2016 Trip Seven, The Berkshires, Sept. 22-23

George Rogers Clark Memorial in Vincennes Indiana

George Rogers Clark Memorial in Vincennes Indiana

Madison, WI Friday Sept. 23

I was wrong. Hard to believe I know, but still it happened. However, that is a Friday story and I am starting on Thursday. We left Chillicothe and drove US 50 to Cincinnati through south central Ohio. This is a rural area and on a two lane road we observed a constant stream of Trump signs. Whether this represents the thoughts of most residents in the area or only a most active political sign planting team, I can not say. I only report what we saw.

William Howard Taft house

William Howard Taft house

Our destination in Cincinnati was only one locale, not the entire city. We visited the William Howard Taft National Historic Site. Taft was our 27th President from 1909 to 1913 and the only U.S. President to also be the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1921-1930. Sometimes Taft is best known, unfortunately, for his size, weighing as much as 350 pounds. The Taft family started in Vermont and the father, Alphonse, came to Cincinnati to practice law. Alphonse had his own highly successful political career, serving as US Attorney General and Secretary of War. He was appointed Minister to Austria-Hungary and Imperial Russia. Alphonse and his two wives (Fanny who died and Louisa) began a political dynasty in Ohio, with descendants still prominently active today.

William Howard Taft was born in 1857 and through luck, hard work, good education, family influence, and the ambition he and his wife brought to his life propelled him into successful political endeavors from an early age. He was ethical and of high integrity. He brought about good results in positions as dissimilar as collector of revenue, U.S. Solicitor General, Secretary of War, Head of Panama Canal Commission, and Governor of the Philipines. Taft was not an active candidate for President but was Teddy Roosevelt’s Vice President and when Roosevelt did not seek a third term, Taft was selected.

A "what not" cabinet in the Taft house

A “what not” cabinet in the Taft house

Unfortunately for Taft, he was less successful as President-as he agreed. He had no real power base to work with a fractured Congress. He did not enjoy the give and take of legislation making and was not decisive. Not to say that his four years were worthless; he got the first income tax adopted and was aggressive in challenging monopolies by instituting numerous anti-trust suits and federal oversight of the powerful railroads.

He ran for a second term but a three-way race against Roosevelt and Wilson gave the victory to Woodrow Wilson. His post-Presidential years were active but the highlight was his time as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He relished the law and this position, one that had been a long-held goal. He is recognized for an excellent job as Chief Justice; stream-lining the court, reducing the backlog, obtaining the right for the Court to select which cases it reviewed, and the building of the first, and current, Supreme Court building. He died in 1930.

The NPS site covers Taft but also delves into the other Tafts and the service they performed to Cincinnati and to Ohio. This is the house where Taft grew up and while they moved away, it makes for a good exhibit display area. The furnishings are sparse since the house had been sold and was close to being demolished before being renovated. The Taft family includes two U.S. Senators and one Ohio Governor. One member served on Cincinnati city council. One couple collected art and gave their collection to the city and it is now the Taft Museum of Art. And the list could go on.

As we left, Chris said the family struck her as an early Midwestern equivalent of the Kennedy’s; committed to public service and philanthropy.

Traveling along one of our back roads. No Interstate highway here.

Traveling along one of our back roads. No Interstate highway here.

Our afternoon Thursday was spent driving US 50 again. The early portion was along the Ohio River in Cincinnati’s industrial river heritage area. Barge and rail terminal and facilities were prominent. We crossed into Indiana and drove through small towns without notable features. Agriculture was the predominant industry. We saw road signs to be watchful for Amish buggies but did not see any. Evidently this portion of Indiana had been heavily forested when the first European settlers arrived. They cut down the trees and started planting crops. Unlike portions of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin that has also been forested, the soil under the Indiana forests was excellent for growing crops. We arrived in Vincennes Indiana at dinner time, ready to explore Friday morning.

Inside the George Rogers Clark Memorial

Inside the George Rogers Clark Memorial

So, Friday our first visit was to the National Historical Park of George Rogers Clark. As we entered, the first visitors of the day, the Ranger on duty asked us if we knew anything about Clark. We both nodded yes, of course, he was the guy that went exploring out west, you know, Lewis and Clark. Wrong! George Rogers Clark was the older brother of that other Clark, William Clark. Oops. So why then did this site have a huge memorial to some guy we did not know? I mean, the memorial is 80 feet high and 180 feet across. It has granite from Vermont, Minnesota and Alabama; marble from Italy, France, and Tenessee; limestone from Indiana; and seven murals 16 feet by 28 feet. In short, this guy was responsible for the new United States gaining all of the area north of the Ohio River during the peace settlement of 1883. This Northwest Territory became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the very eastern portion of Minnesota. Whew!

The NPS site had an excellent video supplemented with additional information from a knowledgeable and helpful Ranger. She provided us with background material before the video and answered our numerous questions. Hopefully I can give a concise summary without missing too many nuances.

To set the stage, the year is 1778. The Revolutionary War is underway and the Brisith pretty much hold the western frontier and Canada. American settlers have ignored the British King’s command and have started to settle west of the Appalachian Mountains, primarily into Kentucky (then part of Virginia). The British have few troops though and rely on American Indians to raid and kill Americans in the Kentucky region. The British paid the Indians for scalps brought back. 1777 is a particularly difficult for the settlers, with increasing raids and deaths.

George Rogers Clark was a Kentucky military leader who persuaded the Virginia Governor, Patrick Henry, to allow Clark to recruit volunteers and go on the offensive against the British. A small band of volunteers signed up and Clark lead them down the Ohio. Their eventual objective was Fort Detroit via three settlements/forts at Vincennes IN, and Cahokia and Kaskaskia IL. Through diplomacy, surprise, bluff and assistance from others (remember this is a concise summary), all three settlements land in the hands of Clark and his men. British commander Henry Hamilton heard of Clark’s work, marched down from Fort Detroit with his troops and Indian allies, and was able to recapture Vincennes (Fort Sackville) in late December. It was now winter and Hamilton sent home many of his Indian troops and French militia who had stayed in the New World and went to work for the British.

Clark heard of the reduction in troops at Fort Sackville and began a 180 mile march from Kaskaskia to Vincennes in February 1779. That winter, the land was flooded and rivers were now lakes. Clark and his volunteers made a march through water ranging in height from the tops of their boots to their necks. It took them 2.5 weeks and they went without food for the last several days. They arrived at Vincennes and surprised the fort, ending with its surrender.

While Clark was unable to follow up and attack Fort Detroit, the victory at Fort Sackville led to its inclusion in the United States in the peace negotiations. It took until the War of 1812 to completely consolidate the land under formal U.S.control as the British continued to be involved in the area from their base in Canada.

The memorial was dedicated in 1936 and made a part of the National Park Service in 1966.

After our visit was over, we drove a short ways to the Red Skelton Museum at Vincennes University. I know, younger people are asking: Who is Red Skelton? First off, he was born in Vincennes. Second, he was a famous comedian who started in circus acts in the 1930s. He advanced to having his own radio show, then went into movies during WWII. From 1951 to 1971 he had his own weekly TV comedy show.

In the Red Skelton Museum

In the Red Skelton Museum

It may be hard for younger people to realize the impact and universality Red Skelton had. In the 1930s and 1940s, families were lucky to have one radio. There were not many stations available. A show like Red Skelton’s would bring the whole family together to gather to listen to the show. Thus, basically the whole country listened to him. TV was the same. THere were only three major TV channels and TV shows were heard by everyone. Unlike now, with multiple TV, radio, video, Internet options available, there is no universal experience that draws people together. Red Skelton, and others like him, created a common bond. During the Depression and WWII, a comedy show drew a huge audience and allowed Americans to have a moment of lightness.

That is about the summary of this trip. We drove Friday afternoon to Madison WI and should arrive home by noon on Saturday. However, we are back on the road in a few days as we head out to the Rocky Mountains.

Ed and Chris

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