Pioneer Woman

Sutter’s Fort volunteer makes history come to life

By Jessica Laskey
May 2019

If Joan Cochrane could travel back in time, she would want to meet her grandparents and see where they grew up—without them knowing it was her.

Because time travel has yet to be achieved (as far as we know), Cochrane gladly settles for traveling back to the early days of California as a costumed volunteer at Sutter’s Fort.

“I love Sutter’s Fort because it’s not a static museum,” says Cochrane, who works at the fort two days a week and most weekends. “It shows students what it was like to live and work during that time period from the perspective of early settlers—ordinary people of their time who were part of the foundation of California.”

Volunteering at the fort has allowed Cochrane to combine many of her lifelong interests. She pursued recreation and leisure studies in college, which has given her a “holistic perspective” when working with the fort’s visitors. She’s taught every grade from kindergarten through senior year of high school—she retired in 2017 after 21 years—and she loves kids. By holding a myriad jobs—including working for the parks service, a convalescent hospital, a construction company and Pac Bell—she’s an excellent problem-solver.

All of these skills have made Sutter’s Fort a perfect match for the Tahoe Park resident. During her two years of volunteering, she’s worked as a “powder monkey” for the cannon crew, taught a brewing class—she laughs while explaining the demonstration was allowed because the mash wasn’t technically beer yet—led weaving and baking stations, recommended books about the Gold Rush, and helped write scripts for characters and events.


“I’m always up for a challenge,” Cochrane says. That could mean mastering a station at the fort or traveling around the globe to locations like the Galapagos Islands, Ireland, Guatemala and China. She also has volunteered for her sister’s campaign for school board and run the arts council in Calaveras County where she lived, as well as found a way to help her students against all odds.

“I was teaching at Parkway Elementary in South Sac, which is a high-poverty school,” Cochrane recalls. “We decided to take the students on a field trip to Sutter’s Fort—they’d never done anything like that before. The fort generously gave us a grant for admission, but the school had to cover transportation, supplies and costumes. We had to beg, borrow and steal to get the kids there. I got us grants from Target and Home Depot, and scoured every thrift store in the area to find costumes. But they went!”

Thanks to Cochrane’s efforts, her students were able to experience all the things that make the state historic park so special.

“You get everything at Sutter’s Fort,” Cochrane says. “You learn about language, math, science—every station has something to enrich education. And everyone gains a better appreciation of the fort because it makes history come alive.”

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Jessica Laskey can be reached at

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