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Storer College

The first known Black resident of Harpers Ferry, a slave of Robert Harper, came to the area with Harper when he bought squatter’s rights from Peter Stephens in 1747. As the river town grew into an industrial powerhouse, the population naturally expanded. By the time of John Brown’s raid in 1859, ten percent of the town’s three thousand residents were Black, about evenly divided between enslaved and free.

And, after the Civil War, Harpers Ferry became the home of an institution that educated thousands of Black students over a period of eighty-eight years.

The Beginning

At the end of the war, more than thirty thousand newly-freed Black people lived in the Shenandoah Valley. It isn’t hard to imagine how eager they must have been to make the most of their newfound freedom. But most were illiterate. Until the end of the war, it had been illegal to teach any Black person to read or write.

Schools sprung up all over the South, many of them church-affiliated. The little school in Harpers Ferry was one of many created in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, by Freewill Baptist minister Nathan Cook Brackett, in cooperation with the Freedmen’s Bureau. It started by educating adult freed slaves alongside their children. But most of the adults gave up in frustration. Contemporary sources described the first class of nineteen formerly enslaved children as “poorly clad, ill-kept and undisciplined.”

But then the school came to the attention of a wealthy Maine abolitionist, John Storer. Storer offered a $10,000 grant to the school under certain conditions. The school must admit students regardless of color. It must make plans to become a degree-granting college. And it must raise a $10,000 match within one year.  

Under Brackett’s determined leadership, the school managed to raise the $10,000 with only one day to spare, thanks to a combination of donations, government funding and multiple mortgages. Thus, Storer College was born in 1867.

Early History of Storer College

The school struggled at first. Until 1869, the war-damaged armory paymaster’s house (Lockwood House) served as both the schoolhouse and the dormitory for teachers and resident students.

White residents resented the education of their Black neighbors. Students and teachers reported regular harassment. Vandals damaged the school buildings. Local newspapers slandered Brackett, and local politicians made efforts to close the school.

Brackett’s daughter told a possibly-apocryphal story of a time when a mob of whites confronted him with lynching on their minds. According to the story, a Confederate veteran rescued him and declared that the mob would not touch Brackett without killing him first. Apparently, during one of the many battles that took place near Harpers Ferry during the Civil War, this veteran had been wounded and left for dead, and Brackett saved his life.

But Brackett persevered. In 1869, the U.S. Congress turned over to Storer three more buildings, along with the land they stood on. Black teachers and ministers joined the formerly all-white faculty. Frederick Douglass served as an early trustee.

Later History and Legacy

By 1872, the College had enabled 75% of Harpers Ferrry’s Black citizens to own real estate, an extraordinary number for the time (and a number that has yet to be matched today in most cities in the United States). An article in the school newspaper in 1892 declared, “When the time comes that the colored people of the South live in their own houses, cultivate their own farms, and read their own ballots, there will no longer be a race problem.”

Not until the twentieth century did the college live up to its name and to Storer’s condition. Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, it taught what we today would call elementary school, and later what was then known as “normal school” or teacher’s college. Finally, in the 1900s, Storer became accredited to grant two-year and then four-year degrees.

Storer held its students to strict behavioral standards. Students were required to have a Bible and attend chapel, Sunday School and daily assemblies. They were not permitted to attend dances on weekends, nor to leave the campus at all during the week. But the Storer community was also strong and nurturing. “Here you will gain new understanding of community living and of friendships,” said one grateful graduate. The school was also a center of the protest movement against Jim Crow laws in the early and mid twentieth century.

Nathan Brackett stayed on as principal until 1896 and remained on the board of trustees until his death in 1910. Even after Nathan’s death, members of the Brackett family served as trustees as long as the school was open.

And the End

But despite the dedication of the Brackett family, Storer closed its doors in 1955. It’s tempting to conclude that the West Virginia Board of Education closed the school out of malice, following the Brown v Board of Education decision in 1954. White malice was surely a factor, but the story is more complicated. Although the Freewill Baptists continued to fund the school and it also received a $20,000 annual stipend from the state, it continued to struggle financially. Average enrollment was only 176 students per year. Storer’s remote location in a declining industrial down wasn’t a draw. And, by 1955, Black students had many more options.

But Storer’s place in history was assured. For twenty-five years, it was the only school in West Virginia where a Black person could get any education beyond the elementary level. And over its eighty-eight years of existence, it educated over seven thousand future Black leaders.

Sources:

Most of the information in this post came from the excellent exhibits in the African-American History Museum of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Other sources:

https://www.nps.gov/hafe/learn/historyculture/storer-college.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storer_College


Harpers Ferry National Park

Tall, craggy cliffs tower over the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, topped by frost-covered trees like gray ghosts. On the bright winter day when we visited Harpers Ferry, the Potomac stretched broad and green below us, dotted with frost-glazed rocks, while the busier, bluer Shenandoah rushed to meet it.

The majestic beauty of the scene seemed just the right stage for the dramatic events that occurred there in 1859

Harpers Ferry Early History

The first known settlers in the area that would later be named Harpers Ferry were Patawomeck Indians who called their village Pomeiock.

But, with the coming of the white man, it didn’t take Europeans long to recognize the advantages of the spot where present-day Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia meet. In the eighteenth century, the land officially belonged to Lord Fairfax. But the first white settler was Peter Stephens, in 1732. In 1747, Stephens sold his squatters rights to Robert Harper for 30 guineas. Harper got a patent on 125 acres around 1750 and by 1761 had established the ferry service that would give the town its name. Harpers Ferry became a starting point for settlers moving into the Shenandoah Valley and further west.

Ferry service ended in 1824, with the construction of a covered wooden bridge. But by then, Harpers Ferry already bustled with industry. The town’s history as an industrial town began when George Washington proposed the site for an armory and arsenal. Construction began in 1799, and the arsenal eventually produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols between 1801 and 1861. It supplied the tomahawks, knives, guns and other equipment for the Lewis & Clark expedition in 1803.

At its peak, the town at one time boasted 3000 residents and multiple busy factories in addition to the arsenal, powered by the rushing waters of two rivers: a bottling plant, a pulp mill, a cotton factory, machine shops, a flour mill, a cooper, blacksmith, iron foundry, sawmill, chopping mill and wagon maker.

Harpers Ferry was the home of the first successful use of interchangeable parts. John Hall of Hall’s Rifle Works pioneered the notion of using the same parts in multiple products, a technique that was as important to the industrial revolution as Henry Ford’s assembly line.

But today Harpers Ferry’s fame rests on only one thing – and one man.

John Brown

John Brown was born in 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut. Married twice, he fathered twenty children. He moved around a lot, living at various times in Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York and Kansas. He succeeded and then ultimately failed at several different businesses, including leather tanning, surveying, raising livestock, sheep farming and real estate.

A passionate abolitionist, Brown was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and formed the League of Gileadites to help runaway slaves escape to Canada.

In 1855, he moved to Kansas. Kansas in the 1850s was a battlefield between pro- and anti-slavery advocates. And I mean the word “battlefield” literally. In response to the sacking of Lawrence, KS, by a pro-slavery gang, Brown led a small band to Pottawatomie Creek on May 24, 1856. They dragged five unarmed men and boys – whom they believed to be pro-slavers – from their homes and brutally murdered them. Then they rode into Missouri, freeing eleven slaves and murdering their owner.

It seems incredible today that Brown never faced any justice for these murders. Instead, he spent the next two and a half years traveling through New England to raise money for anti-slavery activity in the South.

By 1859, Brown had come up with a plan to spark a slave rebellion in Virginia. He and a group of about two dozen followers, including four of his sons, rented a farmhouse four miles north of Harpers Ferry. To deflect suspicion, the men took women with them, including Brown’s daughter Annie and daughter-in-law Martha, and rented the farmhouse under the alias Isaac Smith. The men trained for an operation that would capture the arsenal at Harpers Ferry and arm Blacks to rebel against their enslavers

Somehow, the plan leaked. Brown heard that a search warrant was imminent, so he decided to launch the attack eight days earlier than planned.

Brown Attacks

At 11 p.m. on October 16, Brown left the women and three men at the farmhouse as a rear guard, and led the rest of his band across the bridge into Harpers Ferry. They took as their first hostage Lewis Washington, great-nephew of George Washington, freeing his twelve slaves and seizing two valuable Washington relics.

They then cut the telegraph lines in both directions. A free Black B&O Railroad baggage handler, Heyward Shephard, was killed when he accidentally encountered the raiders.

Taking the armory was the easy part. In the middle of the night, only one man guarded the armory, and he handed over the keys. As soon as other armory employees arrived for work early in the morning, they were taken hostage.

Executing the rest of the plan was harder. Brown assumed that his gang would only have to hold the arsenal on their own for a few hours. He’d assumed that slaves would rally to his cause as soon as they heard about it, and, once armed, would march through the area freeing more slaves. But he apparently hadn’t thought through how to get the word out to the enslaved. Soon enough, though, word got out to those less friendly to his cause.

The Raid Begins to Falter

Brown controlled the rail line, but allowed a train passing through town to go on to the next stop in Monocacy, where the conductor alerted government & railroad executives to the raid. By noon, several companies of militia had arrived, taken the bridges and cut off Brown’s escape.

Brown and his men retreated to the arsenal’s small fire engine house, known today as John Brown’s Fort. The militia were poorly armed and many of them were drunk by afternoon. The militia combined with angry townspeople to form an angry, drunken, ineffective mob. The battle for the arsenal became a standoff.

President Buchanan then called in the Marines from Washington Navy Yard, only about sixty miles away. The Marines’ commander, Colonel Robert E. Lee, hastily arrived from his home in Arlington in civilian clothes. But he also had with him 81 privates, 11 sergeants, 13 corporals, a bugler, and seven howitzers.

Lee sent J. E. B. Stuart to offer Brown’s party surrender terms. Brown was having none of it. And so the attack commenced. Lee’s forces fairly quickly broke down the doors of the engine house. After that, the battle took all of three minutes.

Ten of Brown’s raiders were killed, including two of his own sons. Brown and three others were captured. Seven of the raiders escaped, but two of those were also later captured. One of the escaped and later captured was Brown’s son Owen. The Marines had to protect the captured raiders from the drunken mob outside the arsenal.

All of the hostages were freed. Eight militia were wounded. Lee’s forces suffered only one casualty.

Aftermath of the Raid on Harpers Ferry

On November 2, 1859, John Brown was convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia and inciting a slave insurrection. On December 2, he was executed by hanging. In one of those you-couldn’t-make-this-up coincidences, witnesses at his execution included Walt Whitman and John Wilkes Booth. At his trial, John Brown said, “…if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments–I submit; so let it be done!”

An already divided nation quickly took sides on the matter of the raid. To many in the North, Brown was a martyr. The South was infuriated. Ardent pro-slavery activist Edmund Ruffin, among others, claimed that the raid proved that the North actively supported slave rebellion. Distrust between the two factions grew. A catastrophic Civil War soon followed.

As for the town of Harpers Ferry, it never recovered. The day after Virginia seceded from the Union, the U.S. Army emptied the armory and burned the arsenal. The town changed hands eight times during the Civil War and was also subject to multiple floods in the decades that followed, and industry declined. From a high of 3000 in the nineteenth century, the population of Harpers Ferry has fallen to about 250 people, with the National Park its main attraction – along with, of course, the mighty cliffs and beautiful rivers that will stand long after all warring nations have passed away.

A Thoroughly Enjoyable Day

Al and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Harpers Ferry National Park. It was off-season, but most of the exhibits were open, and we had them mostly to ourselves. I have never been disappointed in any of our National Parks, and this one was no exception. The exhibits were very well done, thought-provoking and informative. Sadly, we lost most of our photos due to a glitch with Al’s camera that we still haven’t figured out, so the photos in this post are mostly grabbed from the internet.

One our way home, we had a very good lunch at Tom’s Taphouse in the pretty little town of Boonsboro, Maryland. Boonsboro was founded in 1792 and still features at least three log structures still in use. One is a pottery, one is a tattoo parlor, and the other is a private residence.

Watch for my next post later this month. I’ll write about some interesting African-American history that we discovered in Harpers Ferry, and the final verdict (in my opinion) on John Brown.

Sources

Most of the information in this post comes from the excellent educational exhibits at Harpers Ferry National Park.

Other Sources:
http://harpersferrywv.us/about.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harpers_Ferry,_West_Virginia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Brown%27s_raid_on_Harpers_Ferry

https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/john-brown


My 5-star reads of 2021

The Cold Millions

First of my 5-star reads for the year, read in January. Brothers Gig and Rye Dolan, ages 23 and 16, are orphans riding the rails from town to town in the American Northwest in 1909, seeking work wherever they can and sleeping in hobo camps. In Spokane, Gig becomes involved in the union movement and is imprisoned and Rye becomes a cause celebre of the movement. Characters include a devious mine owner, a savvy burlesque performer, union goons, company goons, bad cops, an idealistic lawyer and a mysterious drifter named Early whos loyalties are unclear. The title refers to the non-unionized laborers who struggled to stay warm and fed in the early 20th century economy, heroes who may not have won decent lives for themselves but paved the way for others. Link to my full review.

The Boleyn Inheritance

During the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, I made of project of reading all of Philippa Gregory’s historical novels. I didn’t love all of them, but this was one of my favorites. It’s the story of Henry VIII’s fourth and fifth wives, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard. Anne is good-hearted but prim and naive, and immediately gets on the wrong side of Henry. He soon sets her aside in favor of young, pretty, frivolous Katherine. But, soon enough, Katherine will displease him, too, and Henry has a history of dealing brutally with displeasing wives… An absorbing, page-turning read, told from the perspectives of two imperfect but likeable queens and one duplicitous lady-in-waiting. Link to my full review.

The Taming of the Queen

Another Philippa Gregory favorite. This one is about Henry’s sixth and last wife, Kathryn Parr. Henry is 52 years old, grossly fat and stinking from both rotten teeth and a festering old leg wound. Kathryn is in love with someone else, but Henry is also quite mad by this time. If he asks you to marry him, you either marry him or die. Actually, you might die anyway. I think Kathryn is the most admirable of Henry’s wives. She’s an intelligent, thoughtful woman, who translates parts of the Bible into English and writes a book of her own. She is mature enough to know how to soothe Henry and stay on his good side. But nobody can stay on Henry’s good side forever, and Kathryn learns the limits of religious freedom, female accomplishment and her own pride. Link to my full review.

The Five Wounds

This might have been my favorite book of the whole year. It’s the story of a family facing multiple crises at once. 15-year-old Angel is pregnant. Her father Amadeo is an unemployed alcoholic who hopes that his participation in an Easter ritual will give him a feeling of self-worth. Grandmother Yolanda is hiding her serious illness from the family. This book rises way above the soap opera I’m making it sound like. Quade’s understanding of psychology and human relationships makes all of these characters feel so authentic. They are so very human, flawed and full of hope. If I could recommend one book to you, it would be this one. Link to my full review

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

I’ve read several short story collections in 2021 and the best ones were written by Black women. Black girls are kicking ass in short fiction lately, and hooray for them. I seldom like every single story in a collection, but I liked all of these stories and absolutely loved several of them. What especially stood out for me was the voices of the characters. Some of the stories had universal themes; others were more distinctively Black. But all of the voices carried the lovely music of the Black female voice. Link to my full review

Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes

This book was like an elixir for someone who has always been patriotic, but has been absolutely horrified by the direction of our country in the last several years. Smith helped to revive my patriotism, referencing sources from Lincoln to Aristotle to the Federalist papers. He mounts a full-throated defense of all that is still good and worth loving about our flawed and troubled nation. Link to my full review.

An Altar in the World

The pandemic has been a time of spiritual discernment for me. This book was one of the guideposts along my way. It’s hard to find a Christian book that is grounded in neither fundamentalism nor self-serving, woo-woo nonsense, but this one filled the bill. Taylor is an ordained minister and professor of theology and writes beautifully about how we live and explore faith in our everyday lives. She rejects the Augustinian body/soul dichotomy and describes a rich physical world in which God is always alive and present. Link to my full review.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

This is the book version of taking a graduate-level short-story class with Saunders at Syracuse University, using seven classic Russian stories as his vehicle. Mostly writers would enjoy it, but readers can also gain from it a lesson in how to READ a short story. Saunders’ passion for reading and writing shine through every page of this book. He loves fiction and is old-fashioned enough to believe that it can do good in the world. I agree. Link to my full review

Cloud Cuckoo Land

This story takes place in three distinct time periods: 13th-century Constantinople just before the city falls to the Saracens, our own time in a small town in Idaho, and in the 22nd century on a space ship headed for a distant planet. The link between the three subplots is a fantastical tale called Cloud Cuckoo Land. Doerr’s three stories tie together very well, his characters are very appealing, and he is an master at building tension. This book is also a love song to libraries, which won my heart. Link to my full review


The National Road in Indiana and Illinois

Our final drive along the National Road took us through Indiana and Illinois, where we learned that flat, fertile farmland plus a road added up to prosperity, at least in the nineteenth century.

Our first stop in Indiana was the Welcome Center in Richmond. Angel Groves, their Communications and Social Media Specialist, was very helpful when we told her that we were travelling and writing about the whole road. The Welcome Center offers a great deal of informational material, most of it free.

Centerville

The theme that emerged during our drive through Indiana was prosperity. The main street of Centerville, our next stop, exemplified that theme. The little town is very well-preserved, lined by a magnificent nineteenth-century library building, antique shops and other small businesses.

Similar to Morristown, Ohio, plaques mark many of the buildings, indicating the year that they were built and the name of the original owner. Many buildings were former taverns and inns, and feature the original covered archways that guests used to bring carriages to the stables in the rear. Centerville is also home to the restored house of Oliver P. Morton, Indiana’s Civil War era governor.

Cambridge City

Just outside Cambridge City lies the Huddleston Farm House, constructed in 1841. Huddleston was a pretty smart guy. He intended to farm his land, but recognized that farmers often need a supplementary income. He situated and designed his farm house to also serve as a place where travelers could rest and buy provisions. The ground floor of the three-story house featured two rooms with outside entrances. Twenty-five cents a day bought shelter and a fireplace to cook your own hot meal. For an additional fee, Huddleston stabled and fed animals and provided meals. The building and grounds are open for tours on a limited basis.

In Cambridge City itself, we discovered more well-preserved architecture and had a great lunch at Kings Café and Bakery. At Kings, we also sampled Indiana’s state pie: sugar-and-cream pie. Delicious! We picked up the recipe, but that recipe didn’t work out for me. So, I’m now on the lookout for a better sugar-and-cream pie recipe. If I find one, I’ll publish it. I’d never heard of sugar-and-cream pie before, but it is definitely a treat not to be missed.

Decline and Rebirth

Boom and bust is the way of capitalism, and so it was with the National Road in Indiana. Imagine traveling on a rainy fall day, with mud up to the carriage’s axles, every bone in your body aching from bumping along the rough gravel road. Imagine sharing that road with farmers herding cattle, hogs and geese. Hog drovers were such a problem that they are the origin of the term “road hog.”

Now imagine that railroads start to span the Midwest, as they did in the 1850s. The railcars are enclosed. The ride is smooth and fast, with no impediments by livestock.  As the railroads advanced, traffic on the National Road declined. The prosperous little towns faded, and some disappeared completely.

The Road was reborn in the 1920s, as automobile traffic grew. Farms like the Huddlestons’ started renting camping space to motorists. Gas stations, diners and motels replaced taverns, blacksmiths and wheelwrights. You can still visit the Twigg Rest Stop, an early version of the rest stops that stand along every major highway in the United States.

The Studebaker blacksmith shop in South Bend was an Indiana business that prospered greatly from the dawning automobile age. The blacksmith shop became Studebaker Manufacturing in 1868, primarily making wagons. In the early twentieth century, the company pivoted to motorized vehicles. They built their first electric car in 1902, and their first gas car in 1904, the only manufacturer in the United States known to successfully transition from horse-drawn to gas-driven vehicles. Studebaker prospered until the 1960s. Manufacturing in Indiana ended in 1963, and last Studebaker was made in Ontario in 1966.

Other Indiana Highlights

On our way out of the state of Indiana, we also passed a recently-discovered one-room log cabin from the National Road era, and the Van Buren Elm. In 1842, at the site of the elm, President Van Buren’s carriage overturned, sending him into the mud. One story claims that the accident was staged, to change Van Buren’s mind about his opposition to using federal funds to improve the National Road.

We also stood on a surviving 1920s gravel section of the Road, running parallel to the current road, near Putnamville.

The National Road in Illinois

Illinois doesn’t do as good a job with the National Road as Ohio and Indiana. But we did enjoy our stop at the terminus of the Road in Vandalia. Vandalia was the capital of Illinois from 1819 until 1839, and the old statehouse is very nicely preserved. Abraham Lincoln served there as a state representative from 1834 until the capital was moved to Springfield in 1839.

At the statehouse, in 1837, Lincoln first went on record in opposition to slavery. Although officially a free state, Illinois was sympathetic to slavery. Many Illinoisians were transplants from the slave states of Kentucky and Tennessee. In Lincoln’s time the state also still allowed indentured servitude. Indentures could last as long as 99 years, and the owner of an indenture could pass it along to his heirs.  

In 1837, in an act of moral support with no real consequences, the Illinois state legislature passed a resolution condemning abolition societies. The resolution also included the opinion that slavery could never be abolished in Washington, DC, without the consent of its citizens. Lincoln and another legislator, Dan Stone, objected to the resolution.

Slavery remained legal in our nation’s capital until April 16, 1862, when it was abolished by executive order by President Abraham Lincoln.

The End of the Road

We ended our time on the National Road with an excellent dinner at The Blind Society in Vandalia. The restaurant shares space and ownership with Witness Distillery, a local bourbon distillery. The owners happened to be in the restaurant the evening we visited, and Al, a big bourbon fan, started a conversation with them – and we ended up with a free bourbon tasting. A wonderful ending to our very enjoyable and educational drive along our country’s first infrastructure project.

Sources

Most of the information in this post comes from the excellent signage placed at significant historic sites along the National Road in Indiana and in Vandalia Illinois.


The National Road in Ohio

When we crossed the Ohio River early one October morning, we just had to trust that it flowed there under the bridge. Dense fog shrouded the river, and I wondered how anyone ever navigated it before the era of bridges and electric lighting.

The first few miles of the National Road in Ohio looked very unpromising: thrift stores, decrepit housing, and an amusing flag featuring a much fitter and younger fantasy Donald Trump riding a dinosaur and firing automatic weapons with both hands at unseen enemies. It looked like the promised prosperity associated with the National Road had still not reached the state almost two hundred years later.

Pike Towns Along the National Road

Not until we reached St. Clairsville did we begin to see the impact of the National Road in Ohio. St. Clairsville was founded two decades before the National Road reached it, but it still looks like so many other “pike towns.” The importance of the road to the economic life of the pike towns can still be seen in the towns’ layouts: one main street, with a few cross streets and parallel back streets. In the nineteenth-century heyday of the National Road, these towns sprung up about ten to twelve miles apart – the distance that a stagecoach or wagon could travel in a day. Inns were often found on the crests of hills. Drover’s inns tended to be on side streets where livestock could be accommodated. Some towns were home to as many as five taverns. In larger towns, wheelwrights and blacksmiths made themselves available to perform repairs.

Many of the old pike towns have completely disappeared. Of the ones that remain, some are struggling, and others still prosper. But the basics are always the same. Retail shops, churches and historic houses along the main street. Often, in larger towns, a Masonic Hall on the corner. More churches, smaller shops and aluminum-sided early-20th-century homes on side streets. A gas station on the corner as you enter town, often now a Sheetz. And always a library. No matter how small the town, no matter how beaten down, there is almost always a library on Main Street, even if a very small one with limited hours. That fact alone gives me hope for our country.

A Pike Town Gallery

A sampling of Ohio pike town buildings: Above left, a scene from Blaine in the early 20th century. Above right, Saint Clairsville. Below left, the Red Brick Tavern in Lafayette. Below right, the Pennsylvania House Tavern in Springfield

Above left, the William Rainey Harper log house in New Concord. Above right, the lovely doorway of the home of Nelson Gant, one of Zanesville’s early prominent Black citizens.

The picture to the right is the 1870 Great Western School House near St. Clairsville. The grounds are so pretty; recess time must have been paradise

Our favorite Ohio pike town was Morristown, where they are making a real effort to restore their historic main street. They have completed research on the restored houses, and each one is marked by a plaque that tells you the name and occupation of the building’s pike-era resident. Unsurprisingly, many were tavern keepers and merchants. One is listed simply as “widow.” Others had occupations like blacksmith or wheelwright. The restoration process is uneven. Beautifully restored buildings stand right next door to decrepit wrecks. But the effort is very impressive, and I hope it will continue.

The Zane Grey Museum

One of the highlights of our drive through Ohio was the National Road-Zane Grey Museum. This small museum is a gold mine of information about the history of the road. Its collection includes a restored Conestoga wagon and impressive dioramas showing scenes from the early life of the National Road in Ohio: a tavern scene, road construction scenes, scenes from the early days of the automobile on the road.

At the museum, we also learned details about how the road was constructed. Using local farmers as laborers, builders made a sixty-foot cut for a thirty-foot wide road. The cut was 12-18” deep. Laborers then broke rock into three sizes. They laid the largest rocks as a road bed, covered by a layer of middle-sized rock, and topped that with gravel no bigger than 3”.

It’s not hard to imagine how rough that kind of road would have been! By the early twentieth century the road was repaved with brick. In 1925, the road was widened, straightened, rerouted in some places, and got its Route 40 designation. Asphalt paving started in 1932.

Our Drive Through Western Ohio

The terrain of Ohio changed gradually as we drove west. Eastern Ohio features wooded hills and valleys. The farming there was limited to subsistence agriculture on small plots on ridges or in valleys. Western Ohio is the place for large-scale farming, thanks to the flatland formed by the Illinoian and Wisconsin glaciations. We drove past miles and miles of cows and corn and enormous grain silos. In the big skies above, geese made their way south and huge flocks of starlings gathered.

Late in the day, we found Ohio’s Madonna of the Trail. We’ve seen several of the Madonnas now, and they never fail to move me. The raw-boned mother in her plain dress and sturdy boots, one child in her arms, another hanging on her skirts, striding hopefully into an unknown and perilous future. Many years ago, when I was in sixth grade, I read a book called A Lantern in Her Hand, about a pioneer mother, and I loved it so much that I’ve read it many times since. We often say that George Washington was the father of our country, but these unnamed women were truly its mothers.

After the Madonna, and a brief hike, it was on to Indiana, the topic of my next post!

Sources

Schneider, Norris F. The National Road Main Street of America. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio Historical Society, 1975.

Harper, Glenn and Smith, Doug. The Historic National Road in Ohio. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio Historical Society, 2010.


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