Hey, Aaron here at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

As always, it has been busy!

This week I bring you another Volunteer Highlight! If you didn’t know, a Volunteer Highlight will be an informal interview with one of Fort Vancouver’s volunteers. Not only will you get to know them better, but you’ll get to see how they bring something special to our volunteer program.

This week I talked with John Miller. You’ll often find John in either the Blacksmith Shop or the Carpenter Shop, but he also volunteers for many of our special events and the black powder program. Here’s what he had to say:

How long have you been volunteering at Fort Vancouver?

I started as a volunteer in June 2009.

Which area do you volunteer in now and what do you typically do there?

Starting as a carpenter, I have expanded to playing Dr. Barclay in the Lantern Tours, steward in the kitchen, a blacksmith and 18th and 19th century firearms demonstrations. As a carpenter I explain what and how carpenters made the buildings, furniture, agricultural implements and the many things made of wood the fort needed. I also demonstrate the treadle powered wood lathe and the many carpenter tools that are in the carpentry shop. As kitchen steward I explain how the kitchen fit in the daily life of the fort and with assistance from other volunteers make meals for students/volunteers using early 1800’s cooking methods and recipes. As a student blacksmith I explain what blacksmiths made (mostly traps and axes, and the many other metal implements) and demonstrate fire making with coal and metal forging. As Dr.Barclay, I am in the vignette that shows a particular night in the life of the Barclay family. I sometimes also explain what was Dr. Barclay’s role at the fort. As weapons demonstrator I help explain and fire various long guns and cannon from the H.B.C. period to 1870’s U.S. Army.

How did you come to be a volunteer at Fort Vancouver?

I was laid off from work in 2009 and my wife Marina told me about the Fort Vancouver volunteer program, since my later rehire and retirement, my volunteer work is a method for finding meaning and contributing. I try to convey the humanity of the people of these periods. They had a successful way of living that worked for them given the technology of the times.

What’s your favorite thing about volunteering here at Fort Vancouver?

This is a place that allows volunteers to use equipment that is hard to find in one place, a very knowledgeable staff and an opportunity to show the public a window view of a past that is no longer here.

What keeps you volunteering?

I keep coming back because it gives greater meaning and richness to my life and it is a chance to express my passion for making things and learning more about the past.

What the biggest challenge of being a volunteer and how do you overcome that?

A big challenge is learning the historically correct background for all these roles and being able to convey that to visitors in an understandable way. I listen to others and do a lot of independent research. I have considerable curiosity and passion about the times and I believe that actual use of these historical or reproduction objects creates a better understanding of the times and people.

What’s one thing you’d like to tell people who come to the fort?

I try to tell visitors that the people of the past lived much as we do, using the technology of the times in a way that worked well for them.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? Any fun facts about yourself or pieces of information that you’d want other’s to know?

On a personal level I have made things all my life and am continually acquiring the skills to do this. I have an adventurous side and sometimes with my wife Marina have tandem skydived, flown in biplanes, hot air ballooned, whitewater rafted and many other things. As Marina has said ” The meaning of life is to live”.

 

I had the chance to take some pictures of John in action. On this particular day he was working on a really cool project – reconstructing one of the Blacksmith Shop’s grinding wheels. This particular grinding wheel needed a new shaft as the old one had broken, and so, using both his carpentry and blacksmithing skills, John set out to make the repair. Check out part of the process below:

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