- Associated Press - Sunday, July 3, 2016

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) - They came by the thousands from all directions, streaming into Valley Forge State Park in Conestoga wagons and Prairie Schooners, on horseback, on foot.

That day - July 3, 1976 - Marilyn “Micki” Robison rode among them on the eve of America’s 200th birthday, reported the Yakima Herald-Republic (http://bit.ly/292Y4A0).

With more than 300 wagons and nearly 5,000 people on horseback who traveled from every corner of the country, the yearlong Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage to Pennsylvania had reached its final destination.

“It was amazing,” said Robison, 82, of Naches.

During the holiday weekend, a reunion at Valley Forge celebrated the 40th anniversary of the wagon train pilgrimage, arguably among the most ambitious of many oversized bicentennial events.

Over the course of a year, Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage participants traveled through cities and towns throughout the United States as they followed traditional migration routes such as the Oregon, California and Santa Fe trails, the Great Platte River and Mormon roads, the Santa Fe, Old Spanish, Natchez Trace, Wilderness, Old Post and Lancaster Pike.

People brought their children. Some quit their jobs or left school. A few married along the way. Others met people they would marry after it ended.

And Robison wasn’t just any participant. She served as the National Trails Coordinator of the bicentennial pilgrimage, crisscrossing the country throughout the process to ensure that each of the seven wagon trains traveling to Pennsylvania stayed on track and on task, hiring and firing paid staff, solving problems, answering questions, riding along with the wagons when she could and smoothing their entry into Valley Forge.

Robison was set to attend this first national reunion, flying out with Bill Gregory, 63, whom she befriended when he joined the wagon train from Polk City, Florida.

“The reason they’re doing it is … because of the 100th anniversary of the (National Park Service),” she said. Among other festivities, they will participate in the July 4 Picnic in the Park.

July 4 also marks the 40th anniversary of Valley Forge State Park becoming Valley Forge National Historical Park. President Gerald Ford signed the paperwork in which the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania turned the park over to the federal government.

Robison was chosen to assist him.

“I handed (President Ford) the pen. He signed it. It was really cool,” she said.

An idea unlike any other

The Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage to Pennsylvania began in Blaine, Washington, on June 8, 1975, with a ride through the peace arch at the American-Canadian border.

A massive recreation of the Western migration in reverse, the pilgrimage was chosen from among other ideas that involved tall ships and a freedom train.

“The American Revolutionary Bicentennial Organization … established a few years before the bicentennial, was trying to determine what it would do,” Robison said. “It was funded and they offered $1 million to anybody that could come up with a project.”

The project had to be inclusive, and “we all knew we wanted to do something special,” Robison said. Organizers chose the wagon train.

Every state, including Alaska and Hawaii, received a wagon that would roam its cities and towns until each wagon joined one of the wagon trains coming through the contiguous 48 states. Every major wagon train featured a traveling musical show that was performed for local communities at each stopping point.

A public relations executive in Philadelphia, C. Robert Gruver, coordinated the project, according to the Valley Forge website, www.nps.gov/vafo. It was sponsored by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and funded by the federal government and bicentennial organizations.

Gruver oversaw the departure of 60 official wagons from each state. His family also was involved, including wife Nancy and children Holly and C.R.

Corporate sponsors including Aero-Mayflower Transit Company, Gulf Oil and Holiday Inns provided services and helped foot the bill, which among other things paid for the official wagons crafted in Arkansas, insurance and small salaries for the wagon masters and other staff.

But anyone with a wagon and horses could ride along, and that was Robison’s plan in the first place.

“I’m kinda hyper-patriotic; I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what. … I went to a horse show in Santa Barbara” in the spring of 1975 and saw a Conestoga wagon, said Robison, a junior high teacher and longtime horsewoman who was living in southern California at the time. She still has horses on her ranch near Chinook Pass.

“I (talked to) the man who was sitting there with this wagon, which had been carried around the state on the back of a truck. He told me this wagon would be in the Rose Parade; that would be the start of the wagon train from California.”

Robison started as an assistant wagon master, but was promoted to California wagon master, then hired as national trails coordinator when the need became apparent in the face of multiple organizational challenges. She applied for it like any other job and had experience working with groups, having run a children’s camp and working with horses for most of her life.

After helping launch the effort in Blaine, she joined others in riding down through Washington, Oregon and Idaho. She crossed the Western deserts of Arizona and flew to other wagon trains’ launch locations to help them get started.

In November 1975, the north-westerners put their wagons in winter storage in Cheyenne, Wyoming. With the new year, wagon trains began in southern states and others resumed their journeys as the weather improved.

Robison rode in the Rose Parade on Jan. 1, 1976. She rode in the Mardi Gras Parade that year in New Orleans.

As part of her national-level role, Robison helped launch wagon trains throughout the country, including Polk City, Florida.

That’s where she met Gregory, who was 20 at the time.

“I hired him to be a camp jack,” Robison said, explaining that Gregory was a handyman for that wagon train. “He’s kinda like a son to me.”

Gregory, a Virginia native who was attending college in St. Petersburg at the time, still relishes the adventure.

“I went over to Polk City for the day” to check out the hoopla surrounding the wagon train launch. He knew almost immediately that he wanted to join.

“I went home, quit my job, got out of my lease, the whole thing,” he said.

Things were a little hairy from the start. A tornado warning the first day on the road - Jan. 31, 1976 - sent everyone into the closest ditch they could find. Gregory wasn’t fazed.

“I got paid $100 (a month) and my horse and I got fed,” he said.

Gregory slept in his horse trailer and like other participants, made arrangements to drive his truck and trailer ahead to the next stop, get a ride back to the day’s starting point and ensure that his horse was in the right place at the right time.

Mayflower vans hauled hay and the sound stage equipment for the Penn State performers who accompanied each wagon train.

They headed north through the Panhandle for the next five weeks then “zig-zagged” up through Alabama, visiting as many towns as they could before mid-April, when they merged in Nashville with the wagon train following the main route in the South.

“People were so incredible,” Gregory said. “The locals would hold potlucks. It was pretty amazing; every town gave us such a great reception.”

One of Gregory’s favorite moments was leading his wagon train as it passed through Washington D.C.

“We went right by the White House. I was carrying the flag and leading that group,” he said. “That was the proudest moment for me.”

While Gregory was on the road with his continually changing wagon trains, Robison was here and there, making sure operations were progressing on schedule with all of the seven wagon trains.

She’s still amazed at how many people brought their own wagons, and how many people got involved any way they could.

“There were hundreds of people with wagons. Anybody could join at any time and ride on horseback. They would start out riding for a day or two,” she said.

Upon their arrival at Valley Forge, participants settled in for a week or two, or longer if they could. Robison got there a week before the wagon trains arrived and helped coordinate their entry into the park on July 3.

“Once we got to Valley Forge, we spent the whole summer there from the Fourth of July through Sept. 30,” Robison said.

Same family, new event

Memorabilia from the Bicentennial Wagon Train of 1976 will be on display in the park’s Meeting Room as part of the July 4 festivities. The public can see the collection and talk to participants.

Robison is looking forward to the reunion but doesn’t like flying. Others insisted, she said.

“I’m very nervous. I dread the plane flight,” she said. “But everybody said, ‘You have to come, you are the only one who knew all the trains.’”

She’s staying at a four-star hotel “for the first time in my life,” Robison said with amazement.

The reunion was organized by Holly Gruver Franciamone, daughter of the man who oversaw the pilgrimage, Robison said.

Franciamone talked to Dan Weckerly, communications manager for the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board, about holding a 40th reunion.

“It may seem odd to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Bicentennial Wagon Train. I mean, the 50th would make more sense,” Franciamone told Weckerly in his blog at www.valleyforge.org.

“But the people who lived this - who traveled mile after mile and faced all those challenges and slept in the wagons and dealt with the difficulties - some of them are gone now. And the others are getting older.

“I’m not sure how many of us will be left in 2026. So the time for this kind of reunion is now.”

Back in 1975, “nobody dreamed that it would get as big as it did,” Robison said. In every sense of the cliche, it was the journey of a lifetime. She met a descendant of Sacagawea, country singer Loretta Lynn and her daughters; the president and his daughter. She met most of the governors.

“It was kind of a big deal, bigger in some states in others. In many places it was incredibly authentic,” Robison said.

___

Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakimaherald.com

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