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Curtis Heritage Education Center moves its large collection of 1800s horse-drawn vehicles, artifacts

PMG PHOTO: CASSANDRA ROSHU - Curtis Heritage Education Center showcases many different and unique wagons in their collection, including a shepherds wagon, picnic wagon, drummers wagon and milk wagon, One of the largest collections of 1800s horse-drawn vehicles and artifacts in the nation and celebrated its move to Oregon City with an open house on June 4. PMG PHOTO: CASSANDRA ROSHU - Curtis Heritage Education Center's stagecoach showcases a leather-strap suspension system to give passengers a smoother ride, which was one of the first technologies that the U.S. exported.

Located at the Berry Hill Shopping Center, at the intersection of Highway 213 and Beavercreek Road, the Curtis Heritage Education Center wagon collection is not open to visitors from the public, but it will be making an appearance on July 16 at this year's First City Celebration in downtown Oregon City. The wagons had previously been housed in a warehouse on Highway 212 in Clackamas.PMG PHOTO: CASSANDRA ROSHU - Sleighs are among the many types of wagons in storage at the Curtis Heritage Education Center, which hopes to open a museum to the public.

CHEC wagons were bought and restored by the original owners of RV business Curtis Trailers, Betty Lou and Myron Curtis, and sourced from all over the United States, as well as Europe, and were often found in family barns. When the owners died, their children took over the business and decided that the wagons should be preserved and put under a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which has now made a mission to create educational opportunities that demonstrate the historical significance of animal-powered vehicles to stimulate innovators of tomorrow.

"When we teach innovation, what we teach is that innovation is basically building blocks. So, whatever your background is, those are your building blocks. When you take that to the next thing that you do, some of those building blocks are applicable to other problems in other areas. And that creates a building block for the next person," said CHEC Vice President Tim McCann.

CHEC's wagon collection consists of many examples of innovation, like the addition of a fifth wagon wheel that can spin 360 degrees. The wheels allowed wagons maneuver in constrained areas when cities started developing and adding narrower streets.

Mechanisms that represent the evolution of firefighting are included in CHEC's collection. McCann explained that firefighters went from throwing buckets of water to using water from a pump. Wealthy people with estates needed to be able to fight fires if they occurred, so they created a pump that would take water out of a lake and use it to put out the fires in their houses. Then, people started to investigate how to fight bigger fires, so they developed a larger wagon that carried water buckets, hose fittings and water mains made out of hollowed-out trees. PMG PHOTO: CASSANDRA ROSHU - In addition to covered wagons often used on the Oregon Trail, Curtis Heritage Education Center has Sicilian donkey carts, sleighs, hearses and a couple of pony carts that were used for children to play with.

"All these things are little building blocks, innovations that keep accumulating and that's kind of the knowledge of mankind in general," McCann said.

Building blocks found in wagon technology, McCann said, can provide a reference to solve a current problem that you have.

"You'll find these little solutions in, a lot of times, what somebody else has done in another area entirely that has nothing to do with you. Like Otis working in a wagon factory and coming up with an elevator break for high-rise buildings," McCann said.PMG PHOTO: CASSANDRA ROSHU - An ornate living wagon at Curtis Heritage Education Center is also called a horse-drawn vardo wagon, traditionally used British Romanichal Travelers as their home during second half of the 19th century and early 20th century.

McCann said that he tries to teach innovation by telling kids that there's not necessarily a right or wrong answer.

"Come up with whatever you think might work and if it doesn't, then move on," he said.

Whenever McCann and CHEC President Don Scott visit fourth-grade classrooms, they bring their 107-year-old Oregon Trail wagon. They like to interact with the kids in such a way where they try to figure out the answer themselves, asking them questions like what they think is innovative about the wagons. This method gets them involved and makes a bigger difference.

To help the young students understand how taxing the journey was for Oregon Trail travelers, McCann mentions how he would have the kids calculate how many steps it would take to get from Missouri to Oregon City. The trip was long, dusty, rainy and muddy; people had to walk about 15 miles a day to Oregon before a season of harsh weather conditions set in.

"We've got images of when they got to the not-quite Oregon City area on Mount Hood, where they had to descend. That was the worst part, the Rocky Mountains weren't hard at all," McCann said. "But when they had to descend, sometimes it was almost like cliff faces, they had to go over. So, what they did was disconnect the animals and people and they would take them down these trails to the bottom. Then they would have the wagons lowered using a block and tackle or just a rope wrapped around a tree and lower these wagons down this sheer cliff face."

CHEC relies on donations to keep up with the rental fee of the warehouse where the vehicles are stored and hopes to one day have sufficient funding to put them on display in a museum for the public to enjoy and interact with. More information about the organization and donations can be found at

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