Tolkien wrote: “not all those who wander are lost.” Ed and Rachel Barnhart are this sentiment sprung to vivid life. When they retired in 2004, the intrepid RVers hooked up their Alfa Gold fifth wheel on a mission to see all that God created and man constructed…and find the best pizza in the USA. From the beaches of Seattle, Ed and Rachel set their sights on Maine. From there they would turn south toward the sunshine, only to be greeted by the worst Mother Nature had unleashed in decades. Undaunted, the Barnharts headed off into the sunset, through the southwest and across the Rio Grande to the shores of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. From sea to shining sea and back again, all in their first year in the “Land of Awes.” In Chapter 13, modern day Pilgrims, Ed and Rachel, meet their circa-1629 counterparts, go to a 17th Century Open House and explore the oldest ironworks in America.
The plantation from the meeting house Our travels in the modern Land of Awes have taken us to countless rich historical sites, but nowhere quite as immersive as Plymouth. This little village and the Rock that bears its name was a stepping-stone for both the colonization of the New World and a foundation for the way Americans think, talk and interact today. To get the most from this experience, we set aside an entire day to explore Plymouth, the nearby waterfront and the incredible Mayflower II.
Despite being founded in the early 17th century, Plimoth Plantation (the traditional spelling) is still a work in progress. Exhaustive, continual research and study of colonial texts and architectural ruins continue to inform scholars about how “life really was” in colonial America during the early 1600’s. Each time a new discovery is made or an understood fact is tweaked, the village and its dedicated cast of Pilgrims adapt. This undertaking requires extensive personal research and training. The Plimoth Plantation cast is not merely actors posing in dioramas, they are like time capsules living and working as their forebears would.
Each villager chooses an individual Pilgrim, studies that person’s life through journals and other historical documents and assumes the identity of that person. Listening to and speaking with the “villagers” it was clear each of these folks had invested a great deal of time and effort in study for his or her role. But, despite their intense dedication to their craft, the villagers are not without a thoroughly modern sense of humor. As we explored the village we happened upon a carpenter and thatcher busily repairing two houses using period-appropriate tools. Just inside the property line a sign announced that the house in question had been placed for sale by the Century 17 Real Estate Brokerage. A tiny touch of levity surrounded by accurate depictions of a hardscrabble lifestyle.
Atop a hill, the meetinghouse offered us a terrific panoramic view of the entire village: timber buildings and palisade backed by the deep blue of the Atlantic. Walking among the villagers and occasionally asking questions allowed us to imagine exactly what life would have been like for these brave, desperate souls. The grit, determination and faith necessary to leave the known behind and sail off into dangerous uncertainty are both unfathomable and compelling. Setting off in our Alfa offered us a taste of the unknown and the adventure of a lifetime, but that is nothing when compared to stepping up the gangplank onto the Mayflower.
Our foray onto the deck of the Mayflower II was much less harrowing. We met a handful of “settlers” from the village who had been commanded to stay with the ship as well as some sailors who explained the voyage and process of sailing in the 17th century. We learned that, because she was a civilian craft, the Mayflower did not have a captain. Instead, a Master
commanded the ship and crew. We were surprised at the size of the ship. To imagine a sixty-day journey on this vessel, made mostly belowdecks, shoulder-to-shoulder with 100 of your “closest friends” reminded us to consider the few hundred square feet of space in our RV a veritable palace.
Our trip back in time at Plymouth ended where the Pilgrims journey in America began: Plymouth Rock. While this stone may not have been the literal landing point of the first excursion from the Mayflower, it stands as the symbolic foundation of purely American adventure and optimism. We capped off our day with a picnic at a small waterside park just north of Plymouth. We chatted about all the interesting and inspiring things we had seen, heard and learned – and imagined what those first Pilgrims may have said when eating their initial meal ashore in this wild and wonderful land.
The following day we took another day trip along the coast, similar to the one we enjoyed so immensely in Cape Cod (see chapter 12). This drive began along the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border and continued south to Saugus and then east along the coastline. The scenery was, once again, breathtaking. Rachel reprised her role as Official Adventure Photojournalist, snapping well over 500 digital shots.
Our only extended stop of the day was at Saugus, to tour the first ironworks in the country. Controlled entirely by the English who employed Scottish prisoners as cheap labor, Saugus Iron Works was producing iron by 1646. Intricate and dangerous, the labor of preparing raw ore to be melted and cast into everything from pots to bathtubs was controlled using several large bellows to manage the heating of ore at each stage. Molten metal not cast was poured into trenches in the sand floor to be forged into bars. The smith kept several bars heating in the furnace while he forged the hottest one. He had to take great care not to allow the heating irons to grow too hot while he worked, so it was imperative that he not have “too many irons in the fire.”
Much of the bar stock was shipped to blacksmiths in colonial towns to forge into various necessities including gear for wagons, horseshoes and nails. The nail iron was split into specific lengths, forged into nails and sold in lots of 100 for 6, 8, 10, 12 or 16 cents. Even today when you buy nails at a hardware store, you can buy 6, 8, 10, 12 or 16 “penny” nails.
Though Saugus Iron was technically successful, numerous lawsuits drove it out of business. This was good news for the now unemployed forced laborers. They were able to take their skills to various colonies where metalworking was in high demand. Spreading all over New England, they subsequently established the American Iron Industry. As we wander and wonder through New England, our exploration of colonial America is drawing ever closer to the cradle of the American Revolution: Boston.
Read previous chapters by selecting one of the links below:
Chapter 13 - Plymouth Rock and Saugus Iron
Chapter 12 - At the Atlantic and Around Cape Cod
Chapter 11 – Marches, Mozart and Mozzarella
Chapter 10 – Loving Life on the Road
Chapter 9 – Picturesque Settings & Police Surveillance
Chapter 8 – Erie Museums and Niagara Mist
Chapter 7 – The Amish and Edison
Chapter 6 – Dutch Treats and Bavarian Festivals
Chapter 5 – Two American Icons – Miller Beer and Chicago Pizza
Chapter 4 – Touring the Twin Cities
Chapter 3 – Discovering Middle America
Chapter 2 – A Trip Around the Sun
Chapter 1 – Pacific in the Rearview, We Wave Goodbye