Sunday, June 22, 2003

Wagons ho! Ohio train gets rolling



By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Ohio's Bicentennial Wagon Train prepares to leave Martins Ferry, Ohio, Saturday. Mule skinner Joe Adams of Paul, Ind., left, waits for the "wagons ho" command.
(Associated Press photo)
| ZOOM |
MARTINS FERRY, Ohio - With a rooster's loud crowing and cries of "yaa-hoo!" the bicentennial wagon train rolled west on Saturday to retrace the route pioneers took 200 years ago.

This time, the journey is symbolic. "Bicentennial Wagon Train: The Path to Statehood" is a signature event of the Ohio Bicentennial Commission.

The train consists of 13 wagons that will travel across 10 counties - Belmont, Guernsey, Muskingum, Licking, Franklin, Madison, Clark, Miami, Montgomery and Preble - through July 24, when the wagons will end up in New Paris near the Indiana border.

"My ancestors came through this area in 1812," said Bob Christy, 72, of Dayton. "So I'm crossing the same trail almost two centuries later, as a tribute."

These modern pioneers include members of youth groups, vacationers, families and teachers. Riders sleep in the wagons, under them or in homemade tents. No electronic devices, except cameras and cell phones (restricted usage: one hour per day), are permitted.

On Friday night, the scene looked surrealistic: wagons, tents and campsites were spread out not far from the imposing Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp.'s plant on the Ohio. By Saturday morning, however, the wagon train looked surprisingly realistic as it clanked into downtown Martins Ferry for speeches and cheers from the streets.

Martins Ferry was chosen as the starting point because it is Ohio's oldest organized settlement. Formed in 1785, Martins Ferry launched keelboats, wagons and hopes to the west.

"Hey, are those wagons water repellent?" yelled a woman from the sidewalk.

Wagonmaster Russ Leger looked down from his horse and said, "It never rains in Ohio!"

His wagons, most of them pulled by teams of two mules, will travel about 12-15 miles per day going 3-5 mph. At the end of each day, the riders will share stories, sing songs and welcome visitors.

Wagon riders of all ages wear period clothing and travel the old-fashioned way - with few modern comforts (not even pockets on their clothes). The experience is like camping, although modern wagon riders will have the luxury of portable toilets, to be transported by a trailer behind the wagon train.

Thank heaven for little miracles, said Robert Valentine of Circleville.At 76 years old, he is excited as he was on a day in 1938 when he saw a wagon train come through his town. "I vowed that I would ride one some day," he said. "I had to wait a while, but I'm making my dream come true. But the last time I camped out was in the Army, so I'm in for an adventure."

Sue Parks, 56, of Reynoldsburg,decided to join the wagon train because she has always been interested in history. "Think about the pioneers," she said. "They might never see their families and homes again. If they lost a needle along the way, they were out of luck."

Added friend Connie Heim, 59, of Pataskala, Ohio: "This trip will make us appreciate what it took to make our state so great."

Wagons are made of wood and have wooden, steel-rimmed wheels and a canvas top. At 14 to 16 feet long, they appear smaller than the ones used in western movies. The smallest wagons use straw bales for seats, and larger ones have benches on the sides. An experienced teamster - men and women who work in wagon train re-enactments out West - will drive each wagon.

Destinations along the way include Worthington, near Columbus, which also celebrates its bicentennial. The wagons will travel 125 miles from Martins Ferry to Worthington. They'll arrive there July 5.

Along the way, members of the wagon train - including anyone who pays the $25-a-day fee to ride - will celebrate significant people, places and events in Ohio history. "Some people may want to make the entire trip, while others may only want to spend a day or two," said John Butterfield, executive director of the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce and the Bicentennial Wagon Train chairman.

The trip is directed by Leger, a tall, rugged cowboy from Nebraska. At 54, he looks - and rides - a decade younger.

His job is to operate the train, ensure people's safety and be the boss. He has operated wagon trains on major western trails, including the famous Oregon.

"My job is like moving a village every day," he said. "This is a national wagon train because we have people on it from all over the country, including Florida, Utah, California and Arizona. Riders come for different reasons. Some want to meet people. Others want to see Ohio. They'll all have the adventure of a lifetime."

To that, Betty Hunter, 65, of Parker, Ariz., said amen. "We're here because this will be blast," she said. "I have no other idea why I'm trying this."

The wagon train "staff" includes a licensed nurse, an emergency medical technician and a microbiologist responsible for preparing the food.

The neo-pioneers will travel parts of the National Road (U.S. 40) and Zane's Trace, the early route that went through Ohio.

"I think I can handle the rugged countryside," Sue Parks said as she adjusted her white bonnet and homemade dress. "Actually, just going to the portable john in these long dresses will be a challenge."

E-mail rmcnutt@enquirer.com




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