he thought that would be a perfect fit because I knew how to fall without hurting myself.”

Maloney, who worked as an aeronautical aircraft engineer, never quit his real profession for life in Hollywood, but when the Duke would call, asking for him to help out on the silver screen, Maloney happily obliged. Hollywood lingers in his life—even today, he says, chuckling, some people think he’s actor Sam Elliot’s look alike.

Maloney came to the high desert 25 years ago to retire to ranching, with the freedom to roam on his horses. “I love the country life,” says Maloney with a sigh. Still, though he gave up ranching and moved into Bend several years ago, he says he doesn’t want to ever really retire. He loves the living history volunteer work he does at the museum, which he’s been doing for 16 years. Most Saturdays, you can catch him as Sam in front of the stagecoach in the Museum’s foyer. He’s happy to take a photo with you or share stagecoach history. “To keep passengers and cargo safe on the stagecoach line, drivers carried guns,” he explains. Maloney slides his handgun carefully out of his leather hip holster and says, “This six-shooter was a gun John (Wayne) gave to me.”

With that, Maloney holsters his unloaded six-shooter safely on his right side, and as at the conclusion of any great play, the actor sidles off stage.

Living history volunteers can be found on set at THDM nearly every day of the week in summer and on weekends during the rest of the year. Take a trip into the past by having a conversation with one of them soon—or better yet, slip into character yourself. After all, the Wild West is full of great stories just waiting to come to life.

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The High Desert Museum Volunteers

The High Desert Museum boasts a crew of 82 volunteers working annually in Living History. This includes folks who greet visitors to the By Hand Through Memory contemporary Native American exhibit, play in the Thorn Hollow String Band, those who run the High Desert Ranger Station in the summer, and the more typical volunteer, who can be found giving tours through The Spirit of the West or at the 1904 Ranch in period costume.

Across the entire Museum, 238 active volunteers contribute time. Some come weekly or even more frequently; some help out on special events only. In 2015, volunteers donated over 25,000 hours collectively!

For more information or to volunteer, contact Shannon Campbell, Volunteer Coordinator at The High Desert Museum, at 541-382-4754.

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