My hometown is Vandalia, IL, which is the former state capital and the terminus of the pioneer National Road. U.S. 40 follows the National Road’s pathway. About eight miles east of Vandalia, you can discover the site of the first post office in Fayette County’s Cumberland Township (later called Otego Twp.), and the site of two pumps—-one for people and one for horses—that had existed in pioneer days.
My friend Mary Burtschi (1911-2009) was a devoted local historian of Vandalia. She was one of the major reasons I became interested in local history. In her book Vandalia: Wilderness Capital of Lincoln’s Land (1963), she writes:
“In 1828 the mile stretch through the bottom land east of the Kaskaskia River [at Vandalia] was still heavily timbered. It was a tremendous undertaking clearing the sixty-six foot strip through underbrush and forest trees of such gigantic size. The roadbed itself was only thirty feet wide. Both oxen and horses were used to pull the huge stumps around which chains were fastened. The workers grumbled; it was too much physical exertion and they felt they were poorly paid. A song or rhyme that has been handed down describes the wretched condition of the pike:
“The roads are impassable—Hardly jackass able:
I think those that travel ‘em
Should turn out and gravel ‘em.
“Past the Statehouse square rolled the wheels of Conestoga wagons carrying settlers into a new life and hauling freight into a frontier territory and stagecoaches carrying travelers who would view the new land and then return home to sing its praises or to disparage the glowing accounts that had been written about it. A parade of critical visitors wanting to see the new democracy at work on the frontier cam through Vandalia. Many were convinced that the emotional religion at the camp meetings, the insolence of servants, and the free-for-alls in the grog-shops were too much for the educated man to tolerate. The impressions of the road and of the town recorded by these travelers is a part of Vandalia history.”
Mary quotes according from the German writer Frederck Gustorf, Edmund Flagg, and William Oliver, the latter noting an execrable well along the road. She continues:
“The ‘execrable well’ of which Oliver speaks was probably not the Twin Pumps on the Cumberland Road, located six miles east of Vandalia. Ezra Griffith, who came to this area in 1830, built the first frame house in Cumberland Township. The building, erected in 1835, contained the Cumberland Post Office, a store, and living quarters for the Griffith family. Across the road on the north side stood the wooden Twin Pumps with a horse trouble, hewn out of logs, at each one. The pump on the inside of the fence was used by the Griffith family for stock; the other on the outside of the fence was used by the traveler. Mr. Griffith maintained the pumps and provided a tin cup for the traveler to use. On the south side of the road for a quarter of a mile extended a line of shady locust trees. Here the traveler stopped to water his horses and to rest under the shade.” (pp. 145-146, 148)
Not long ago, I was over in my home area, Fayette County, IL, to take photos for the cover of an upcoming poetry book, and to photograph a few tombstones for the Find-a-Grave site. I visited the Pilcher Cemetery and the Griffith Cemetery, both in Otego Township; the two cemeteries represent much of my mother’s side of the family. My grandmother Crawford was a lifelong resident of Otego Twp. (and is buried in the Pilcher); she was friends with members of the Griffith family, like Chester Griffith who attended her church (and was a source for Mary’s history above). I think Ezra Griffith may have been a brother of my 3-great-grandmother Esther Washburn, but I’ve not proven that; the Griffith and Washburn families settled the area at about the same time.
Coming back out onto U.S. 40 from the Griffith Cemetery road, I took a picture of the little area that had been the site of the Twin Pumps. But I also photographed the memorial to the site had been erected across the highway on the south side. It’s been there a few years but I’d not taken the time to photograph it.
It was a beautiful, sunny summer morning, and I remembered again why the summer of 1974 was so important to me. I was a teenager and driving the seen-better-days ’63 Chevy that had been Dad’s stepfather’s. I was completing two genealogy projects: a family history of the Mom’s family, and also a record of all the tombstone inscriptions in the Pilcher Cemetery near Brownstown, IL, where much of my mom’s side of the family are buried. (I write about my hometown roots and genealogy projects in other essays on this blog.)
To do the work, I started in the morning. I put on shorts and tank top but I figured that solitary hours spent walking in the grass didn’t require shoes, so I didn’t even bring them along. A visitor to the cemetery one day didn’t expect to see a barefoot, longhaired young man examining tombstones and carrying a clipboard.
One morning, driving down IL 185, I had an emotional experience of belonging, a sureness that I would always feel a deep connection to this place: my hometown Vandalia and the surrounding Fayette County. (My main blog has a photo of the area of that highway.) During the ensuing years, my home area has been (to use Frank Zappa’s phrase) a conceptual continuity for me. All the history teaching and writing that I’ve done connect to the summers I did local genealogy projects. And all the Bible-related and religious work that I’ve done (including most of my eighteen books) relate back to my grandma Crawford (buried in that cemetery), who inspired me to do genealogy and first got me interested in the Bible and spirituality in a very preliminary way that bloomed a year or two later.
Places like Twin Pumps are important for local history and for all my own modest efforts during the past forty-some years.