North through the South
We spent the Fourth of July in Atlanta, Georgia. We were not celebrating, but learning. Not flag waving, but wondering. Symbolically at least, a little weeping was mixed in with what we learned. We had not planned to be in the capital of Georgia on the Fourth; it just happened that way.
Never once on our trip had we known where any of the important dates on the calendar would find us. Winfield's twentieth birthday had coincided with our start of work in the silver mines at Burke, Idaho. We terminated that mine work Christmas night and were given a glorious farewell Christmas party by the boys of the club we had formed among the miners' sons.
New Year's Eve had found us with a humble Irish family up in northern Washington state. We spent my birthday with Jenny Antrican and her family while marooned by the Oregon floods. On Easter Sunday we stood in awe, gazing down into the depths of Grand Canyon. No better—no more worshipful—place could have been found for the Easter Sunday celebration.
Spending July Fourth in Atlanta was completely different. Thinking superficially, we could have imagined a thousand better places to celebrate it. Paradoxical as it may seem, however, being in these southern surroundings and in this former Confederate city on our nation's Independence Day, burned into us some of the sobering realities of American history that we could not have comprehended and experienced in any other way. Like flashing fireworks, concept after concept exploded into our consciousness. Like Roman candles shooting off in two or three different directions at once, our thoughts and emotions were being pulled in all directions.
It all started when someone told us we must not miss the Cyclorama. As a physical spectacle it was stupendous. Standing in the center of a huge fireproof building we found ourselves surrounded by an enormous circular painting, 400 feet in circumference, half a hundred feet high, and weighing 18,000 pounds. The paint alone weighed four tons.
It was the subject matter which started our internal fireworks. The painting depicted the Battle of Atlanta. At that point in our lives we knew little about real battles—at least in the realistic way this one was depicted.
We knew about General Sherman's victory here. A gramophone record we had in our New London, Ohio home—it was one of those cylindrical records—was "Marching Through Georgia."
Later in the day we went up on an Atlanta hill, perhaps the one on which Sherman had stood as he watched Atlanta burn. Strange feelings were mixing back and forth within us. Still later, on Stone Mountain, north of Atlanta, we saw the beginnings of what—when completed—would be the greatest piece of sculpture in the world. The plans were for it to be enormous equestrian figures of Generals Lee and Jackson, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, with marching armies as the background. Stone Mountain was nearly a mile long and a fifth of a mile high—a vast face of pure granite. Only Lee's head was partially completed—but it was colossal.
What a sobering Fourth this Independence Day was becoming. As small kids we had played another of those cylinder-shaped records every Fourth of July— "The Battle Cry of Freedom. " "The Union forever" had been one of the themes of the refrain. Here in Atlanta it was not the Union, but the Confederacy, that was being extolled.
But some sort of a blending of viewpoints must have been taking place. Just sixteen days before our viewing of the Stone Mountain sculpture, the U.S. Congress had passed an act authorizing the minting of five million Stone Mountain half dollars, to help defray the cost of finishing those figures of Lee and Jackson and Jefferson Davis.
That day, and for several days afterward, we talked with Georgians about these things. The people were all friendly and willing to share with us their feelings about the North. Lincoln was universally recognized as a benefactor to all humanity and highly esteemed. But the memories of Sherman's terrible march to the sea with its resulting toll of life and property still rankled bitterly. The names of Sherman or Grant were not pleasant to Georgian ears. Old feelings had not entirely died out but with each generation were becoming less pronounced.
We were gaining a feeling of greater empathy for Southerners,
but other considerations added still more to our mixed feelings.
Almost our first sight in Georgia had been a crew of prisoners, dragging their heavy balls and chains, working on the road under supervision of shotgun guards.
One section of our Georgia diary contained these sentences, written by Win: "Through here, the country was poor and so were the roads, but we made fair time. So far, in Georgia, there must have been probably half a thousand convicts working on the roads so they'll have fine highways some day."
Most of those convicts were Negroes. The Civil War had been brought on largely because of the institution of slavery, and the unwillingness of people to compromise. All of those chain gangs of Negro convicts told us that justice was still a long way off.
Spending the Fourth of July in Atlanta provided a real eye-opener as to what makes up history. It is life, and death, and struggle, and mistakes, and hate, and blindness, and heroism, and sacrifice. It is a cyclorama of human emotions.
Out of Atlanta we slept in a cotton field and were wakened early next morning by the farmer who owned it. He said he thought we might be government inspectors testing the soil. We surely had been doing the latter.
The man was friendly and spent an hour teaching us the cotton and peanut industry. He caught a boll weevil and explained how the insect performed its destructive work.
Later on there was a chance to see and visit the state's fine peach orchards. A chance also to taste the product at a roadside stand where we bought a huge basketful.
That night as we slept in a grove, a storm left us soaked to the skin. Not an unusual occurrence but Win began to shiver and for half an hour had a severe chill followed by heavy fever. Our California fever may have been figurative. Win's fever acquired in the South was literal.
Our big ride next day came in a little Ford going through to Columbia, South Carolina. A farmer gave us permission to use his shed for protection that night. Win's chills and fever had returned. Columbia was a small attractive city with an imposing capitol building. One of the upstairs lavatories provided a place to shave and wash. It is safe to say that no one else in the United States has shaved in as many state houses as we.
On the outskirts of the city we bought groceries for a meal intended to test the capacities of us both, but Win's appetite failed and I was left to clean up the eats alone.
Sometimes slowly, sometimes speedily, we worked our way northward through the Carolinas into Virginia. We had the feeling we were knee-deep in history with every step. Raleigh, North Carolina, was almost a quagmire of history. Andrew Johnson had been born there—a Southerner who, as president following Lincoln's assassination, had upheld Lincoln's policies but blundered hopelessly in carrying them out. General Sherman had left his harsh footprints in Raleigh also; he had conquered the city in one of his campaigns. In the state capitol building at Raleigh we had a good shave.
Our next shave—and our next huge history lesson—was in Virginia's capital city, Richmond. A friend we made in the capitol building told us about old St. John's Church in Richmond where Patrick Henry made his famous speech in 1775. "Ask for Mr. Gilbert," he said, "and see if he will give that speech for you. Tell him his friend at the Capitol sent you."
At the church, after the stereotyped tour, we sought out our man. "Mr. Gilbert, I believe?" The old man responded to our request. Standing in the box pew near the left front of the church where Patrick Henry had stood, he uttered the speech, ending with the immortal words, "Give me liberty, or give me death."
Mr. Gilbert explained that because he became so worked up when he gave the speech, he had turned down many distinguished guests. Foch, Pershing, and vice presidents had heard him but he had turned down many. We were fortunate to be the exception. It was important to us because our mother was a descendent of the patriot. Henry is her maiden name. Win's middle name is Henry. The spirit of our ancestor permeated Mr. Gilbert's speech.
Richmond was rich in history but also rich in confusion. Immortal sites of the War for Independence and the War between the States were bumping into each other all over the city. Plaques marking historic spots of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War were brushing elbows with each other everywhere. This state of things continued as we traveled north, all the way to the nation's capital. We personally felt that the road between Richmond and Washington, D.C. was the most historic hundred miles in America. This whole area was a real education. But you must be able to shift gears, mentally, with every mile. The Revolution. The Civil War. The War of 1812. Plantation history. History of the Slave Trade. Colonial lore. Washington's home at Mt. Vernon. Jefferson's Monticello mansion, Fredericksburg, Alexandria, and Bull Run. We were enlightened, thrilled—and exhausted. From Florida to the nation's capital we had been on a historical binge.
But plain, day-to-day life had gone on as well. Unwritten, ordinary history was being made every day, and we experienced our full share of that.
At every railroad crossing in North Carolina we observed that each vehicle came to a full stop before crossing the tracks. A new law had just gone into effect that all automobiles should come to a dead stop before crossing. It was amusing to watch an old farmer pull his sleepy mule to a halt and look both ways up and down the tracks. The law was hard on offenders.
Entering Virginia, a sheriff gave us a lift and stepped up his Studebaker Special to forty-five miles per hour. It was while driving at this rate that he passed another party whom he had arrested the same morning for going forty miles an hour.
Our camp outside Washington was in a field on the boundary line of the District of Columbia, with Maryland only a few feet off. Sometime during the night we added that state to our list, for a heavy rain caused us to seek shelter under a big tree on the Maryland side of the border.
While visiting a library to catch up on our diary and for Win to rest we decided to continue research on the origins of the state names, begun after riding with the American Indian in Oklahoma.
Two more such names in the East, we discovered, were Indian inspired—Connecticut and Massachusetts. But this east coast, as we had discovered, was principally a land of history. Most of the state names, rather than springing from the lore of America's western frontier—from the "Indian Country"—were charged with memories of the past—of the lands from which the early settlers came. Six, in fact, were inspired by royalty. The name of Georgia came from England's King George II, the Carolinas from King Charles I, (Charles's land). Charles's queen was Marie, from whom the name Maryland derived. Virginia took its name from Queen Elizabeth, the "Virgin Queen." And West Virginia, of course, split off from Virginia due to the Civil War.
All along the eastern seaboard we would visit states, as well as cities, prefixed by the word "New" and indicating the origins of their settlers. New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New England, New London, New Haven, New Holland. The list went on and on. Pennsylvania had thirty-three towns or cities prefixed with the word "New." After all, this was the New World.
At last, the nation's capital. All our lives we had heard of the famous buildings and monuments. To describe the Smithsonian Institute would require a book; to even walk rapidly through the halls took hours.
We saw the original Constitution of the United States—the actual document itself-136 years old, protected behind glass.
In the Bureau of Printing and Engraving we met some friends from a tourist camp in the South and with them explored the plant where Uncle Sam daily turned out eighteen to twenty million dollars in currency.
We hired a guide for a tour of the capitol building. After seeing the grandeur of the architecture, chambers, paintings, and statues a sense of pride welled up as we looked at it all and said "That's my Capitol." In one of its lavatories we shaved before leaving the city.
In Chapter 6 we mentioned a book about the "Roosevelt Bears." Just as they had tramped across the USA and finished their journey in Washington, D.C. , we were doing much the same.
Our tour to the White House did not result in a visit with the president—Warren Harding. He was on a trip to the U.S. Territory of Alaska.
The Roosevelt Bears were more fortunate. They were actually entertained by their namesake—Teddy Roosevelt. Symour Eaton, author of the book, concluded his story with a welcome by the president.
"When the bears arrived in Washington
They set out at once to buy a gun.
When dressed complete then off they went
To the house where lives the President.
They stepped inside and the man they saw
Looked them over from head to paw
And with outstretched hand and smiling face
He gave them welcome to the place.
They talked away for an hour or two
Of hunting trips and friends they knew,
And this country wide and its cities great
From Boston Hub to the Golden Gate. "
Since we had already traveled in the eastern part of our country in previous years, we had agreed to tour with our parents on the final leg of this journey, still hitting all the remaining states.
Months ago we had set the appointed day, planning to meet our parents in West Virginia—at Harper's Ferry—since that would be the only place we would touch that state. But the rendezvous had been changed to Frederick, Maryland, because that city had a campground—a more definite meeting place. Win and I went to Harper's Ferry, did its historic sights, then headed for Frederick. Thousands of miles of travel lay behind us, without a state missed so far in our itinerary.
A milk truck picked us up and we assisted in the loading and unloading. The next ride was the last, on our own. It was in a Chevrolet and our host carried us right into the tourist camp in Frederick.
Win was taking a nap when I sighted a Nash rounding a curve in the highway and in another minute the long hike was over and we were hugging our father and mother. It had been a year since we had seen them.
Eleven states actually remained on our itinerary—quite a number, almost one quarter of the 48, in fact. But numbers can be deceiving. Those remaining states—still untouched on this trip but familiar territory to us because of our previous travels—were comparatively small The remaining states were Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and Ohio. Areawise all of those states combined, would fit into the single state of Texas, with enough space left over to make a couple of dozen additional Rhode Islands. On this journey of ours—although at the time we had not figured out the comparative areas—Win and I had found out how huge these United States of ours really are.
"Go West, young man," had been the challenge mistakenly attributed to Horace Greeley. We had gone West, then Northwest, then Southwest, South, and Southeast. Not only had we absorbed America historically and geographically, and gained insights into its economic and labor conditions, we had "tested it on for size." We had ridden a lot, but walked a lot, too. Only on foot had the real physical dimensions of the USA become completely apparent to us. America, we had discovered, was a great country in more ways than one.
- Category: Foot By Foot Through the USA
- Written by Grace McKay
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