If one French-Indian guide had not been a particularly bad shot, George Washington would have died in this Butler County village when he passed through at the age of 21, after failing to negotiate a treaty with the French.
Washington dubbed the village “Murdering Town” in his journal of 1753. That was after he and guide Christopher Gist nearly lost their lives as they returned from delivering a blunt message from England's King George, telling the French to get off his land.
Washington and Gist received a polite but curt French refusal. They made haste back toward Virginia, only to lose their canoe in icy river rapids. Arriving here, they met an Indian guide who agreed to show them the fastest route to the forks of the Ohio.
Just a few yards along the path, the Indian turned and fired his musket point-blank at Washington.
“Luckily, he missed,” said Martin O'Brien, a retired Butler County judge and local historian. “Democracy and the world would not be the same if Washington had lost his life here. I sometimes wonder if people grasp that fact.”
O'Brien believes the nation that Washington and America's other Founders put in place represents the height of human history, by proving that free people can govern themselves. “At the founding of America, few folks had ever had the right to elect their own government,” he said.
Last week, Butler County seemed to be a million miles distant from President Barack Obama as he dismissed gun owners' concerns that gun-control legislation would lead to gun confiscation, declaring that he was “constrained by a system our founders put in place.”
The disconnect between Washington and Main Street has deepened in the past seven years.
It began under the presidency of George W. Bush and a Republican-controlled Congress that spent like drunken fools.
Voters threw out those Republicans in favor of Democrats in the congressional midterms of 2006, followed by Obama in 2008. But voters quickly learned that Democrats spent like drunken fools, too — and with an added insult: government overreach.
Out went the congressional Democrats in 2010.
Obama kept his job in 2012 because of rhetoric that divided the country on class, race and intellectual elitism — and also because folks like those who live in Butler County, Democrat and Republican alike, stayed home and said, “To hell with all of you!”
The divide between Main Street and urban America has become more toxic than ever, yet no one in Washington seems to notice. A CBS News survey last week showed that eight in 10 Americans are unhappy with Washington and that Obama's approval has plummeted seven points in one month.
Todd Kozik's family business in Butler County, a small earth-moving company specializing in residential construction, took a big dive in 2008 as the economy sank.
“I went from 50 employees to under 20,” Kozik said, an impact he feels was lost on the White House.
When the shale company Rex Energy came to Butler in 2010, Kozik's fortunes changed. Today, his company builds access roads and prepares the ground for drilling sites, he said.
“We built our company back up, and now we are doing better than we were before the recession. And you see the trickle-up effects, other small businesses in town are beginning to flourish,” he said.
“But what we still don't get from Washington is clarity, what regulations or new policies are going to impact our bottom line,” he said of his and other small businesses in the region. “In many ways, you are hesitant about where and when to spend to grow.”
Butler County's place in America's energy industry isn't new, said William McCarrier, a county commissioner and retired schoolteacher. “One hundred years ago, when Edwin Drake first proved that oil could be tapped from underground for consistent supply, we were providing 80 percent of the world's oil supply,” he said.
Only 266 miles separate this county from Washington, D.C. Part of that distance follows along Washington's Trail, a commemorative route marking young George Washington's first military and diplomatic ventures.
Many Butler County residents think it is high time that Washingtonians travel it again, to better understand the America that feels left behind.
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
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