By Ron VandenBoom
Three Cornish game hens rest browning under the hood of a reflector oven as a pot of beans boils gently on a bed of hot coals. Sitting in the bottom of a Dutch oven is an apple pie that was also baked in a Dutch oven with coals placed over the top.
Cindy Torok uses modern-day tongs to lift thin slices of fry bread out of a skillet of boiling grease and, after sprinkling on a little powdered sugar, passes them out to the tourists who stopped to marvel at her early pioneer kitchen.
"These would have been methods used in a home or a fort," she told curious visitors to her kitchen. "It's not something that you would have taken out."
Torok's was just one of the displays and exhibitions open to the public during the second annual Touch the Trail of Lewis and Clark celebration in Virgelle on Friday.
The event, according to organizer Don Sorensen, is to commemorate the day almost 200 years ago that Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery camped about 1.5 miles above what is now the Virgelle Ferry.
The Corps of Discovery camped on the night of June 4, Sorensen said, at Stone Wall Creek or Eagle Creek about 15 miles south of current-day Virgelle and came upstream to the Virgelle site the following day.
Sorensen said he started the event last year in an effort to remember the upcoming bicentennial of Lewis and Clark. He plans on continuing the celebration through the 2005 anniversary date.
Torok and her husband, Paul, are members of the Rocky Mountain Mountain Men organization that studies and tried to preserve the knowledge and traditions of some of the region's earliest white settlers.
Paul Torok has collected many one-of-a-kind artifacts from early life on the Montana plains and many of his collectables were spread out on a blanket for visitors at the celebration to see. Some of the items are re-creations that Torok has painstakingly endeavored to make look original.
"Before we do anything we research it and find out as much as we can about it, and then we start on it," he said.
One item Torok showed interested visitors was a block of money tea.
Money tea, he explained, was an early trading item that was pressed into a large block of tea and divided into sections that could be broken off and used as currency in trades.
The tea, while perhaps hundreds of years old, is still usable today. The user can shave off small slices of the brick and let it soak in hot water until it becomes tea.
"You have to really like tea," Torok said of the dark, bitter, pungent flavor of the brew.
Torok's display contained various items used by Native Americans including arrowheads, scrapers, and various types of beadwork while also containing many items used by white men during the time of the mountain men and Lewis and Clark.
A plug of old tobacco and a voyager pipe are among the items Torok displays on his blanket. He explains that crews, such as that that composed the Corps of Discovery, were entitled to two breaks in their work schedule every day.
"The break would last as long as it took to smoke a pipe of tobacco," he said.
But again, Torok has tried the plug of tobacco he shows to visitors and comments that if you ever want to stop smoking, "this is the tobacco that would do it."
Fire-starting kits, a mussel-loading rifle, and various pouches and beaded bags round out Torok's display.
Another amateur history buff and member of the Montana Plainsmen Black Powder Club is Vicki Gondeiro Speaks With Thunder, a seamstress who specializes in antique and Native American dress.
Lewis and Clark started their trip up the Missouri dressed in hunting frocks and flannel shirts, she said. It didn't take long before constant moisture and hard work turned their clothing into rags.
By the time Lewis and Clark reached the Mandan Indian villages in South Dakota, they were in desperate need of the buckskin clothing supplied by the Mandan, she said.
Speaks With Thunder displayed the various types of clothing used by the Corps of Discovery and described the effort that went into its manufacture.
A primitive weapons demonstration by Bob Gerritson of Billings also entertained a large crowd of spectators that watched as he threw atlatls, shot arrows, fired the blow gun, and launched a boomerang. All the while Gerritson entertained the crowd with humorous stories of adventures he experienced as he tried out the various weapons in his collection.
A reading of passages from the Lewis and Clark Journals by Big Sandy High School junior Brett Runnion, a visit by Virgelle Postmaster Edna Halley, and a pitchfork fondue dinner rounded out this year's event.
Next year's Touch the Trail celebration will take place on a Saturday when Sorensen expects even larger crowds to pay it a visit.