We’ headed south and Crossing the Mason-Dixon to Delta, PA. Today’s road venture takes us to the very edge of the Pennsylvania Maryland border. I’ve planned this trip for several days, spending hours devouring the delight of possible routes on my AAA map. We will cross the Mason Dixon line, the historic demarcation between North and South. In the 1760’s Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were engaged to determine the actual limits of Pennsylvania and Maryland. King Charles’ land grants to Penn and to Calvert seemed to overlap. Because of the border uncertainty, disputes arose during the 1730’s. Armed conflict erupted among the residents. Mason and Dixon’s survey ended the question. One of the curious results of the survey and ultimate agreement was that Maryland ceded what is now Delaware County to Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania ceded the odd semi-circle area below Philadelphia to Delaware.
It’s 9am. I put my four boys in the car, Felix and Oscar, Finley and Franklin. I load up their water bottle and set out their leashes. I have my AAA map in the driver’s door pocket. We start our road venture by escaping the suburbs on Rt 202 South. 202 will merge with Rt 30 at Doylestown. Rt 30 will then take us to our principal highway of the day, PA 372.
Driving along unknown roads gets deep inside you. What you see on a wayside road will not be monumental. What you see will not be found in books of art or history. But, there is something intensely vibrant along the roadside: something that speaks of an otherwise silent world. 372 opens my experience to worlds that are at opposite ends of American life styles. As the road rises and falls, twists and turns we are flanked by Amish farms that continue as they have for hundreds of years. Then, the country side gives way to Pennsylvania factory towns. Do folks in the Philadelphia metropolitan area even know that such places exist? Do they know that there are still active factories within an hour of the city? I have to say that I myself find these towns something of a great surprise. They seem to appear out of nowhere in the middle of the countryside. Suddenly the fields vanish. The road opens to a town of brick and stone: Coatsville. Unlike many other old-time factory towns whose plants now sit rusting, Coatsville’s metal sheds are fully active. The sign over the doors read “Arcelor Mittal.”
From what I’ve Googled, Arcelor Mittal is a worldwide steel producing company that operates in some sixty countries. Their site notes that they are “the leading supplier of quality steel products in all major markets including automotive, construction, household appliances and packaging.” Most important, Arcelor Mittal in Coatesville provides the steel for the new World Trade Center. Who would have guessed that this plant was in the heart of rural Philadelphia? This little industrial town suddenly appears out of farmland cornfields and Amish buggies.
I want to explore a bit, so I make a turn around the block to leave 372 so I can drive along the main street. Who are the people who live in these towns? A good many are African Americans. Many seem to be Hispanic. Where did they come from? How did they get here? What brought people from the American South or from Central America to a town that even people who live in the state do not know? Actually, I could ask the same question of my own ancestry. How did my great-grandfather find his way from the Cilento of Italy to the quarries of Monson, Massachusetts?As with so many places these days many of the shops appear to be vacant. But there are also a few little spots that sparkle: store fronts that feature works by local artists and churches that seem to have things going on.
As we exit Coatsville we pass along one of the streets that so clearly illustrates life for the factory worker in the early twentieth century and even today: the street lined with identical houses: the company house. Very often these rows of brick houses, if not built by the factory in town, were built by the railroad. In the old days, the worker picked up his weekly salary at one window and then at the next window paid his rent for the company house. Visiting towns like Coastville tell you more about American history for the common family than any text book ever considers.
Just as quickly as the town appeared out of the farm lands, 372 makes a few sharp turns, the town is gone and we’re back in the corn fields again. I don’t want to rush this trip. I want to move as slowly as the buggies that pass. Another car rushes up behind me. I pull over into farm’s driveway and let the car pass. I pass cows lolling along the fence by the roadside. I pull over to see them up close. The dogs are all alert. They don’t know what to make of these big beasts outside the window. The four of them are even too startled and curious to bark.
372 weaves and bends. We rise and dip across the endless hills green with corn and pastures. Meandering along we come across a farm stand. A tractor is just bringing in a cart of fresh corn. This is a “must stop.” I tear off the husks and eat the corn raw. Corn is sweetest the moment it is picked. I pick up some corn for home and add a few tomatoes and a melon.
Christiana is our next town. To visit Christiana you have to make a very slight detour. Christiana is the site of a little known battle in the fight for the abolition of slavery. In 1851 an anti-slavery group defended with arms a group of fugitive slaves. The event is commemorated by a small obelisk on the far side of the town. You have to cross under the train trestle to find it. Banners hang from street poles with the notice, “Where Freedom Began.”
Christiana’s train station recalls the little “Plasticville” models that I had on my American Flyer model train platform back in the ‘50’s.Even the platform is provided with old time push carts. Turning out of Christiana there is a wonderful park where the boys can play. They do have such a great time in the open fields I find along our day travels. They would run themselves to exhaustion if I did not rein them in. All I need do is to cry “car,” and they’re back.
This part of Pennsylvania is dotted with white washed Amish farms. Sheds shelter stands of mules that are used to pull the plows. Children, boys in black and girls in lavender, walk along the roadside. Buggies pass. You may find more black buggies here than you would in Lancaster. Along the highway there is even the Amish equivalent of a car dealer with a lot filled with little black buggies. You can tell an Amish farm easily because there is no connection from the farm house to the electrical lines. Yet, there is a curious side to the use of electricity. It is not uncommon to see long farm sheds usually near the barn. These sheds are low, windowless structures, with two or three high speed fans in the end wall used to ventilate the lightless and airless hangars. What animals are being raised in those long, windowless sheds? Cows? Chickens? In either case, the internal situation must be appalling. This brings up something of a problematic question: the Amish treatment of animals. The question is compounded when you consider that Lancaster County is also one of the most notorious areas for puppy mills in the country. Beyond the raising of animals there is also the question of crops. As you drive along you cannot help but notice the fields of broad green tobacco leaves with their stalks of violet pink blooms.
Right around now it’s time for a little something to eat and maybe the restroom. At Buck, 372 does a little twist around a kind of island gas station and shopping plaza. I stopped for gas, which was far cheaper here than at home. The attendant gave my boys some dog biscuits. I stopped in to a pizza place for a slice and a drink. The plaza also has a grocery store if you need something more. If you’re not quite hungry yet and if you can hold out a bit longer you might prefer to make your stop at the Susquehannock State Park. A few minutes more down the road. http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/findapark/susquehannock/index.htm The park accommodates campers and boaters. We drive in and I put the boys on leash. We all stretch our legs and enjoy the view down by the lake. Fed and refreshed we’re ready for the furthest and ultimate point of our day trip.
There is something archetypal in the crossing of a river: all the more so, when the crossing is in a natural setting. Crossing the Susquehanna takes your breath away. Here again I want to savor every minute. I want to mentally record the views in both directions. Just as I come to the bridge I pull over. I let the few cars behind me pass. I wait to see that there will be no one else coming along behind me. Then, I start out for the crossing. The bridge is narrow. Below are the rocky islands that inhabit this portion of the Susquehanna. To the east, the rocky islands fade into the silver horizon mist as the Susquehanna rushes to the Chesapeake. There is something of a Japanese mountain painting in the mix of mist and rock and rugged shrubs. To the West a damn slows the river’s flow.
Another sharp left turn bends 372 towards Delta, PA, our final destination. Delta’s streets are lined with wood Victorians, some in pristine condition others close to ruin. Flags flutter from every street pole. On the left we pass the Welsh Chapel. While the chapel was closed it is home to the preservation of Welsh language and music. Following the signs for the cottages I make a hairpin right up a hill. In the distance a white clapboard church rises alone up from the green corn fields.
We make another turn to the right, down a curve in the road, and there they are just below: a little cluster of red stone houses that seem transported from the Old World. Here I can let the boys out to run about the yards on their own. A workman asks me if I would like to see inside. The houses are unique for their use of space. For workers homes in the 19th century they rooms are adequate and fairly comfortable. The houses were built by the slate splitters themselves. In the 1840’s the quarry owners needed workers experienced with working slate. They imported them from Wales. The two houses that are part of the major restoration have been in repair for the past several years. I was fortunate to be there while someone was working. At other times, if you want to see the inside, you need to make an appointment.
The boys have had a safe place for a free run. They have a refreshing drink. It’s time for the drive back home. We’re going back a different way. We turn back to the town and follow Main Street. It’s actually rather long for such a small town and is dotted with some lovely Victorian houses. There is also the Reconnect Café if you need a break. http://www.wheresdelta.com/members/reconnect-cafe/default.htm
I follow Main Street directly into Maryland I’ve crossed from the North into the South. License plates on the cars in driveways are white. The beautiful heraldic design of the Maryland flag flutters outside several houses. Main Street soon intersects with Route 1. I turn left. Route 1 takes you back North. You know when you’re on your way back home as you cross the historic Mason Dixon Line. For six hours my four boys and I explored little known simple things that are essential parts of America.