Bicentennial Wagon Train signatures are lost pieces of American past

In the spring of 1976, Glenn Cooper belonged to his local saddle club in Waukesha, Wis. He also belonged to the 4-H where he showed Cherokee, a pinto pony that was white with mahogany splotches and a tail that eased from ivory to brown — a horse that would take grand prize in the state 4-H competition later that year. It was probably because of the horse that Cooper learned about the scrolls.

Someone in the saddle club or the 4-H club told Cooper about the historic Bicentennial Wagon Trains that were winding their way through all 48 contiguous states, and how one train was going to pass through Burlington, Wis., which wasn’t far from where Cooper lived. At every location, these wagon trains would pass out Rededication Scrolls for people to sign, symbolizing commitment to America on her 200th birthday.

Cooper’s mother suggested, in a way that celebrated both patriotism and penmanship, that it might be more authentic if Cooper used a fountain pen and India ink. He practiced calligraphy for weeks. It was easier than he thought it would be; the trick was to go slowly, one letter at a time.

The wagon train came. Cooper and Cherokee rode with it from Burlington to Lyons. At the end, he handed the train’s wagonmaster the scroll that he and the saddle club had all signed together.

He was 14.

His scroll, and all of the other scrolls like it being distributed in all of the other towns, and signed by all of the other people around the United States, were going to be collected and buried near Valley Forge.

“I was told that these were going to be put in a time capsule and opened again in 100 years,” Cooper remembers. He’s an electrician now, still in Wisconsin. He figured he wouldn’t be around to see that opening and neither would his kids, but his grandkids might. They could go to Valley Forge and watch as earth was unpacked and the capsule was unpacked and a piece of their grandfather’s history was unpacked, combined with the history of America.

It won’t happen.

Cooper signed a scroll. President Gerald R. Ford signed a scroll. Governors and lieutenant governors and bakers and accountants and children signed scrolls. Thirty-five years ago, 22 million Americans signed their names to these scrolls, and then the scrolls disappeared.

This is a mystery. It’s a mystery of measurable dimensions and concrete concepts. Something was there, and now it is gone. The scrolls had someplace to go, but they didn’t make it. This is a mystery about the warehouses of America. How entire civilizations are buried in square, windowless storage worlds that no one ever visits. How Indiana Jones had it right after all — that the Ark of the Covenant probably isn’t underground in Ethi­o­pia but resting on a climate-controlled shelf in Landover, Md.

This is also a mystery of the human psyche: the brain’s impulse to collect things. The soulful belief that the things we collect will be important to posterity. The slow, sad letdown when we realize that posterity doesn’t care.

The need to seek.

Still searching

“I have been in every attic and basement in this place. I have been in buildings that don’t even exist anymore. The only thing I have here is two . . . pictures of a wagon train. The scrolls? We. Don’t. Have. Them.”

The archivist of Valley Forge National Historical Park is named Dona McDermott. She has worked there for nearly 20 years, but she’s lived in the area longer. She remembers when all of the wagon trains came to Valley Forge and parked for the Fourth of July because she was there, a kid in her 18th-century costume. McDermott has a frank, matter-of-fact tone that borders on exasperation when she talks about the scrolls. This makes sense. Her career is based on knowing what to save and where, and what she knows is that Valley Forge does not have the scrolls.

But people keep looking.

“Every few years, we get someone,” she says. Some bright-eyed history buff, a Nicolas Cage wannabe on a mission, who pops in and hopes for the miniature glory of solving a minor mystery.

What is known is this: In June 1975, as an initiative by Pennsylvania’s Bicentennial Commission, wagon trains traveling seven different routes began making their way east, reversing the path of the United States’ westward expansion. One began in Washington state, another in Nevada, a third in Los Angeles. There was a train that snaked down from Maine and another that crept up from Orlando, each populated by a wagonmaster and a team of heady volunteers who had signed their lives away for a chance to be a part of something big and authentic. The wagons had 249 encampments and many more brief stops.

“We also had these rededication centers,” says George Ebner, who headed the 1976 commission. “There were little ladies in colonial dresses, and any Tom, Dick or Harry could come and sit in a colonial chair and sign a scroll. . . . It was a 10-by-12 stage, with the stars and the stripes and the chair and the table and the colonial lady.”

And the scrolls.

The scrolls were made and donated by Encyclopaedia Britannica. Across the top, “Pledge of Rededication” was written in big letters. Underneath was a snippet from the Declaration of Independence and a promise that signers would recommit themselves to the principles of the Founding Fathers. They were made of parchment, pleasantly rough and durable and old-fashioned-looking. Towns had big dinners to celebrate the signing of the scrolls and solemn ceremonies to present them.

“We took them to [nearly] every school in St. Louis County,” remembers Ken Ward, who left his job as a school principal to become an assistant wagonmaster on a route that passed through Missouri. “We had them all in boxes, and they were pretty secure. We took them to Pennsylvania like we were supposed to.”

In Pennsylvania, President Ford signed one like he was supposed to, at 9:40 a.m., as part of a festive ceremony. Someone got so excited about the president’s signature that they wrote the wrong date — his scroll was dated July 3.

And then, what was supposed to happen apparently did not.

At 9:50 a.m., after signing his scroll, the president signed something else: a bill making Valley Forge, which had been run by Pennsylvania, into a national park.

Bureaucracy ensued.

After the festivities ended and the park transition began, Valley Forge assumed that the scrolls went to the State Archives in Harrisburg, along with other historic documents.

But the archives say that their meticulously arranged records offer no hint that they ever received the scrolls.

A pamphlet published after the Wagon Train ended claims that the scrolls were sorted by members of a local church and then passed on, but it doesn’t say exactly where.

Unproven theories

At one point, the story began circulating that the time capsule containing the scrolls — a sturdy aluminum box made by Reynolds Metals — was stolen from a van before it could be buried. Oddly, Reynolds doesn’t have any records of making a Wagon Train time capsule, although it has records of making capsules for all 50 states and all U.S. territories to celebrate the bicentennial.

At one point, someone thought that the scrolls were going to be turned into microfilm, but nobody seems to know whether that happened.

At another time, someone thought the scrolls had been dumped in the Keene Warehouse in Valley Forge with some other stuff from the trail, but that building has been torn down.

Sometimes things pop up in strange places. Sometimes history isn’t really missing. One time, McDermott went down to the basement of a Valley Forge building and found a leftover official bicentennial trash can made of cardboard.

Never scrolls.

“If you end up finding them,” McDermott says wearily, “let me know.”

A mathematical description of the problem:

Each rededication scroll had spaces for 24 signatures, assuming nobody wrote on the back.

To accommodate 22 million signatures, about 917,000 pieces of paper would be required.

Let us assume that each sheet of paper is .0028 inch thick, which is a very conservative estimate, according to the Wikipedia entry on paper thickness.

This works out to approximately 2,568 inches of thickness, or 214 feet.

We are not talking about one box, stuffed in a corner, accidentally shelved next to the Christmas lights.

We are talking about a stack of paper that, unbroken, would be as tall as a 20-story building.

How did it just get lost?

Back in the 1990s, the International Time Capsule Society — a one-man operation run by a Georgia Perimeter College professor named Paul Hudson — published a list of the most-wanted time capsules. Apparently a lot more are buried than are ever dug up. The cornerstone that George Washington laid for the U.S. Capitol is missing, the Society says. So are 17 time capsules buried by the city of Corona, Calif., in the 1930s, and one marking the centennial of Lyndon, Vt.

The No. 1 missing time capsule on the ITCS list is the one made for the Bicentennial Wagon Train.

Dwindling hope

Almost everyone who could have said where they went is dead, including the last superintendent of Valley Forge as a state institution, the woman who oversaw PR for the Wagon Train, and the park’s chief advocate and preservationist.

The very existence of time capsules is based on the premise that people will care about their contents long after those who filled them are gone and that the totems of one generation will translate to another. Twenty-two million signatures represent 22 million people — a tenth of America’s population at the time — who wanted to believe their lives mattered.

Perhaps there’s an unknown celebrity signature or two buried in those signatures, but would anyone else’s name really reveal anything but historical penmanship and naming trends?

As it happens, the week Ford signed his Rededication Scroll at Valley Forge, he went back to Washington and participated in the opening of a time capsule that had been sealed in the Capitol 100 years before, in 1876. Inside, he found a complete federal payroll list and a bunch of old photographs.

“This is a photograph of an early statesman,” the president reportedly said, picking up one photograph. “I don’t know his name.”

The Pennsylvania State Archives are housed in a tall, narrow building in a government plaza in downtown Harrisburg. The visitors’ entrance backs onto a courtyard; the reading area is all institutional beiges and humming fluorescent lights. It does not feel like a place of historic discovery.

The archives have dozens of cartons related to Valley Forge and dozens more related to the celebration of the bicentennial. Two of these cartons are specifically dedicated to the Wagon Train, and if you request them on a slip of paper, someone will go into the bowels of the archives and dig them out for you. Two boxes, medium-size, smelling of must — the closest to the scrolls that anyone can get these days.

What unfolds, in page after page of correspondence, ledgers and billing statements, is complicated.

The Wagon Train project was government-funded but conceptualized and overseen almost entirely by a Philadelphia public relations firm. Expenses got out of control. So did participation. Only 60 wagons were provided by the firm, but 200 more homemade ones eventually joined the route. Only 200,000 scrolls were originally printed by Encyclopaedia Britannica, but those ran out in the first week. Only 14 toilets were made available for the July 4 celebration, but 75,000 revelers showed up. It was like Woodstock for history buffs.

One can imagine scrolls getting lost in these circumstances, at the juncture of earnestness and marketing and patriotism. The story of events gaining momentum, becoming both more commercial and heartfelt, is a very American story.

People fell in love on that eastward wagon train. People got married and conceived babies. At least one person died.

On every major anniversary of the 1976 wagon train, the participants who are still living travel to Valley Forge to reminisce about the year they spent together on covered wagons, full of optimism about America and what it meant. With every meeting their numbers dwindle, but they will meet again this July 4.

When the number falls to zero, they will stop meeting, and everyone will stop wondering about the scrolls.

George Ebner, the bicentennial commissioner, is probably one of the last people to have seen the scrolls before they went missing. When he saw them, they were packed in boxes and loaded onto a truck that he thought was heading toward the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which is now affiliated with the State Archives.

“My two favorite holidays are Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July,” Ebner says. “So every time we get even close to it, I wonder about the scrolls. Or I used to.”

He doesn’t wonder anymore, and not because he’s forgotten or his curiosity has waned. Not at all. “I stopped wondering as soon as I realized I might not want to know the answer,” he says. Paradoxically, as long as the scrolls are missing, they still exist, at least in Ebner’s mind. “I would like to think that they are out there somewhere.”

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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