My oldest, age 7, is a budding environmentalist. He scorns acid-rain producing factories and pollution-causing cars on the highway (even as we are driving). So what better way to take him back to a simpler, greener time than to visit the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site?
My son, 5-year-old daughter and I began our visit at the reconstructed 1840s era fort and village, previously operated as a trading post by the British Hudson’s Bay Company. It’s a 5- to 10-minute walk from the visitor center, or you can drive down and park closer. Either way, be sure you take a stroll through the lovely working garden just outside the gates. During our visit, the gourds were on full display, along with colorful late-summer flowers.
Once you enter (admission is $5 for adults, free for children), you’re immediately transported back in time to the 1840s. Nearly all of the dozen or so buildings in the village were open during our visit — from the counting house where employees ran the accounting to the kitchen. In many, there were demonstrations being performed by helpful and informative volunteers in period costume. We got to see a blacksmith making a ladle, who used a large manual bellow to make the fire hotter, then carefully molded the red-hot metal. We saw a carpenter carving an ornate table leg. We tried to guess which animals various pelts came from, and marveled at how soft they were.
After learning about the ways of the 1840s, we climbed a few flights of stairs to the top of the bastion, a look-out tower complete with replicas of cannons and cannonballs (safely secured to the floor) pointed out the guard windows. You can get a nice view of the top of the Columbia River Interstate Bridge and the land around it. (We saw no approaching enemies on our visit, however.)
Before we left, we made sure to check out the jail. The kids were fascinated by the dark wooden building with grates across the small windows. The fascination only grew when I explained what the empty bucket was there for. We made a hurried exit after that.
I was surprised when I looked at my watch and saw that we had been exploring the grounds for a few hours already. While the fort and village don’t seem that large, there’s a lot of information there (thanks to clear and plentiful plaques and the volunteers), and a lot of hands-on activities to explore. The counting house in particular has a number of kid-friendly activities. The exhibit on excavating artifacts especially piqued my kids’ interest. And we made plans to get out our shovels and start excavating the backyard when we got home.
We stopped in a shady area for a picnic lunch before heading a few minutes further on to the free-of-charge Pearson Air Museum, a must for any airplane enthusiast. The museum houses several airplanes, from the “how could that possibly fly?!” to the “can I ride that one?” There’s also a wonderful children’s area out front, with a wind tunnel (complete with mini parachutes) and lots of aviation-themed books.
We didn’t have a chance to visit and learn more about the military history of the base — including the barracks and Officers Row. And although there is a playground there, my kids were too tired from their morning of exploring to play much on it. There was simply too much to see for one day. Next visit.
The verdict from my 7-year-old? A definite thumbs up. And it’s given him lots of good ideas for how to live a greener life at home, from tending the garden to being careful about what “artifacts” get inadvertently dropped on the ground. But after seeing the jail, he’s feeling pretty good about living in the 21st Century. Indoor plumbing and electricity are pretty tough to pass up after all.
Fort Vancouver National Historic Site
1001 E. Fifth St., Vancouver, Washington
Admission: $5 ages 16 and up; free 15 and under
Pearson Air Museum
1115 E. Fifth St., Vancouver, Washington