Last week, I introduced my two month workamping experience at the Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge in Sumpter, Oregon. Today, I want to share some of the special events that took place while I was there.
For such a small town, half way up a mountain, your first thought was probably the same as mine. How the heck does such a tiny community, 26 miles from any real population center, draw enough of a crowd to support events? Now, I have no idea what the answer to that question is. The only thing I can say is that it does. Before I get into the events, let me share a bit about the town itself.
In 1862, a few South Carolina men who had gone AWOL from the Civil War were on their way to California’s gold rush when they discovered gold in the gravel of an Oregon creek. They decided to stay and mine. They named the area Sumpter after Fort Sumter. Different stories abound about why the “p” found its way into the name. Regardless of the reason, the town of Sumpter, Oregon, was born.
Today, the town supports two bars, two dispensaries (if you can believe that!), a few hotels and the average age of its 200 citizens is 69. It is considered a living ghost town because at its height, Sumpter bragged 5,000 citizens during Oregon’s second gold rush in the early part of the last century. It was of significant enough importance that there was talk of making the town the state capitol. But after the town, with its wooden roads, burned down in 1917, it never really recovered. The dredge didn’t employ as many as you’d think. In fact, it only took 3 men to operate the huge piece of machinery so it wasn’t enough to sustain a town.
Sumpter, I suspect, is on its way from being a living ghost town to becoming an actual ghost town. The ranger I worked with said that five years ago when he started, the average age was 64. You can do a little math to figure out that people don’t leave since five years later the average age is now 69. This means younger people aren’t moving in which means the current citizens aren’t being replaced and, when you consider the average lifespan of an American is almost 79…well you get the idea.
As for the events…keep in mind these are what I experienced during my two months. There are others during the other ten months of the year.
Super Cool and Unique Concert
One of the complaints I had about workamping at Kam Wah Chung was the fact I verified with the ranger that the job was 20 hours per week and ended up working 32 hours per week. At the Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge, the ranger was always aware that workampers were volunteers and went out of his way to make sure the experience was a positive one.
I walked into the gold dredge assignment knowing I signed up for 30 hours per week. In reality, I was assigned 24 hours per week (10 – 4, four days per week). It proved really nice both when my sister visited and in general so I could work on the blog, the book edits and the job where I actually earn an income.
So, on the third and fourth days when the ranger asked if I wanted to work into the evening for the concert (though he made it clear I didn’t have to), of course, I said yes. I did it, not only to help out but for the chance to see this really cool and unique event.
In a Landscape
Okay, let me try to explain this thing. Classical pianist, Hunter Noack, had the idea to provide Carnegie Hall quality concerts in natural setting. In 2016, the nonprofit In a Landscape was born. A nine foot Steinway is trucked in, set up on a staged and tuned. He plays the concert and then the process is reversed and moved to the next location. He holds an average of 30 concerts a year (though 43 in 2021) in a wide variety of settings.
The most interesting and unexpected part is that Noack strongly encourages his audience to get up and move around, to experience the wonder of the music while moving through the environment. The obvious question is how the heck can the audience hear him playing if they wander away from the stage, especially if the expectation is a Carnegie Hall quality experience. Here is the answer from their website:
To meet the acoustical challenges of performing in the wild, music is transmitted to concert-goers via wireless headphones. No longer confined to seats, you can explore the landscape, wander through secret glens, lie in sunny meadows, and roam old growth forests.
If You Get the Chance
Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge served as a concert location a couple of times. I haven’t heard if the concert will return this year. But you can go to the website. The 2022 season schedule will be announced sometime during the month (March 2022). If you get the opportunity to attend a Hunter Noack concert–whether at the Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge or elsewhere–jump on it. You won’t be sorry.
Not only is it a unique concert event (for more than a quarter of the audience, it is their first experience with a live classical concert), the music is beautiful and so clear from the headphones. You feel as if you are sitting right next to the piano no matter where you listen from.
I was lucky enough to hear and watch the concert for both of the days he played in Sumpter. It was a fantastic way to begin my two month stint at the dredge.
Sumpter Flea Market
This one is hard to wrap your mind around in terms of numbers. Every year over Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends (Friday through Monday) as well as the Saturday, Sunday and Monday closest to the Fourth of July, Sumpter hosts a giant flea market. How giant? In a recent year, they boasted 140 vendors and 10,000 visitors over one four-day weekend. That is not a typo. That’s a lot of people crowded into a town only a few blocks long.
It’s said to be one of the largest flea markets in all of Oregon Not sure if that’s true to just self promotion. Nevertheless, it is big. Memorial Day sees the largest crowds, followed by the Fourth of July, followed by the Labor Day one.
Is it mostly junk? Yeah, probably. Since my work schedule coincided with the event, I didn’t actually make it up to the street to see things. But that was fine by me. As a minimalist and RVer, I don’t need to be tempted to buy something I don’t need.
However, someone bought the ranger a bag of fresh kettle corn that he shared with me and it was awful tasty. But, you already know, fair-type food is hard to beat. Just don’t think about the calories.
In the last days of the state park’s season, there are two Halloween events. One at the dredge and one on the streets of town.
Local volunteers spend days turning the dredge (admittedly, already a slight creepy place) into haunted dredge. Even though it is at the dredge, it is not a dredge event. Basically, the town borrows the dredge, decorates it, creates the walk-through flow, recruits volunteers to scare the crap of attendees. It’s so scary in fact, it is not recommended for kids.
Nearly 1,000 people attended while I was there.
You want to hear something funny, not funny? I’m such a dork. I was there for two months and had the attitude that there was plenty of time to take photos. In the end, in the last days, I ran around snapping photos. That included the inside of the dredge which, by then, was decorated for Halloween. So, it really sucks that I don’t have good photos inside the dredge. I guess just like playing hide and seek (from last week’s post), it just means I need to return.
I always try to look on the positive side of things. In this case, I got good dredge Halloween photos. But the inside photos of the dredge will be scant for next week’s photo essay post.
Trunk or Treat
Apparently, trunk or treat is a thing. I’d never heard of it until Sumpter. In a few words, a bunch of cars get together and hand out candy from the trunk of their cars. The ranger and the person who runs the railroad (more on that in a bit) came up with the idea a few years ago. It was fun and small and the cars parked in the parking lot of the dredge.
Others took over the idea and moved the event to the main street of town in an effort to promote local businesses. The ranger represented the dredge, giving away candy to the kids up on Main Street. Lots of families with kids in costumes make their way up the mountain from Baker City to attend.
Like the Flea Market, I staffed the Visitors Center during the event so I never saw the festivities up on Main Street. But many of the families made their way down to the dredge for the candy I passed out.
Unlike the Haunted Dredge which takes place after dark, Trunk or Treat takes place on a Saturday afternoon. It was great fun to see all the costumes. Remember, as an Alaskan, at Halloween I barely ever saw costumes of trick or treaters because, by the end of October, kids must bundle up in winter gear. So, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing everyone dressed up.
Trunk or treat was a really fun and festive way to end my workamping experience in Sumpter.
A tourist train passes through Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge State Park. It can be confusing to visitors because it would seem like the two are connected or run by the same entity. But that is not the case. The gold dredge is part of the Oregon State Park system. The train, called the Sumpter Valley Railroad is its own nonprofit.
Two or three weekends during the season, the 45-minute train ride runs from McEwen to Sumpter. It’s not a long journey, less than six miles. At McEwen you find the the shops and equipment storage (including the three different engines used). At the Sumpter depot, you find a gift shop. Then, it’s only about an eighth of a mile from the depot to the dredge.
As a volunteer, I received a complementary pass to go on the train. The ranger kindly drove me to McEwen so I could ride the train back to Sumpter. I didn’t really need the roundtrip experience.
On occasion they boost the experience by turning the ride into a train heist. That was the day I rode. Just before the dredge, bandits on horseback emerge from the trees, stop the train and steal the box of gold on board.
On the In the Landscape website’s photos of 2021 (which is the link I gave you above), you’ll see the guests who arrived to the concert via the railroad. Another musician accompanied the train and they sang I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad.
Next week I will share the full range of photos from my two months at the Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge in the town of Sumpter, Oregon. Watch for them.
Links to Relevant Posts:
- Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge Workamping
- Workamping: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How
- John Day, Oregon
- Tour of Kam Wah Chung Historic Site
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