Wooden Nickels and the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage

Brandywine Roller Girls Wooden NickelsI knew that my wooden nickel project would start yielding unexpected, and awesome, results. Today I got my first giant bonus!

Brandywine Roller Girls sponsor Jimmy’s BBQ heard about the BRG nickels, and offered to redeem each nickel for a pulled pork sandwich. Not 10% off a sandwich. Not a free sandwich with the purchase of a meal for a family of twelve. Nope, if you get your hands on a BRG wooden nickel and bring it to Jimmy’s, they will trade that nickel for a whole delicious pulled-pork sandwich. You hand them the nickel, they hand you an insanely delicious Memphis dry-rub style pulled-pork sandwich. Oh, man, what a deal!

But wait, that’s not even the most amazing part! Jimmy’s general manager Holly told me that the reason she loves wooden nickels is from her days as a young girl riding in the Great American Wagon Train Pilgrimage. This was a huge event in 1976, in which fifty wagons(!) — one from every state — converged in five wagon trains on Valley Forge National Park. The whole thing was conceived and executed by a Philadelphia ad firm. Holly rode in the train as a young girl for a year and a half(!!!), leaving Blaine, Washington in June 1975, and arriving in Valley Forge in July, 1976.

Bicentennial Wagon Train: Bud Pena and the New Mexico WagonGOOD GOD, are you kidding me? This thing sounds like a combination between Woodstock, a gypsy caravan, and an Iron Butt motorcycle rally, with a couple of Appalachian trail through-hikes thrown in and Pa Wilder marching proudly at the head. Can you imagine the logistics involved with putting together a fifty-state wagon train, with wagons converging from every direction? Before cellphones? With a musical performance in every town?

There doesn’t seem to be a central website, or even a Wikipedia article about this huge event, but you can read lots of great tantalizing story fragments in the comments on this page. Or scroll halfway down this prim writeup by the National Parks Service, and look at pictures of the wagons here.

Have a look at these scans of the original brochure, which is a fantastic piece of long-form David Ogilvy-style copywriting. Holly hinted about all sorts of stories to come, too. “Oh yeah, our wagon master was captured by Indians.” She was quite serious.

I’ve got to learn more about this. What an amazing crossover of Madison-avenue culture, local PR gumption, and actual real-world logistics! What a cool experience riding (as Holly did) from Washington state to Valley Forge in a covered wagon at nine years old! Thanks, wooden nickels, for uncovering this story!

UPDATE: after @subewl tweeted that last photo, Sean McGlinch responded with this photo, that his grandfather had taken in front of The Guernsey Cow in Exton:

Bicentennial Wagon Train passes the Guernsey Cow

SECOND UPDATE: I just discovered that there’s a Facebook group with lots and lots of great photos.

THIRD UPDATE: Wow, every name I google in connection with this project is turning up amazing stories. The wagon train was (partially? mostly?) administered by pioneering advertising and PR executive Thelma Gray, inventor of the product recall. Thelma had, several years before, organized an across-the-country tour for the Teamsters with Ed McMahon and the Nixon administration. Good lord, it’s like finding out that P.T. Barnum lived in your own back yard, and was a lady in a tweed suit!

FOURTH UPDATE:Here’s another photo of the wagon train passing the Guernsey Cow that Sean McGlinchey sent me. I love the comment by Chris Thompson on the flickr page: “Look at all these hipsters in this instagram shot”

Bicentennial Wagon Train, 1976

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