Walking in the Footsteps of History

Photo-report of Leg 1: RI and CT

by Ralph Nelson (Kirkwood Chapter, Delaware Society SAR)

Wednesday, June 23

The day started in Farmington. As we drove along Main Street (Route 10) -- the route taken by Rochmbeau's army -- we enjoyed seeing many Revolutionary-era homes that have been carefully preserved and restored.

In Plainville we met representatives of the local press and several hikers who wanted to accompany Lee today. They pointed out a path along the river that led to the French campsite south of Farmington and set off. Unfortunately for Lee's feet, the path ended after two miles due to lack of regular trimming, so they had to push through meadows with six-foot grass, then ford a fifty-foot wide stream. After a trek of eight miles they returned to the van.

While they walked the trail I stopped to visit the Farmington Congregational Church (founded in 1652). The present building was built in 1771 and is three-stories tall, not counting the steeple.

The miles, shoes, and socks were hard on Lee's feet. Several blisters formed and broke, requiring medication. Lee added an extra shock-adsorbing pad inside his shoes to reduce the pounding his toe joints were getting from hiking on asphalt. While this and gel pads on the blisters helped, the condition of his feet remained a matter of concern.

Lee ended this day's walk in Plainville. The roads near Hartford cross several large rivers and boggy areas in only a few places, so we had to drive twenty miles on the Interstate to circle around a tangled network of local roads to get from Wethersfield (where we are staying for three days) to Farmington and then back on this evening. Because of all the side trips to get supplies, see historic sights, get to presentations, and get to our motels the van travelled about eight times as far as Lee walked (not counting driving up from Delaware).

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Thursday, June 24

After checking the route from Plainville through Marion to Waterbury we joined Ken Buckbee (president of the Conecticut Society SAR) and Albin Weber (re-enactor) at the Pierpont Cemetery, which contains a monument honoring the two unknown French soldiers (from Rochambeau's army) who are buried there. Ken wore a frontiersman uniform; Albin wore a Continental uniform. Also present was Homer Lantier, a resident of Connecticut and a member of the Branch Francaise of the SAR. His ancestor was one of Rochambeau's troops.

Albin Weber performed the traditional ceremony of grief and respect for the dead by firing a single musket shot and taking a barrel-down pose.

Lee and the re-enactors then marched (with a police escort) three and a half miles to the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, where we spoke to an audience of about seventy people. Ken and Albin provided additional comments about the local effort to commemorate the W3R. Lee than walked to Breakneck Hill, where we picked him up to explore by car the route to Southbury.

A TV crew from Channel 8 videotaped the march, as well as our vidoegrapher from Rhode Island, who drove to Waterbury to get additional footage of Lee's walk. The event made the 5 o'clock news, including brief comments from Lee, Albin, Ken, and several bystanders.

An article by Ryan Kelly in the Republican American (Waterbury CT) helped publicize information about the historic events and the development of the W3R as a historic trail to a much wider audience than we reached in the lectures. The photographers were drawn to men in uniform, so although Lee was the focus of the article, the photo is of the local re-enactors -- who do the important work of educating the public over a period of several years, while we could provide a highlight event for only one day.

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Friday, June 25

Albin Weber took us on a tour of the old roadways and possible campsites of the French army around Southbury. Lee and I then did more exploring on our own. One of Lee's tasks is to make on-the-spot observations to help the historians decide which of several proposed campsites or roadways is most likely to have been the one used by the allied forces. To do this he must envision what the landscape would have been like 223 years ago.

It was cleared farmland then, not the second-growth forest one often sees there now. Many swamps that blocked travel then have been drained or filled in, and rocky outcroppings have been blasted away or buried to make a level area, so what may seem an obvious route today was impossible for wagons to get through during the Revolution.

In 1781 the rocks removed from the fields were often piled up as thick stone walls along both sides of a road. The roadways were too narrow for a modern auto route, and they were hard to dismantle, so many early asphalt roads were laid out along another route, thus the old road was not destroyed. Eighty years later the local residents may not know that the "new" road with the old name is not the original route. We believe that this was the case for Breakneck Hill in Middlebury.

As we walked on the original (we believe) roadway we found a small arched bridge that allows a spring rivulet to run under the road rather than making a muddy mess of the road. We hope historians can answer the question "Was this bridge built by the French road crew that preceded the army so that the baggage train would not get bogged down in the mud here?

Dinner with the Weber family was followed by a reception with local historians, at which the re-enactors of the 5th Connecticut Regiment gave a demonstration of volley fire.

We gave our presentation in uniform -- but without our video slide show -- to an auduence of about seventy people. This is Ralph in uniform and a moustache grown specifically for presentations along the route of march.

Saturday, June 26

Due to the condition of Lee's feet and his non-W3R schedule we drove home (to NJ and then DE) early in the morning rather than walking into New York. We reviewed the route from Southbury CT to the Bedford NY area from the van window -- much more forested now than it was then, but clearly quite hilly and hard to march through. In 1781 the road probably have twisted and turned a lot to provide a gentle grade, since otherwise double teams (slowing the journey) would have been required to pull the baggage wagons up the many steep hills.

In summary, we had a fine time following the route and meeting many enthusiastic supporters of the W3R, and we made presentations about the W3R to hundreds of people (and through TV and papers we informed thousands more). It was good to get home, where we continued to work on plans for the next three legs of the trip.

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