Every four or five conventions, we go east rather than west. Williamsburg it was this year—with Jamestown and Yorktown making up the triangular cradle of the American nation.
Once upon a time, in the not very distant past, Zane Grey was a household name across America. In fact, during the first half of the 20th century, Grey was the world’s most popular and highest-paid author. He is generally considered to be the Creator of the Romantic West and the Father of the Western Novel. But today, with reading in decline along with literacy in general, with young people literate in little other than popular culture and sports, with plunging national test scores in history, it should come as little surprise that few people under the age of 50 recognize either his name or his books.
We in the Zane Grey’s West Society seek to do our part to help reverse that sad state of affairs. We don’t want the love of the West to die out when we step off the stage of life.
Four-hundred years ago, Virginia was the wild West; 250 years ago, the Ohio Valley wilderness was the frontier. It was during this time period that one of Grey’s ancestors, Betty Zane, became a Revolutionary War heroine when she risked her life in order to race across a clearing, a sack of gun powder on her shoulder, as a desperate act to save Fort Henry (commanded by Col. Ebenezer Zane, her brother) and those settlers within who were being besieged by French and Indian forces. Since those besieged were out of gunpowder, they were doomed unless by some miracle they could contrive to secure some gunpowder. Not surprisingly, when Grey grew up and began to write, Betty Zane (a novel based partly on that heroic dash) would become his first published book. Three more novels set in America’s second West followed: The Spirit of the Border, The Last Trail, and George Washington, Frontiersman. George Washington was well acquainted with the Zane family. In fact, after the Revolutionary War was over, George Washington and the Continental Congress authorized Ebenezer Zane and his brothers to blaze a trail into the wilderness, on the west side of the Mississippi. That route was first known as “Zane’s Trace,” then the National Road, then Highway 40, and today Interstate 70. All this family history was reason enough for us to meet in Williamsburg the third week of June this year.
I’m often asked the question, “What do you do in your conventions?” Let me walk you through to give you the answer: first of all, we drive to, take a train to, or fly to, wherever a given convention might take place. Traditionally, the convention begins on a Monday evening, consequently you’d expect everyone to arrive sometime Monday. NOT. A number arrive by Friday, and fully half generally check in by Sunday. Our Zanies so enjoy being together that they can’t wait to catch up on the intervening year. Registration takes place Monday afternoon, as does the process of hauling books or memorabilia to the room chosen to house the auction items until Tuesday afternoon. Most everyone brings items since without that annual transfusion of funds, we’d have to dramatically raise our dues (we’ve only raised them once in 29 years!). The only way we’ve been able to pull that off is to all serve pro-bono. There is no paid anyone in the entire Society. For all of us, serving is a labor of love.
Monday evening is the barbecue or opening banquet. Since there’d been a lot of rain, this time we held a banquet inside. No one sits alone—our members make sure of that. After being welcomed by our president, Terry Bolinger, dinner is served. Afterwards, Terry had all the new attendees stand, introduce themselves, and tell where they’re from. These introductions accelerate the getting-acquainted process. Next came the introduction of James Perry, Public Affairs Officer for the three parks we were visiting this convention: Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown. He welcomed us to the colonial triangle and filled us in on what we ought to look for. Afterwards, Dr. Jim D’Arc, Director of Film archives for Brigham Young University, took us behind the scenes of the famous movie he’d brought along: Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, directed by John Ford, and in the cast: Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert, and Edna May Oliver. Sometimes the films Dr. D’Arc brings are shown on evenings other than Monday.
Tuesdays are always the longest days, perhaps because the members Memorial Breakfast begins at 7 a.m. As soon as breakfast is over, we give members the opportunity to reminisce about those who are no longer with us. For to live in the hearts of others is not to die. Before we separate, always—for 29 unbroken conventions now—, I remind the members that before the Society was founded, the other Co-Founder (the Rev. G. M. Farley) and I promised each other that, in order to make sure no one would ever be lonely at a convention, Poet Laureate of America Edwin Markham’s “Outwitted” would be recited, then everyone would repeat it aloud. We now did just that:
“He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.”
After a short break, we reconvened. After preliminaries, I was introduced, and I gave my 29th convention keynote address. This one was titled, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” and had to do with that traumatic six-year period (1982 – 1988) when it appeared that the Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania home of Zane and Dolly Grey would be lost to the wrecking ball. Few of our attendees had ever heard before the story of how the miracle of it ended up in the National Park System took place.
This was followed by Dorothy Moon, head curator of the Lackawaxen Museum, who filled us in on all the fascinating things that were happening there. She in turn was followed by two representatives (Joanne Duncan and Kathryn Miller) from the National Road/Zane Grey Museum in New Concord, Ohio, who also brought us up to date on that facility. It has been mighty tough for them because the recession has hit Ohio so hard.
In the afternoon, a good share of the attendees gathered to participate in the annual auction. Since so much is riding on the income derived from it, I encouraged everyone to get into the act. Besides the regular auction, there was also the opportunity to bid on a large number of silent auction items.
In the evening, many returned for Huckster’s Night (an opportunity to hawk items you’d rather sell than have to haul home). Others took the evening off, a number eating in colonial restaurants in Williamsburg—complete with staff in colonial costumes.
* * * * *
Next Wednesday, we’ll explore Old Town, Williamsburg.