New “Backpack Buddies” program gives hands-on history lessons

The adventure starts with a backpack checked out at the front desk of the Willamette Heritage Center. In it, there’s an old-timey railroad style lantern, a chunky orange audio player and a friend.

Penny, a wiry stuffed dog, is the first guide in the museum’s Backpack Buddies program offering an interactive tour through the grounds of the former mill site. She’s there to help teach Salem’s railroad history through puzzles, pictures, stories and games.

The heritage center, located at 1313 Mill St. S.E., is a historical site that includes 19th century structures, some still standing and others still being unearthed. The center is next to the state’s main rail line, and Southern Pacific railroad workers lived in nearby homes until the 1950s.

The program launched on Feb. 1, and backpacks can be checked out as part of museum admission on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“We wanted to find ways to make history a little bit more accessible,” said Curator Kylie Pine. “We have a lot of stories in this space, so the idea of having a guide that was accessible that would take you on one of the pathways that our story tells was really appealing to me.”

The stuffed dog represents a real-life Penny, who lived with the Martinez family in Southern Pacific railroad housing through the early 1950s. The homes were built in the 1910s and demolished sometime after 1953, their location now part of the center’s parking lot.

Curator Kylie Pine spoke with David Martinez about his childhood with Penny, and put together an interactive program to teach kids about Salem’s rail history and the people behind it.

Martinez’s dad, Pablo, immigrated from Peru and eventually led the crew that maintained Salem’s rail lines. His mother Maria immigrated from Mexico. The family’s story is shown through labeled photographs he provided and narrated cheerfully by “Penny” in the included audio guide. The tape also includes recordings of Martinez.

“A good decade or more of his life was spent right there in the houses, and with fond memories of his dad,” Pine said, pointing to a spot near the parking lot’s front gate. She said that typically, the historical narrative of Latino immigration to the area starts with the Bracero Program in World War II. “This definitely predates that story, which is kind of cool.”

Willamette Heritage Center Curator Kylie Pine holds a book showing the Martinez family, who lived in the Southern Pacific Section Houses on Mill St. until the early 1950s (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

Pine incorporated interactive games which she tested with her young nephew. In the first, signs demonstrate how workers used to swing a lantern in different patterns to direct trains, like air-traffic controllers. The backpack has a lantern and invites kids to use it to play “Red Light, Green Light.”

The backpack also has train books, a matching card game to learn which train cars haul what cargo and a map to follow through the grounds. 

“I learn best when I’m touching stuff and I’m doing stuff,” she said. “Connecting to that story, I think, is important.”

Around 30 trains pass right by the heritage center each day, Pine said. The center is working to restore Caboose 507, which is parked on the grounds, as a viewing platform. Pine said the project and an accessible ramp are coming along after some Covid-related permit delays.

The journey concludes inside the Mill Building, which has a large table with toy trains replicating the historical routes through Salem, past businesses like the Del Monte cannery on Mill St. S.E..

There, kids can learn the scientific method by comparing the reflectivity of historical and modern signs, using a light meter provided in the backpack.

A box in the corner of the room can be unlocked using clues gathered during the trip.

The first backpack buddy program, with Penny, was funded using a $1,922 grant from the Siletz Tribal Charitable Contribution Fund in 2021.

Pine has a goal of putting together more backpacks, with different animals that have lived at the site, like mice, sheep and ducks, telling the histories of workers, wool and water power. 

Toy trains show rail routes through historic Salem at the Willamette Heritage Center (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.