Appalachian Wagon Train visits Westmoreland County for 50th anniversary
The 25 covered wagons and buggies traversing the back roads of Westmoreland and Fayette counties this week are powered by oats, so be careful not to step in the exhaust.
The horse- and mule-drawn wagons are part of the 2019 Appalachian Wagon Train, an annual weeklong event that is like a family summer camp on wheels.
Every year, a group of enthusiasts dressed in 19th-century garb gathers somewhere in Pennsylvania to take to the road during the day and camp out at night. They’ve been doing it for 50 years, rain or shine.
“The people I’ve met, the friends that I’ve made, are lifelong friends — friends that are probably closer to me than some of my family,” said Gary Livengood, 59, of Rockwood, Somerset County. “We’re just one big family. That’s one of the nice things about the wagon train.”
This year is a homecoming of sorts because it brings the wagon train close to its place of origin — Somerset County — and to the farm it used as a staging ground in 2012. The wagon train is based at the Chart Howard Farm on McGinnis Road, Acme, through Wednesday, at which point it will move to the Butch Stouffer Farm on Grandview Road, Acme.
Participants learned Sunday, the opening day, that Howard had died that morning. Despite the news, Howard’s family insisted the wagon train remain on the property as scheduled, said Edith “Sis” Crosby, wagon train secretary.
“This is what Chart would have wanted,” Crosby said. “He’s going to be missed by a lot of people. We loved him.”
Howard’s father, Bill, was one of the original officers of the Appalachian Wagon Train, and Howard was present for the first wagon train, which traveled from New Baltimore to Ligonier in 1970. He also pulled the souvenir wagon that year, according to the 2019 program book.
About 150 people are participating this year, either as wagon riders or outriders on horseback. They will make a series of daylong treks from their host campsites through Saturday, traveling 10 to 13 miles a day at an average speed of 3 mph.
On Monday, the wagon train departed Howard’s farm at 8 a.m. and made its way down Mennonite Camp Road, Ridgeview Road and several other back roads in Mt. Pleasant Township. Estimated time of return to the camp was 3 p.m.
The wagon train proceeds cautiously with the help of scouts on horseback at the front and the rear. When cars approach from the rear, they are waved through by a scout carrying a bright orange flag. All wagons have slow-moving vehicle signs attached to the back.
Kat Eckberg of DuBois has been a lead scout since 1997. “I’ve been through three horses,” she said.
On Monday, Eckberg was responsible for making sure the wagon train followed the predetermined route for the day. She consulted a series of cards and stayed well ahead of the wagons, communicating with other outriders through two-way radio.
Participants, many of them families with young children, stopped for lunch on Moccasin Hollow Road.
The wagon train travels with its own support, including chuck wagon, souvenir wagon, portable toilets and water. Participants return to the campsite in the evening and stay in their camper trailers overnight.
Highlights of the evening include children’s games, a campfire and dinner, which is different every night.
Crosby, 65, of Ebensburg said organizers try to keep young people away from their cellphones for the week.
“We tell them, ‘Use your imagination,’ so they’re out there being kids,” she said, noting this week’s rainy forecast will give them plenty of mud to play in.
Crosby has been a regular on the wagon train since 2007, although she rode with her grandfather, Otis Plouse, in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
After she and her husband, Terry, got their own camper, they started joining the wagon train every year. Her granddaughter represents the fifth generation of the family to participate.
“It’s something, once it gets in your blood, you have to be here. You come back year after year,” she said.
Tony Penich of Blairsville and his wife, Donna, who have been part of the wagon train since 1992, are traveling this year with their 6-year-old grandson.
“We just built a new wagon this year to accommodate him,” he said. “He usually sits in the front seat with me. It’s something that not too many kids get to do.”
Penich said the family-friendly event has evolved over the years.
“Years ago, we went from point A to point B. We don’t do that anymore because of our members being older. We only move one or two times a week. We only move from point A, then circle back to point A,” he said.
The wagon train, which usually starts on Father’s Day, is looking for communities to visit in the future. Host campsites are selected once an invitation has been proffered.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .