Ways of Seeing: National Road brings family to life

In April my husband and I were headed home to Vermont after eight months of exploring the West. In no hurry, we stopped to camp for two nights in Cambridge in eastern Ohio. For my husband, its proximity to where Hopalong Cassidy was born was the attraction. Not that he wasn’t one of my childhood heroes as well, but for me it was its location on The National Road.  
This first of America’s federally funded interstates was begun in Cumberland, Maryland in 1811. By 1840 it connected the Potomac and the Ohio Rivers and stretched across Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. This was the route used by thousands of people moving west. I’m pretty sure ancestors of mine were among them, migrating from northeastern Virginia to Illinois over several generations. They settled in towns on The National Road, and my grandfather was born in 1875 in one of those towns in Illinois. However, after growing up there, he’d left for New York City as a young man and never gone back. 
My grandfather was already in his seventies when I was born. I have only vague memories from a summer he spent with us. There were no visits to his house. He never owned his own home and moved, with my grandmother, into the homes of grown children during The Great Depression. He’d owned a bar in New Jersey, but when the Volstead Act was passed, he closed it. His efforts as president of the New Jersey Liquor Dealers Association had failed to hold the temperance movement back. 
Then competitors who objected to his cutting into their business shut down his bakery. He continued to work, but never recovered financially, and when I was seven, moved to Florida to live with grown children. I never saw him again. 
Asking older cousins about him recently, I gathered he was playful, inventive, and hot-tempered. He taught his grandchildren to row, fish and hunt, to clean and cook a squirrel on an open fire, and to smoke corn silk in a corncob pipe. He helped out with household chores like the ironing. He told stories of Conestoga wagons and Indian Wars from his frontier childhood. They loved him.
Some sections of The National Road are preserved as they were after World War I, when the road was bricked over to handle the weight of military equipment being moved to the east coast for shipment to Europe. The railroads couldn’t handle the volume. A few of the sections are still in use. 
We set out early to find one on a sunlight morning after a few days of rain. My husband drove ahead so I could savor time spent on common ground with my ancestors. Peacock Road follows the rough, hilly terrain of eastern Ohio. One of the two farmsteads served by this half-mile remnant came into view at the top of the first hill. A gray, two-story barn had the name Wigginton on it above its two Dutch doors. Below that a large sign read 1877. 
My heart jumped. Grandfather would have seen this barn on his way to his new life. Given family circumstances, surely he’d walked most of the way. He was known all his life by family as a distance walker, someone who regularly walked both to get places and simply for the pleasure of it. 
Across the road a woman was sitting on her porch step. Her interest in the past was easy to see. A hand pump stood a few steps from the porch, flowers around its base. A wooden peacock graced a piece of iron fence. She was watching her grass grow with one eye on the sky. I recognized the anxious look. “If I can’t mow today, it’ll be hay tomorrow,” she said.
Thus began a long chat with Boom Wigginton about family history, and how, at seventy, this is more interesting to us. She’d moved back in retirement to the small farm she couldn’t wait to get away from to go to college.  She pointed out a clapboard outbuilding nearby that was the former Center Township Hall. It had been leased to the town for its meetings and after nearly a century returned to the farm. Peacock Road was once well traveled and the small building, moldering away, a hub of community life. 
She asked the family name. “I know some Vickers around here.” Another clue that my ancestors used the road. My steps were light as, near the end of my long road trip, I was on a road my adventuresome grandfather had likely walked in his youth, leaving the frontier behind to begin life on his own in the nation’s largest city.
Jill Vickers is a native of the Champlain Valley, a retired teacher of literacy and the founder of a video production company. Special interests include family history, travel and outdoor activities. She lives with her husband and their springer spaniel in Bridport.
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