More about the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage

In my last blog post, I hyperventilated about how my wooden nickels caused me to stumble on the story of the PR stunt to end all PR stunts — a fifty-wagon reenactment of the westward migration, with a wagon from every state converging on Valley Forge National Park in 1976.

Things have only gotten more amazing since then.


At a luau this weekend, inimitable salonnière ModBetty of Retro Roadmap gave me this wooden nickel, exclaiming that she had found it at a Phoenixville Historical Society flea market and thought of me. I loved the art, and I loved the instructions to remit five to earn a mysterious, quote-armored “Buffalo” Bill gift.

It wasn’t until we googled up the Longhorn Ranch Glen Mills that we realized that we were holding the wooden-nickel equivalent of the Pick of Destiny. The Longhorn Ranch was a beloved western-themed restaurant where cowgirls would shoot cap guns while singing “happy birthday” to you: “Happy birthday *bang bang*!” Eric Lewis had dinner there in 1977, the night before he shipped out for a career in the submarine service. And then the restaurant was torn down to make way for… are you ready for this? For PULSATIONS. I wish I knew how to permalink to Facebook comments, because so many of the memories that folks were commenting about were so great: “I ate at the Longhorn, and then later came back to see Human League and The Fixx at that same spot!” BEHOLD THE DEEP MAGIC OF THE WOODEN NICKEL.

Bicentennial Wagon Train BookOkay, back to the other thread. Since my last post, I’ve searched for the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage on the Internet, and found many interesting scattered pieces. But I had lots of questions about what seems to be a huge, audacious PR stunt. Who designed the wagons? Were they to “real” specifications? For God’s sake, who paid for all fifty to get built? Who flew back and forth across the country in smoke-filled 1970s jet planes, organizing this huge thing?

I found, and ordered, a hardcover book on the subject, and it arrived yesterday. The frontispiece of the book declares in stamped gold foil that it is “Number 2,184 in a limited edition first printing of 2,500 hallmarked and registered copies. A gift of the MAYFLOWER CORPORATION.” It is signed (with a stamp) by John B. Smith, president.

Bicentennial Wagon Train Book
And WOW, is this book a treasure trove of information. Just to start out with, the PR company that organized the campaign, began in true focus-group style — consulting Amish wagon makers, then wheelwrights and authors. They consulted with the Smithsonian, created a design, then awarded the contract to build fifty(!) wagons to an Arkansas firm with subcontractors all over the country. In a surprise local development, it turns out that the rubber-rimmed hickory wheels were made by the firm of Hoopes and Darlington right here in West Chester, PA — a company that had been in business since the 1800s.

The book is organized into five sections, one for each of the wagon train routes that converged on Valley Forge. It’s packed with pictures – Lydia is enjoying leafing through and looking for pictures of brown horses with white blazes.

Bicentennial Wagon Train Book

For every question this book answers, two more present themselves to my mind. In the course of Googling, I saw that Thelma Gray, literal-and-figurative pioneer of the Philadelphia advertising community, had organized a country-wide tour called “America On the Move” with Ed McMahon, and backed by the Teamsters. It ended somewhat shakily; was this campaign, with major backing from the Mayflower corporation, a savvy way of rebooting a troubled initiative? (If so, it will only increase my respect for Thelma, who has a valid claim to have invented the product recall.)

Bicentennial Wagon Train Book

Bicentennial Wagon Train BookI’m in love with the story of the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage. What an amazing trip! I can’t wait to go back to Jimmy’s Barbecue in Malvern and ask Holly a whole bunch of questions. As the daughter of one of the PR firm’s heads, she rode every mile of the trip, spending a whole year in a wagon. Was her dad one of the fellows who worked to make this happen? How did her dad make the transition from Philly ad-man to rootin’, tootin’, rawhide wagon boss?

I mean, this is a mammoth campaign; this isn’t like one of those “Vikings attack Penn’s Landing” events that turns out to be five potbellied dudes in a rowboat (I still remember that particular disappointment from sixth grade, and I am still bitter.) This is a wagon train re-enactment that’s the same scope as the original. I love to imagine neatly-pressed interns, fresh from reading “Ogilvy on Advertising“, trying to find someone to shoe a Morgan horse at 2AM, scowling around a soggy Marlboro, wishing cellphones had been invented already. There’s a movie in here, and it’s a movie I very much want to see!

Once I’m done reading every word in this book, I’ll ask the West Chester Public Library if they’d be willing to keep it in their collection, so y’all can see it too.

Good God almighty, what is the next amazing thing that wooden nickels will reveal? I can’t wait to find out!

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