Passion pushes singer to keep going with kids’ history camp

By: Don Chaddock, Managing Editor
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What: Wagons West Camp
Who: The camp accepts groups and schools with parties up to 110. The curriculum is designed to fulfill third- through fifth-grade California Gold Rush educational field trip requirements.
When:  April through October
Where:  Rollins Lake, Colfax
Reservations:  Halie O’Ryan at (530) 613-0809;

She’s toured the globe entertaining troops, hit the stage at casinos like Red Hawk in Placerville and Thunder Valley in Lincoln, but now she’s trading in her microphone for petticoats.

Halie O’Ryan, an Auburn resident, is known for her work fronting her band in restaurants and casinos, as well as the El Dorado County Fair. For years, she toured with United Service Organizations, commonly known as the USO. But many don’t know about her other life, the one firmly planted in the 1850s during the California Gold Rush.

For five seasons, O’Ryan has taken on the role of “Miss Halie,” a traveling minstrel in a fictional 1850s Gold Rush camp. This is her sixth season and the first as the full owner of Wagons West Camp, which opens April 4.

“For 20 years, it was the Old Sierra Historical Ranch based on the great grandmother of Rosemary Hawthorn, the camp’s (previous) owner. Her great grandmother came over on the Pioneer Trail,” O’Ryan said. “The living history we act out is based on her story.”

The previous location, at Camp Far West, wasn’t secure and the buildings suffered damage at the hands of vandals, she said.

The new location at Rollins Lake is secure and flat, surrounded by tall pine trees. O’Ryan is thrilled.

“Moving the camp is creating an environment that is safer and it’s just incredible,” she said. “This is a groomed, open, flat area that is child safe and ready for people to arrive.”

How did she go from the spotlight to candlelight?

“I got into this when I came back,” O’Ryan said. “I had been touring with the USO for 13 years and wanted to make a good footprint here.”

She said the camp teaches kids about hard work and life on the trail.

“What I found was kids just didn’t know respect and the beauty of electronic-free living,” she said. “Rosemary (the previous owner) said she didn’t know anybody else who could take this on, so she taught me. … The first season, there were 3,500 kids all in about two-and-a-half months. It made me cry when two little kids came up to me and said thank you in sign language. I know this school needs to stay open.”

For six weeks, O’Ryan has been dismantling, hauling and reassembling the eight buildings and tents, as well as the large stage.

“I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” she said. “My hands are callused, but there is nothing that would stop me from doing it. Kids write letters and say they had the time of their life.”

While the camp is geared for schools ranging from charter to public to religious, it is also open to gatherings and clubs.

“I really wanted to provide something in this area the schools could afford,” O’Ryan said. “I’m saying with heart and hard work, we can do this. Many schools aren’t doing field trips because of the cost, but we can work with the schools and districts.”

What do the kids learn?

“We have the kids learn to cook here as well as all about organic foods. They cook foods they really enjoy,” she said. “They get to fish and we teach girls and boys how to feel great about themselves while being modest. We also have a live stream for gold panning. And we teach Native American dance and sign language.”

O’Ryan said the kids are given 1850s-style costumes to wear and are provided all meals and snacks.

Prices for the camp range from $29-$39 for day camp, $78-$85 for 24-hour camps and $150-$190 for three-day camps. Sleeping arrangements are provided with “military-grade” tents, according to O’Ryan.

For some of the kids who travel from larger cities, such as San Francisco, this is their first time in nature.

“I had one kid who just touched the tree bark,” she said. “It was unfamiliar to him.”

For O’Ryan, the camp is a passion and a calling.

“I really want this to work,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “The financial side has been rough. I’ve never felt like there was something so important in my whole entire life.”

Learn more by calling O’Ryan at (530) 613-0809.