Celebrate the history of local transportation at the National Pike Festival this weekend

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Actor Ward Bond shouted “Wagons, Ho!” on the 1950s “Wagon Train” television series. Today, wagon owners and horseback riders go back in time every May on the National Pike Festival’s reenactment of a wagon train. The begins for Washington County this Friday in Clear Spring.

Wagon trains have been rolling since 1989 as a part of the National Pike Festival. With its strategic geographical location between the Allegheny and the Blue Ridge Mountains, Washington County played a key role in opening the West to our nation.

This file photo shoes a participant in the James Shaull Wagon Train making its way east along National Pike at Spickler Road as a part of the annual National Pike Festival.
This file photo shoes a participant in the James Shaull Wagon Train making its way east along National Pike at Spickler Road as a part of the annual National Pike Festival.

It’s the only living history demonstration in the state of Maryland that reenacts “the road that made the nation.” The National Pike Festival and James Shaull Wagon Train-Maryland is called the longest festival in the world. Various towns from Baltimore to Ohio celebrate in different ways.

In 1797, some bankers saw a need for a road west. Waterways were the only good transportation at the time. Rough trails were the alternative. They wanted to extend the Baltimore-National Pike to Cumberland. In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson signed into law an act authorizing federal funds to build a road from Cumberland, Md., to Ohio.

The bankers found an architect from Europe to design it, and in 1811, construction began on the “bank road,” named for the bankers financing the project. It became part of the National Pike. Jefferson’s law was a forbearer to our federal transportation system we know today.

The National Pike Festival is sponsored by the James Shaull Wagon Train Foundation Inc., which was formed in August 2000 in honor of James Shaull. He farmed with his Belgian horses, showing passersby how it was done a generation or two ago before mechanized farm equipment.

And if you're into history: Summer camps at the Conococheague Institute offer the chance to live in the 18th century

Shaull also participated in annual wagon trains and parades, as well as presidential inaugurals in Washington, D.C. He was the first wagon master of the National Pike Festival in 2000 before he died as a result of a tractor accident.

With state, local and private funding, the James Shaull Foundation offers educational and historical wagon trains through the state of Maryland.

For many generations of families in the region, it has been a tradition. Secretary-Treasurer and National Pike Festival co-organizer Chad Walker says he’s been riding horses for a long time and attending the National Pike Festival for about 12 years. He will drive a replica Conestoga wagon with Belgian horses.

Other families have second or third-generation participants. Some of the older folks had to step back a few years ago from the organization of it or give up the reins literally on participating. Younger history lovers like Walker stepped up to make sure it kept rolling.

“I wanted to help to keep it going, and pass on the value of the education and history of the road,” Walker said. “I’ve been riding Western for a long time, and five or six years ago I started driving a wagon. We anticipate a good turnout.”

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the wagons didn’t roll for two years. Last year, the wagon train was as busy as ever, with 17 surreys and wagons, and 42 or 43 outriders (horseback riders), he said.

Set up of an authentic encampment is 5 p.m. on Friday evening, May 19, at Clear Spring Volunteer Fire Bingo Hall, 12323 Big Spring Road. The public is invited to the encampment. There will be live music.

Talk with reenacting members of the foundation, check out the horses, mules and covered wagons as they gather to start their long trip on Saturday morning.

Saturday morning the wagon train parades through Clear Spring and moves to the circa 1850 Wilson’s Store, Huyett’s Crossroads and Wacohu Grange. It will stop about 10:30 a.m. at Wilson’s Store.

Walk back in time and witness all these wagons starting out their venture down Route 40. Many participants dress in period attire. A perfect photo opportunity is the crossing of the old Wilson Bridge about 11:15 a.m. (All times are approximate.)

The wagon train proceeds to Wacohu Grange for lunch and on to Hagerstown City Park about 2 p.m., then Funkstown Community Park around 4 or 5 p.m. for overnight camp. Sunday, it proceeds down Old National Pike to end at Boonsboro’s Shafer Memorial Park.

The many locations give you lots of chances to visit with and talk to the participants, all for free. Meals are sold at some locations like Wacohu Grange and Shafer Memorial Park for a nominal fee. Some stops are near other historic sites of interest, such as the Jonathan Hager House and The Railroad Museum.

For more information, see the foundation’s Facebook page at National Pike Festival and James Shaull Wagon Train-Maryland or https://jamesshaullwagontr.wixsite.com. Email jamesshaullwagontrainfdn@gmail.com or call 540-303-3083.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 edition of At Home Places magazine, a publication of Herald-Mail Media.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail: You can see horses and wagons up close at the National Pike Festival