These days, when kids visit Sinking Valley's Fort Roberdeau, they always like the old-fashioned timbered fort and dressed-up volunteers telling them about the 18th century soldiers and the Indian attacks.
But what they really remember lately is a restored Conestoga wagon in the barn.
At 17 feet long, 9 feet high and 4 feet, 3 inches wide at its widest point, it seems to fill the space - rising to the rafters with its beige canvas awning swooping over the wooden base.
Mirror photos by Gary M. Baranec
Lee Campbell teaches children from Begin?With Us about the Conestoga wagon on display at Fort Roberdeau.
"Where's the marks, the ones that say how long they were gone?" asked one boy from a day care group that recently visited the fort. Researchers believe scratches on the side of the wagon are tally marks meant to keep track of how many days the settlers were on the road.
There are 100 marks on one side of the wagon.
The children sat quietly and listened attentively to docent Lee Campbell as he talked about the history of the restored wagon.
"Most of them have never seen a wagon like this,'' he said. "They don't realize how big this thing really is.''
The wooden base and the arches that hold up the awning, which are called bows, are all authentic.
The only parts that aren't original are the running gear, such as the wheels and the undercarriage, and the awning. Original awnings almost never survive because they were usually made of hemp, which wasn't a durable material, Campbell said.
Campbell started his talk by demonstrating with a golf ball and a model of the wagon's rounded inside bottom to show the children how the bottom helps regulate the wagon's shifting freight.
Despite what most people believe, Conestoga wagons were used for hauling freight and not for carrying passengers. People would either walk beside the wagon or ride horses, Campbell said.
He detailed how the top of the wagon, or the ends of the awning, stick far out over the ends of the wagon to keep off the rain and the snow and make sure everything underneath stays dry. As he talked, Campbell pointed out the intricate detail on the wagon, from the carving on the dovetail corners to the fancy design work on the tool box.
"These guys wanted to decorate these things when they built them,'' he said. "People don't realize how talented our ancestors were to make this wagon.''
The wagon came from the Blair County Historical Society, which also owns Baker Mansion in Altoona. The society decided the wagon fit into the time period of the fort better than the era of the mansion, so the society transferred ownership of the wagon to the fort.
Campbell has spent the past several months restoring it until spots of its original blue color are visible. He also painted the wheels a rust color to conform to what they would have looked like, according to descriptions of authentic wagons.
Paul Souders, a representative of the Conestoga Historical Society in Lancaster County, has verified that the wagon base is an authentic Conestoga wagon, which means it dates back to the 1700s. Souders was instrumental in getting the running gear from a Lancaster County farmer for $2,500, and he even arrived at the fort with the running gear and a few volunteers to help Campbell install it.
"This was no small job,'' Campbell said.
Souders later donated an authentic jack and an authentic tar pot and a replica of a feed box for the wagon.
The wagon's awning was made by Lingenfelter's Quality Awning of Duncansville, which was the sole bidder for the project. Campbell said the company's owner donated much of his time to make and install the awning.
The wagon is rare because most of its kind were used until they collapsed or were left to rot, Souders said. There are a few authentic ones dotted around the state, including some in the Lancaster area and one at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, but the one at the Altoona area fort is one of the best, Souders said.
"It's in very, very good shape,'' he said. "When I saw it, I couldn't believe that something that original would still be found intact.''
He said the need for the wagons ended with other forms of transportation.
"They were used until the trains came along,'' he said. "The trains really put them out of business.''
Conestoga wagons got their name because they were made in blacksmith shops by German settlers along the Conestoga River, starting in the early 1700s. Farmers usually used them during the summer for farming, then changed to bigger wheels in the winter to move freight to market.
Arthur Reist, a native of Lancaster County, said the farmers of Lancaster developed the wagon out of necessity to get their goods over the rough, almost non-existent roads to the markets in Philadelphia.