Fourteen students from the Madera area and their chaperones will leave New Year’s Day to join counterparts from Texas to retrace part of the journey of a Texas gold-seeker who journeyed from Texas to Mariposa in the early 1850s.
The educational project, which will be conducted in mule-drawn covered wagons, is a program of the Madera County Historical Society, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Madera Unified School District, and other historical societies, schools and private ranchers.
Bill Coate, who teaches 6th grade at Sierra Vista Elementary School, and who also writes history pieces for The Madera Tribune, is one of the chaperones, as well as one of the key organizers of the trip.
Coate said he and the rest of the contingent from Madera would leave for Texas from the Madera Courthouse Museum steps New Year’s Day.
On Jan. 23, near Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in Central Texas, they will leave horses and wagons behind and motor to the Texas Capitol building, where they will present copies of the Huff diary to government officials in a ceremony on Jan. 25. The journey will culminate Jan. 27 in Houston with a ceremony at Huff’s grave in Glenwood Cemetery, where the diary will be returned to his descendants, according to information from Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Two seven-passenger vans will carry the 14 students from San Joaquin Valley and Madera schools. Coate and Betty Tietgens of Dos Palos will drive the vans and act as chaperones.
Coate said their destination, which they hope to reach Jan. 2, is the Sernes Ranch near El Paso, Texas, where the three-week recreating of Huff’s trek will begin.
“There’s a big ranch, a holding ranch that we’re coming into,” Coate said.
There, they will rendezvous with 14 students from Slider, Texas, Middle School who will make the trek with the Maderans.
Valley students who will make the trek are Ronnie Zaragosa and Sharon Molina of Martin Luther King Middle School; Taylor Bese-Rider and Ashley Owens of Berenda School; Maria Salazar of Sierra Vista School; Jacob Sheeter, Ali Spina and Mike Willey of St. Joachim School; Fredy Cisneros of Bryant School in Dos Palos; Katy Diedrich and Mikaela Gamboni of St. Joseph Catholic School in Firebaugh; Aidee Guzman and Rocio Sandoval of Firebaugh Middle School; and William Coate of McSwain Elementary School in Atwater.
Groups of 14 students from various Texas schools will also join the wagon train temporarily at several points.
The idea for the trip took root about two years ago when Coate came into possession for the second time of the 300,000-word diary that gold-seeker and adventurer William Huff kept when he came to Mariposa from Houston, Texas, to mine for gold in the Sierra foothills from 1850-53.
Coate, one of the founders of the Madera Method of teaching history - which immerses students in past events by allowing them to do the things people in history did - decided to pursue the trip when he reread Huff’s accounts of his experiences.
The two-volume diary deals with Huff’s travels in Texas, Mexico and into California. El Paso was a staging area for wagon trains of the argonauts, as gold seekers were known, heading west.
Texas educators became involved when Coate sought help getting across public and private land in Texas.
“Ray Barger, one of our mule drivers, gave me the name and number of the executive director of Texas Parks and Wildlife, Bob Cook,” said Coate. “I called him and set up an appointment to go to Austin to meet with him. and when I got there, he had a committee all set up to help.
“At that meeting, one of the people he assigned to help me was Ken Pollard, who supervises trail rides in Texas.
“At some point in our discussion, someone suggested, ‘would you like to take some Texas kids along?’ That’s where the idea of taking Texas kids came from.”
Coate said the Texas people had been very cooperative.
“Cooperative is not the word,” he said. “They have been pivotal.”
He said they provided access to the old trail and supplied much of the equipment, such as sleeping bags and tents, that would be needed.
Coate said volunteers from Madera, though, were the ones who were making the trip possible. He said the Madera Method wagon train crew members were taking their vacation time to make the trip possible.
“This wagon trip is powered by a tremendous sense of volunteerism and community generosity,” he said. “Every method of the Madera Method wagon train crew has taken their vacation to make this trip- possible. In addition, private businesses and organizations in Madera and the Madera have given thousands of dollars to make the trip possible.”
Each morning on the trail, the students will conduct readings from Huff’s diary covering the upcoming day’s travel. They will discuss diary segments in terms of content and vocabulary. But the readings will also prepare the students to closely compare what they are about to see with what Huff wrote more than 150 years ago.
The students will help harness the mules and look to the wagons, learn to drive the mules, help pitch camp every night and generally experience as much of authentic 1800’s pioneer life as possible. Students will take notes along the way, and each day will record their thoughts on a tape recorder.
During the trail ride, students in California and Texas will be able to follow the journey online and will be invited to pose questions to the kids on the trail via the TPWD Web site (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/expltx/eft).
At the end of the trail, students will return to their classes and collaborate via e-mail to compose a book about their experiences titled "Following the Steps of William P. Huff," which will be published in book form and online.
Coate said the Madera Method wagon train also would take its usual spring trips into the Madera County foothills, involving more students in history immersion.