In an example of "town and gown" cooperation, the Madera Method Wagon train said "Thank you," Saturday night to more than 150 community supporters from both sides of the San Joaquin River.
Patrons of the local "rolling classrooms" program gathered from Dos Palos, Firebaugh, and Madera to enjoy dinner and learn what the Madera Method muleskinners and outriders have in store for their ever-growing group of 5th and 6th graders during the current school year.
From their dinner tables under the stars in the center of Steve King's Mule Town, benefactors of the well known educational program listened intently as Wagonmasters John Diedrich and King introduced the men and women who make up the regular wagon train crew and then explained this year's plans.
"This is a good example of what a community can do when it works together," said Al Sheeter, manager of the Mordecai Ranch.
Two major treks are on the docket already — one in March and one in April. Students who participate in these trips will climb aboard the wagons for a journey into the past, which will take them from the flatlands of Madera and across the foothills of the county into the gold country near Mariposa.
The youngsters will recreate a journey to the gold fields by assuming the identities of actual '49ers. For eight days and nights they will leave all of the comforts of home to learn history by doing. It will be the first time in a moving covered wagon for most of the children.
On their travels, the kids will have to feed, water, harness, and drive the mules. They will gather wood and cook their meals. They will sleep under the stars, and they will learn their lessons. Then at trail's end, they will try to find colo — they will pan for gold.
At the conclusion of their trip through time, they also will record their memories and turn them into a published book. In addition to history, the wagon train curriculum will focus on math, geography, geology, photography and writing.
Telesis Productions International's award winning director, Scott Andrews, will accompany the kids and film their exploits for a documentary his company is making on the unusual educational program. Andrews, who has won three Emmys for "Best Director of a Documentary," will also film in the classroom before and after the trip.
It was 10 years ago that King and Diedrich decided to put their love of the old West to work for kids. Each purchased a wagon and set of mules, and the Madera Method Wagon Train was founded. Since that time, they have acquired more wagons and mules and have enlisted the assistance of additional muleskinners, outriders, and cooks.
As of this year, the all-volunteer group has escorted hundreds of students on scores of wagon train trips.
In January 1998, the Madera Method Wagon Train transported 30 students for 20 days to meet then Gov. Pete Wilson in Coloma and launch the California Sesquicentennial celebration.
In 1999, the Madera/Firebaugh crew joined 100 other wagons for a 10-day trek to Stockton, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the California gold rush. The Madera Method Wagon Train was the only group that involved students in that experience.
The Madera Method Wagon train operates under the auspices of the Madera County Historical Society and Madera Unified School District, but is financed through individual and corporate sponsors. Tax deductible gifts are managed and dispersed by the Historical Society.