If you’ve been reading here for a while you most likely have noticed my mild obsession with the National Road. For many people, it’s just a line on a map but I think there’s a sense of romance found along this road. Some might call it roadside kitsch but a drive along some sections is like a journey back in time to days before fast food and hotels could be found along interstate exits.
It’s a fun search for remnants of a bygone era when enterprising farmers and businessmen alike worked to accommodate the cross country traveler. You’ll see old diner signs, faded murals on brick buildings, abandoned motels and the occasional neon sign as well as farms, quaint small towns and modern amenities to make your adventure fun.
I adore the towns where you find mom and pop establishments like the Oasis Diner in Plainfield, Indiana or the fabulous Lynn’s Pharmacy and Soda Fountain just a few miles down the road. There are a host of antique stores and cute shops along this route as well as friendly people, eager to know where you’re from and to hear about your rambling trip through their neck of the woods.
It’s fun. It’s slow travel as the road cuts through small cities and villages, forcing you to reduce your speed and enjoy the journey. In fact, when I travel the National Road, I like to think that the journey is the destination.
In case you don’t know, the National Road was the first major highway built by the federal government. Construction began in Cumberland, Maryland in 1811 and today it ends in St. Louis. In it’s early days, it was a thoroughfare for conestoga wagons and people on horseback while it was later used for bicycles and then automobiles.
The origins of the National Road are skillfully told at the National Road-Zane Grey Museum near Zanesville. The museum also covers the local ceramics industry and the life of prolific writer Zane Grey. For today, we’ll just talk about the National Road portion of the museum and we’ll discuss the other topics another day.
I brought my parents here on a little birthday adventure last week and was thrilled to learn the museum lived up to its reputation.
There are several things to see here but the most notable may be well over one hundred feet of display case featuring vignettes that depict the road over time. Professionally done and meticulously created works of art, these scenes feature houses, businesses, people, animals, trains, boats, bicycles and necessary scenery to depict the creation and evolution of the road. From the cutting of virgin forests through the advent of the automobile, you’ll find everything in between.
But there are a host of other things – lifelike mannequins look like they could speak to you as they depict work in a blacksmith’s shop as well as a tavern scene that portrays how needed services became available as the road gained in popularity.
There are some fabulous old cars and bicycles as well as a conestoga wagon that was once used for transporting cargo. This piece in particular is fascinating. It exists because someone had tucked it away in a barn to use for storing hay. It remained sheltered this way for many decades before coming into the possession of the Ohio Historical Society and later finding a home here in this museum.
If you look closely, some of the original nineteenth century paint remains – red on the wheel spokes and a sort of slate gray on the body of the wagon.
It’s incredible to realize that this piece, which should have been lost to weather and time, is in such fine condition and accessible to museum visitors in the year 2019.
The museum is operated by Ohio History Connection (the rebranded name of the Ohio Historical Society). One of the museum’s ambassadors is a gent named Jerry who seems to know his history on all three topics – the National Road, Zane Grey and ceramics – both forward and backward. He has an engaging way of telling a story and a fantastic sense of humor, helping guests feel like they’re just here for a visit with an old friend rather than for an educational experience.
My mother will tell you that she doesn’t like history but even she had fun and learned a lot here.
This was a great experience and well worth the few dollars they ask for admission. Interested? Click here to get hours, admission and other details!
Jerry also recommended a stop at Tom’s Ice Cream Bowl but we (sadly) had to skip it as we were running low on time and ate too much lunch anyway. So I’ll go back another day and check out the ice cream – or you can go on my behalf and let me know how silly we were to not stop!