My family has lived in the Clear Spring area for generations, and when visiting my late grandmother — neé Faith — I relished hearing the stories of her youth.
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I grew up on a road off U.S. 40, east of Clear Spring and closer to Wilson’s Store. It was the same road on which my paternal grandparents had settled and raised their brood of seven. It was the same road my dad was born on and where my parents raised me and my three siblings. It’s where my parents still live today.
Last year, I asked if I could hitch a ride on a National Pike Festival wagon. I had wanted to do something for a blog I was writing then, but maybe really it was meant to satisfy the Laura Ingalls in me.
National Pike Festival rolls out from Plumb Grove in Clear Spring, the home was built in 1831 by Jonathan Nesbitt Jr., and heads east toward Boonsboro. (Yes, the organizers know that it should go west as one observer pointed out). With its long, wavy line of horse-drawn covered wagons, the festival is a celebration of the sacrifices that families had to make on the trek to the West, and for the road that they would ride on — National Pike.
I arrived Friday night, as a bluegrass band played on the grounds of Plumb Grove, and wagons and horses lined the dirt road that leads to the stately mansion. I met Jamie Baker, coordinator for the festival, to help me find a ride. The faint haze of twilight helped me to imagine what life must had been like 100 years ago. As I fanned away the gnats, the gathering resembled a classic Americana version of community. Friends and family met at Plumb Grove, telling stories and jokes over sandwiches, while their toes tapped to live music.
After asking around, Jamie found me a willing host who would take me along for the ride. Because it was pretty late notice, I didn’t want to be a burden to my guests or the horses, so I asked to ride just from Clear Spring to Wilson’s Store on National Pike (U.S. 40), which was one of their scheduled stops.
I arrived early Saturday morning to meet Martinsburg, W.Va., resident Norman Mason, his wife, Peggy, and grandson, Brandon. The Masons were in charge of the lead wagon.
They invited me to sit in the front, but, because I wasn’t wearing period clothes, I thought I should hide inside the wagon, under the canopy. I didn’t want to break the spell.
I was seated in the back on a folding chair, and, with the first flick of the reins, I nearly toppled out of the wagon. (Not the Masons’ fault. They had asked if I wanted to sit up front). It didn’t get much better as I bounced around in the back of the wagon as the horses pounded down the dusty and rutted Plumb Grove driveway. But I wasn’t complaining, I wanted an authentic experience.
From there it was a smooth ride as Norman led the team, Tom and Jerry, into the center of Clear Spring for the opening ceremony.
The Masons told me that the lead wagon’s driver needed to be a person who wouldn’t take anything from anyone. If this was a real wagon train, listening to the wagon master would have meant life or death as they headed West. Sure, there weren’t any chances of Indian attacks or being robbed by highwaymen in this modern day, but the traffic does still keep going on U.S. 40 — safety was still something to consider.
The Masons were wonderful hosts, telling me that they have been involved in the National Pike Festival for all of its then 23 years. Brandon said he loved being able to take part in the event with his grandparents.
It was beautiful May day, and I just took every ounce of it in as I looked at those who stood along National Pike to see us off. Kids clapped, parents waved, even the horseless carriage drivers who were slightly inconvenienced on the drive slowed up and smiled as they passed the teams. I could instantly see why the Masons take part in this living history moment.
Right after passing Rose Hill Cemetery in Clear Spring, the wagon came to a halt. From the back of the caravan came a “whoa!,” passed forward from wagon to wagon like a wave. For a history buff like me, it sent chills down my spine. Norman and Peggy said that’s the way communication among the wagons would have been during pioneer times.
Turned out one of the wagons had suffered a problem with its equipment. A few minutes after fixing it, everyone was on their way.
I noticed I didn’t say much during the trip. I didn’t even ask many questions, as I rocked with the sway of the wagon. One thing I noticed that from my seat was that I couldn’t really hear the clip-clop of the horses much, even from the team that was behind us. Instead, I heard more clearly the rattle of the gear on the horses behind us. Frankly, it was down right hypnotic. Peggy told me that I’d better watch it or I could find myself asleep. As the wagon kept rocking me and I fought off a yawn, I could see why.
It took more than an hour to go from Clear Spring to Wilson’s General Store on National Pike. The store would have been the post office and mercantile store of its day. As we arrived at Wilson’s, a bluegrass band was playing. People were waiting on the horses and the riders, along with many parents wanting to give their child a chance to pet a horse or sit up in the saddle.
It was an experience I will always treasure. Never had I been more connected to my roots. And all it took was a wagon ride to do it.
If you go ...
WHAT: National Pike Festival
WHEN: Friday, May 18, through Sunday, May 20
WHERE: Clear Spring to Boonsboro, following U.S. 40
CONTACT: For a complete schedule, go to www.nationalpikefestival.org.
MORE: Pike Days Parade in Clear Spring starts at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, May 19