Back in the early- to mid-1800s, when the nation’s first federally funded interstate highway was laid, it was a whip-stitch combination of dirt, gravel, tree stumps and planks. Stretching 824 miles across six states, gridlock was a snarl of carriages and Conestoga wagons, travelers on horseback and on foot and herds of livestock, all kicking up clouds of dust and generally ignoring right-of-way. Talk about road rage.
My own travels on the National Road — which connects the tiny towns of Cambridge City, Centerville and Richmond, Ind. — were much smoother and blissfully reflective of the small-town vibe as I looked for artifacts of that first road.
Almost immediately, I came upon the Madonna of the Trail. The strapping, 18-foot monument of a pioneer mother with a child clinging to her long skirt, an infant in one arm and a rifle in her other is an impressive tribute to the women of America’s covered wagon days. Though comfortable in my upholstered seat and air-conditioning, I felt a connection to the women who have passed before me. I continued down the road eager to see more vestiges of Richmond’s past.
Boutiques, bed and breakfasts and museums have
replaced yesteryear’s gristmills, tanneries and blacksmith shops. Luckily, the town’s legacy lives on in rare architecture.
I was in no hurry and strolled the streets of Centerville, known locally as the “City of Arches” for its numerous Federal-style brick rowhouses with archways. The same feature is reflected in the curving entryway that welcomed me to the historic Lantz House Inn, a bed and breakfast famous for lemon ricotta-cheese pancakes. (Outside the reach of any large city’s thriving culinary scene, these were fine-dining delicacies I did not expect.)
Collecting my keys to the Garden Suite, my morning at the Lantz House Inn left me with an odd sensation of stepping back in time. The suite was tucked into its own rowhouse, decadent with a Jacuzzi tub and private patio entrance to a garden resplendent with blooms. The room was peaceful in spite of its location on the National Road, and I was tempted to slip away into this retreat immediately.
Yet Centerville seemed to be a village abuzz with energy as I passed scads of independently owned shops. I took a minute to pop into the studio of potter Scott Shafer, getting an impromptu tour of two kilns he’s built. They were cold, so he scrambled right in to show how much pottery can be fired at one time (at temps hot enough to melt brick).
With pottery on my mind, I made a beeline to the Museum of Overbeck Art Pottery in nearby Cambridge City. Here, the four Overbeck sisters created painted porcelain, lustrous figurines and redware so beautiful, it was hard to resist touching a piece. Subtle hues in matte glaze and turquoise, bright glaze and heliotrope were born from a formula the women apparently took to the grave.
A few pieces are also housed at the Richmond Art Museum, which I was intrigued to visit as it is the only independent art museum in a public school. The ceramics blended seamlessly amid the museum’s collection of American Impressionists.
As fascinating as the Overbeck glazing technique was, it was soon trumped by the knowledge that the town was also home to two mummies. I visited one, 3,000 years old and lying in a hushed gallery at the Wayne County Historical Museum. The sight of the painted sarcophagus, surrounded by 12 glass cases displaying objects that had been preserved for the afterlife, was strangely enchanting.
The whole museum enthralled me as I browsed through displays of a one-room schoolhouse and early Richmond-made automobiles, Native American pottery and a pioneer kitchen. Being an aficionado of 19th and 20th century dolls, I especially relished an exhibit of antique dolls and dollhouses.
It was only when the light finally began to dim that the sight of a Conestoga wagon suggested that I, like its pioneering occupants, ought to pack it up and get back on the road.