An Interview with Rich Wandschneider

Rich Wandschneider and Alvin Josephy

After a five-year stint in the Peace Corps, Rich Wandschneider came to Wallowa Country in 1971, as a community development agent with the OSU Extension Service. In 1976, he opened the Bookloft bookstore in Enterprise and in 1988, with help from historian Alvin Josephy and Kim Stafford at Lewis & Clark College, he founded Fishtrap Inc. to promote “clear thinking and good writing in and about the West,” and served as its executive director until 2008. He has written for the Oregonian, High Country News, Portland Magazine, and High Desert Journal and contributed a regular column to the Wallowa County Chieftain. He currently serves as the director of the Josephy Library of Western History and Culture in Joseph, Oregon.

EB: You are the director of the new Jospehy Library. What’s in the library collection?

RW: Alvin Josephy left his papers to the Knight Library in Eugene–sent them boxes of materials over the years. We–the new Josephy Library of Western History and Culture–split his extensive home libraries, the one in Greenwich, Ct., and the one here in Joseph, Oregon, with the new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. Alvin was its founding board chair.

The books and the monographs, and the manuscripts that people sent him for comments and blurbs, are history, anthropology, archeology, ecology; early explorations, fur trade, missionaries’ accounts, art books, memoirs and fiction, most having to do with indigenous Americans and most having to do with what we now call the American West. He had a special interest in the fur trade, which he felt had enormous impacts on the development of the West and what happened to tribal people. Also treaties, mining, settlement, and wars.

Oh–I should stop to say that we have most of what Alvin published himself, including numerous articles in academic journals, history “buff” publications like the New York Westerners Brand Book, and popular magazines such as Audubon, NYT Sunday Magazine, and Life. He wrote for big and small–Life and Idaho Yesterdays, and edited American Heritage Magazine himself for many years. In the 1970s he found environmental issues through his Indian friends, and he wrote several stinging pieces for Audubon–on the Garrison Dam in North Dakota, Black Mesa and Peabody Coal in the Southwest, etc. He also edited books for American Heritage, and contributed to other books on Indian history, Wounded Knee, fur man David Thompson, and others. I don’t think we have all of it–especially the hundreds of dispatches from Guam and Iwo and Guadalcanal during the War, but we are working on this.

Josephy subscribed to many journals–from Oregon Historical Quarterly to Montana History, so we have significant runs of many journals. And individual copies of obscure ones, like the Okanogen (Canada) Historical Society.

Finally, there are books and articles that have been donated by others and that I have accumulated over the years that deal with Western history and Indian affairs. Fiction too by the way!

EB: How did your mentor Alvin Josephy find his way to Oregon from New York? And how did you meet the Josephys?

RW: Alvin was a Marine Journalist in the Pacific in World War II, and after the War tried his hand at screen writing in Hollywood. He wrote for newspapers and veterans’ publications at the same time, and in 1951 was hired as an editor at Time. While at Time, where he did monthly photo features among other things, he was all set to do a major piece on Utah–when Henry Luce’s plane went down in Idaho and Idahoans treated him right. Luce told Josephy to “hold Utah and do Idaho.” In Idaho, he met the Nez Perce–and that changed his life. During his 12 years of research for The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, he found the home country of the famous chiefs Joseph–elder and younger, eventually bought a small “ranch” here, and the family became bi-coastal. I met him at a summer meeting dealing with a local day camp–and got to know him when I opened the Bookloft in 1976. My store was always his first stop in town–he wanted to know about all of the new little books and pamphlets relating to local history. And that all led to the founding of Fishtrap in 1988, etc etc.

EB: You’ve had a varied career as a writer, organizer, and literary entrepreneur. Tell us about your other current projects?

RW: Well–good thing we waited for a week to do this. As of this week, or really beginning Monday, September 30, I am teaching a class for Oregon State University Ag Dept on the Eastern Oregon U campus. The class is Ecosystems and Pacific Northwest Tribes.

And Marc Jaffe and I just turned in a manuscript to Random House-Vintage with working title “The Longest Trail: Writings on American Indian History, Culture, and Politics.” It’s a Josephy Reader aimed at Intro to Indian Studies students, divided into three sections: Putting Indians Into American History; Indians and the Natural World; and The Miracle of Indian Survival. We’re working on maps, illustrations, and permissions right now.

At the Josephy Library, I write a blog, guide visitors, recruit speakers, and host a brown bag lunch program at which I sometimes show Library “stuff,” sometimes feature another speaker. We’d like to start offering fellowships to writers and artists, some special for Indian writers and artists.

And I am raising two grandkids, a 13-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl. That’s a full-time job!

EB: You founded the Fishtrap writing center with a inaugural conference on “Western Writing, Eastern Publishing.” I’ve often heard writers—and linguists for that matter—talk about the west being ignored by scholars and publishers. Has that changed much since the founding of Fishtrap?

RW: At the first Fishtrap Gathering, in summer of 1988, our theme was Western Writers, Eastern Publishers. Josephy said that the NYT sent him the wrong books by the wrong authors to review, so we tried to bridge that gap. He brought along Naomi Bliven from the New Yorker, a big name agent, and publisher Marc Jaffe, who became a regular and is now editing the Josephy book with me. Some years later I introduced a couple of writers from Montana in the crowd, and mentioned that one of them had a piece in the front section of the New Yorker–and her husband had a long essay in the New Yorker on long haul truckers. “The whole damned New Yorker is written out of Montana anymore,” someone muttered.

So yes, things have changed. Probably more of Wallace Stegner’s books are in print now than were kept in print when he was alive. (I understand Stegner’s books would go out of print between books while he was one of the best known “Western writers.”)

EB: What do you consider you greatest accomplishments as director of Fishtrap?

RW: I always thought that Fishtrap was a window on the world for the people who live in rural Eastern Oregon, and a window to us for the people from other places–urban and suburban Oregon, the larger Pacific Northwest, and the world, really. People come here and meet Janie Tippet and visit her farm–and six of them, all ladies, from Boise, Portland, Sun Valley, Washington, etc. get together in someone’s backyard to hike and write for a week every summer. They call themselves the Syringa Sisters, and have been doing that for over a decade.

That–and all of the wonderful friendships that have been formed over the last 25 years. And I wouldn’t be on the board at Oregon Humanities without it. So personally–and for all the others who have come to enjoy, met kindred spirits and formed writing groups in their home towns, maybe even met a publisher or a writer friend who told them about another gig or recommended them for a Lannan Fellowship–it has been a great joy.

EB: Who are some of the eastern Oregon writers, past and present, that we should be paying attention to?

RW: Wow! Read Pam Steele’s relatively new Greasewood Creek for a look at contemporary eastern Oregon infused with its Indian past and w virginia immigrants. Kim Stafford, and his father Bill before him, have had a lot to say about eastern Oregon. Bette Husted is from Idaho, lived and taught high school in Joseph and is now in Pendleton. Her Living on Stolen Ground is about Idaho, but could be Oregon. Molly Gloss has a fictional eastern Oregon county that is bits of Umatilla, Wallowa, Union, etc. Her Jump Off Creek was an instant classic–a woman homesteader! and Hearts of Horses follows with more settlers and cowboys and horses… Bill Kittredge’s Hole in the Sky is a classic southeast Oregon memoir–his family had the biggest “outfit” in the country, and Bill gave it up to write. H.L Davis won the Pulitzer for Honey in the Horn in the 30s. James Welch wrote Montana, but his Indian stories could be anywhere in the West, and I think his widow, Lois, is from Portland. One can’t forget Liz Woody of Warm Springs, and Craig Lesley, who lived and wrote among Indians. And Jarold Ramsey, the poet, who compiled one of the first batches of Coyote stories and has moved back to Madras after a teaching career in New York. And when you have a day or three, pick up Josephy’s Nez Perce and Opening of the Northwest, still the definitive work on that tribe and time .And don’t forget Oregon Humanities’ second edition of First Oregonians… Liz Woody has a long nice piece, and there are stories from all the Oregon tribes.

EB: What are some must-sees for any visitor to Joseph?

RW: You will most likely come in from La Grande, so you will be following the Wallowa River and traveling along a fairly narrow valley that holds the four towns: Wallowa, Lostine, Enterprise, and Joseph. Each has something special: the Wallowa Band Nez Perce Homeland Project in Wallowa; Crows Store, the Lostine Tavern, and Lostine Canyon, where Justice William O Douglas played and wrote; Enterprise has a fine courthouse made of local stone–and Terminal Gravity Brewery; and then Joseph, with galleries, a nice local museum, Mutiny Brew Pub, and Stein’s Distillery. And the new Josephy Center for Arts and Culture, where you will find me and the Library.

The Wallowa Mountains are grand, but the canyon country is unique. Make the 35 mile drive to Imnaha. And of course go to Wallowa Lake, stop at the Joseph Grave site, read the marker about the Wallowa Lake Moraines–geological “textbook”–and take a slow drive around the glacier carved teardrop to lake’s headwaters. this week they are full of “redfish,” landlocked salmon called “kokanee.” In summer, you can make a grand tour from Joseph to the Imnaha, over the top–where there is a fine Hells Canyon overlook–to Halfway and back to Baker City. The Harley riders have found this loop, so be careful.

You can also make a loop from Joseph, back to Enterprise and then to Lewiston, Idaho and back along the Snake River on the Washington side to Walla Walla. Some people don’t like the “Rattlesnake Grade” between here and Lewiston, and a friend of mine says there would be more traffic on it if we sold tickets. There is an overlook at Joseph Canyon, supposed birth place of Chief Joseph.And a great piece of pie at the “Oasis” where the highway crosses the Grande Ronde River. The Grande Ronde is legendary steelhead water too.

So a little bit of something for everyone here. It just takes you a while to reach us. I figure five and a half hours from Portland. But i told the Arts Commission 25 years ago that we are the geographic center of the Pacific Northwest: 5 1/2 from Portland; 7 from Seattle; 6 + from Missoula; 4 from Spokane; 4 1/2 from Boise. Some of these places are significantly closer if you have your own small plane. No commercial strip here!

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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