COMMENTARY
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O Pioneers!

Respecting those who cleared the way

By Hilary Berg

The term “pioneer” is used often in this state. Of course, the Oregon Trail has much to do with the residents’ overall affection for this moniker.

The historic route west — approximately a 2,170-mile trek beginning around the Missouri River and ending in Oregon — was initially passable only on foot or horseback. It was established by fur traders, trappers and explorers from 1811 to 1840. They were genuine pioneers.

These intrepid characters literally cleared the way for the “settlers” who followed with their families in big-wheeled wagon trains — the first, organized in 1836 in Independence, Missouri, traveling to Fort Hall, Idaho.

As time went on, more passages were established, eventually leading to the Willamette Valley, where the Oregon Trail officially ended.

From the 1840s through the 1880s, thousands trekked westward, carrying only a few belongings and supplies for the journey. Life on the trail proved dirty, difficult and often dangerous, but as time went on, the journey became easier thanks to the earlier “pioneers” who worked out the kinks — or ruts, perhaps.

As to the wine connection, “pioneer” has been used to describe early growers in our modern era of wine — post-Prohibition. I believe for a select few, this designation is appropriate. For people like Richard Sommer, David Lett and a handful of others, the description fits. However, for those riding the wave soon after, perhaps “settler” is more accurate.

I intend no disrespect to all the early Oregon wine players, but considering everyone a pioneer dilutes the accomplishments, the vision, the many trials and errors made by those clearing the way for others.

Why mention pioneers in this letter when there are no stories about the good ol’ days of the mid-’60s and early ’70s?

If you travel east — heading the opposite direction of the Oregon Trail — you’ll discover a small group of growers planting unfamiliar vines in an unexpected place: Central Oregon.

The person leading the way, clearing the path? Kerry Damon, Oregon wine’s newest  “pioneer.”

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