Dressed for history
A visit to Philip Foster Farm is akin to stepping back in time, partially because of the costumes volunteers wear as they guide guests through the historic buildings that travelers on the Oregon Trail occupied.
The force behind many of the vests, aprons and dresses is Chris Bento, a longtime volunteer at the farm who was recently hired as the farm's head costume creator.
Bento has been involved at the National Historic Site for the past decade. Though she took a sewing class while in high school, she never expected to lead costuming at the farm.
"I was asked to make 20 dresses," she said, discussing one of her first projects in her new role. "The challenge grabbed my attention."
In 1840, Philip Foster and his wife, Mary Charlotte, established a 640-acre farm in Eagle Creek and hosted numerous pioneers traveling west on the historic Barlow Road along the Oregon Trail. Their property featured a store and places for weary travelers to stay.
The farm strives to create costumes that are representative of the time period.
"(I would) go on the internet and type '1850 girl's dress,' but we can't do that because we don't know what's authentic. The farm tries to be very authentic," Bento said.
One recent challenge Bento undertook was determining whether or not boys' shirts had collars during that time period. According to photos, it seems that some did, and others didn't.
"Things change," she said. "Even trying to define styles now, it depends on where you are, and who you are."
Typically, the farm's dresses for female volunteers are the same style — a bit of gathering at the waist and long, flowing skirts.
"There's lots and lots of fabric (in the skirt)," Bento said. "That seems to be the universal thing. You look at pictures and lots of women had that."
There were many different parts of women's outfits during the time period. Typically, when dressing for formal occasions, a woman would wear pantaloons, petticoats, a chemise, a hoop, an outer skirt, a jacket or vest and an apron. For casual affairs, adjustable housedresses, known as wrap dresses, were popular — and practical — because they could be adjusted in size during pregnancy.
"You didn't just wear the skirt. You had all of these petticoats underneath," Bento said. "Most everything they wore had a reason. We think we want to wear it because we want to be cute, but the apron was very functional, and the bonnet they wore to keep the sun out. I think everything was probably very practical, as opposed to ornamental."
In addition to creating costumes for the farm's volunteers, Bento has also been involved with teaching people to sew during the farm's annual summer camp.
Though the farm's sewing machine can be tricky to use, "some of the kids have been here a number of years, and they know how to use it."
"They really like using the machine," she said. "Last (summer) they made a quilt, sewing squares together."
As the farm's costume designer, Bento is looking forward to collaborating with others.
"I have enjoyed making the dresses. I'm hoping to get volunteers that will be able to help with the sewing," she said.
Bento initially became involved with Philip Foster Farm because her niece was a volunteer. Over the years, she's often worked with her children.
"The boys would come down and help the blacksmith, and the girls would come down and help with the tours. The girls kind of stuck with it more over the years," she said.
The annual event at the farm Bento looks forward to the most is Mary Charlotte's Garden Party, which features a fashion show highlighting clothing from the era. One of her favorite volunteering-related memories is playing Charity Lamb — the first woman convicted of murder in the Oregon territory — during the haunted farm event that occurs every Halloween.
Bento added that volunteering with her children has been a positive experience.
"I think it's a great opportunity for parents who are trying to find things to do with their kids to come down and volunteer," she said. "It's been great for the kids. (Giving) tours, public speaking and interacting with the kids was a great experience for them."
Bento encouraged anyone interested in volunteering to try it out.
"It seems like there's whatever you like to do," she said. "There's sewing, you've got the tours, there's a lot of opportunities. There are things you can do in the background and things you can do up front."
Volunteer on the farm
Philip Foster Farm will host a training day for those who wish to volunteer at the National Historic Site from 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday, April 4, at 22725 S.E. Eagle Creek Road.