June 22, 2007

My Father’s Return to Sidling Hill

Category: News — Ira @ 7:05 pm

“…… we never shall come back again, we never shall come back along this road again as we did once at morning……let us look again before we go…..there the shallows of the rock-bright waters of the creek, and there the sweet and most familiar coolness of the trees — and surely we have been this way before……”
—Thomas Wolfe

“We are the sons of our father, and we shall follow the print of his foot forever.”
—Thomas Wolfe

Sixty-five years ago, in 1942, as the global conflagration that was WWII approached its climax, my father, David L. Wagler, was a Conscientious Objector. The federal government at that time had devised a policy where young COs could serve time laboring on projects not associated with the War. Dad’s main stint of service was at Boonsboro, MD, where he spent 2-1/2 years on a fencing crew and later at a desk job. Before that, he spent nine months at a CO camp in Sidling Hill, PA. With a group of about 150 other young COs, he worked on the PA Turnpike. They were housed in barracks at a former CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp.

Sidling Hill as my father knew it

Camp life at Sidling Hill. The young man outside the mess hall is not my father.

My father was young, 21 years old, in the prime and passion of his youth, when he arrived at Sidling Hill on Nov. 6, 1942. He had married my mother, Ida Mae Yoder, on Feb. 3rd of that year. She visited him once at the camp, during Christmas, 1942. What he experienced, felt and saw as a CO has never been accurately recorded. Growing up, we always knew that he had worked at a camp during the War, but it meant little to me until recent years. On Monday, June 18, 2007, he finally returned to the site of the camp for an extensive tour for the first time since he left it in 1943.

My father is 85 and my mother is 83. Despite their age and limitations, they both very much enjoy getting out and about. They traveled to Aylmer, Ontario, Canada for my nephew Lester Gascho’s wedding on June 14. On Saturday, June 16, there was a “Botschaft” (a weekly Amish newsletter) scribe conference in Millersburg, PA. Dad, who has written for the “Botschaft” since its inception in the 1970s, wanted to attend. But they needed someone to travel with them from Canada to Millersburg. So Dad’s niece (and my first cousin), Fannie Mae Wagler, agreed to accompany them.

Dad had long planned to visit Sidling Hill when the opportunity arose. The stars seemed to align for Monday, June 18. So, a month or two ago, he contacted Carl DeFebo, Manager of Media and Public Relations for the Turnpike and arranged to meet him Monday morning for a tour of the camp and the section of the Turnpike he had worked on so many years ago. The camp is accessible by public road, but a 12-mile abandoned stretch of the Turnpike is now closed to the public.

Several weeks before they came, Dad called my brother Steve to discuss his plans and see if anyone here wanted to accompany them to Sidling Hill. Steve and I both decided to go. Because of Dad’s complicated shunning policies (both Steve and I left the Amish church), he would not stay at either of our homes or eat our food. But he would stay with (and eat food prepared by) Steve’s son-in-law and daughter, Curtis and Ella Mae Lapp.

Dad is still wearing his name tag from the Botschaft conference that day.

Mom and her great-grandson, Johann Lapp


Ella Mae, Mom and Dad. The women were shelling peas.

Mom, Dad and Steve

On Saturday evening at 7 o’clock, they arrived at Curtis and Ella Mae’s home. Steve and Wilma went over to visit. I stopped by as well. Dad knows about my marriage situation, but it has been kept from my Mom. She couldn’t grasp it anyway, we figured. I was a little nervous she would ask where Ellen was. Sure enough, sometime during the evening, she claimed she had recently gotten a nice letter from Ira and Ellen (she had not) and suddenly asked, “Where is Ellen, anyway?”

“She’s working,” I said.

“Oh,” Mom replied, unperturbed, “she must work a lot.”

“Yes,” I said, “she does.” Someone, I think it was Wilma, asked her a question about something else and the conversation shifted to other things.

Steve, Mom and Dad at the picnic table

Steve assisting Mom at the table

Carrie and her Grandpa at the table. Note the shots taken from behind a tree.

Dad and Mom relaxing after a sumptuous Sunday meal

Dad enjoying the last remnants of fresh (and delicious) pie


On Sunday, we all had lunch at Steve’s house. The food was prepared by Ella Mae. She trucked everything over in boxes and baskets. We ate ouside under the shade trees on the stone foyer. The food was served on a picnic table, cafeteria style. After lunch and coffee, Dad and I sat outside by ourselves and visited about various things, including my marriage. He was calm and surprisingly nonjudgmental. He asked about my web site and how it works. I even offered to show the site to him on Steve’s computer. He chuckled and politely declined.

I told him I would love to have a picture of him as a young man. I asked if there were any, and he replied that there may be, but he had never knowingly posed for a photo. He said he used to have a picture of Mom as a young lady when they were dating.

“She was beautiful, and what do you call it, photogenic. She was photogenic.” he said.

I asked if he had destroyed it, and he claimed he had not. But he said he doesn’t know where the picture is now; somehow it got misplaced over the years. Maybe someday we’ll find it. I then told him I would be taking pictures with a digital camera the next day at Sidling Hill.

“To record it for history. Not for pride.” I explained.

“Just don’t expect me to pose for any,” he said. I said I wouldn’t.

Mom sat inside the house with Steve and Wilma. Seeing us sitting outside, she asked a perceptive question. She knew more than we thought she did.

“Does he live alone?” she asked, pointing at me.

“Right now he does,” Wilma answered. And Mom left it at that.

I stayed until after 3 o’clock, then went home. Around 4:30, my parents left for Franklin County (west of here and not far from Sidling Hill) to stay with some Amish friends for the night. We agreed to meet at the Sidling Hill Plaza along the Turnpike at 8 AM Monday morning.

On Monday morning at 5:30, Steve and I set off for the Sidling Hill Plaza. We arrived early and went inside for coffee. Steve ate some high-carb breakfast rolls that looked like lumps of dough (to state it politely) drowning in white frosting. He admitted they were tasteless. I told him if he would only take Superfood, he wouldn’t need to eat such junk.

At 7:45, my parents arrived. Promptly at 8:00, Carl DeFebo showed up. He was a pleasant young man (about my age) and an amateur historian, which explained why he was so willing and even anxious to meet and accompany Dad to the camp. We met at a small pavilion beside the parking lot. Carl unrolled several large maps and he and Steve and Dad plotted our route to the camp.

Dad, Steve and Carl poring over maps and plotting our route



Mom waits patiently for the excursion to begin.

Carl led our three-vehicle convoy out a back entrance from the Plaza. He importantly placed his orange “State Official” light on top of his van so no one would bother us. We bumped out the back onto a long winding highway. After a few miles, we turned off onto a gravel road. Dust billowed behind us. On and on for miles into the hinterland. Carl had never been to the camp, so Steve, who had, took the lead. Finally he announced, “there it is,” and there stood an old log cabin. The Director’s cabin, it was the only building that has been preserved. Across the road from the cabin, a gravel lane led to the camp. There was nothing but trees of all sizes and thick brush. Dad, who was riding with Carl so they could visit, got out of the van, and promptly announced that he didn’t recognize the place at all.

Camp sign

The Director’s cabin, well preserved since 1942

Entering the camp

Dad examining evidence

An old concrete footer.

Dad and Steve discussing the old stone chimney in the background

Dad, Mom and Steve examining the old root/storm cellar

Checking out the old stone walkway, hidden in the leaves

The best closeup of Dad (and my most daring shot with the digital camera)

We walked into the camp on the crunching gravel, Dad limping along slowly. His bearings gradually returned to him, and he pointed out where certain buildings had stood, as he remembered it. I discovered a long concrete foundation hidden in the bushes down toward the creek, and he said it was the fifth in the row of bunkhouses. He had slept in the second one. We walked around. Steve and I asked questions. We found a few more concrete foundations and pillars. We found an old stone chimney. Carl located an old stone walkway. Dad wanted a stone from the walkway, so when Carl wasn’t looking, Steve uprooted a foot-long rock and placed it in the trunk of the car for Dad. Buried in the brush to one side of the Director’s cabin was an old root/storm cellar. It was very well preserved except for the roof, which was completely gone. Dad was delighted to discover several straight rows of large pine trees. He calculated that the trees were 65 years old and he had perhaps helped plant them.

“It was so long ago,” he said.

Exploring further, Dad pointed out the spot where they had played ball. Once the other young men had begged him to come play ball with them. He wasn’t much of an athlete, but he decided to play. In a collision during the game, he sprained his ankle and was laid up for days. He was assigned to desk work during that time.

As we explored, Mom was content to sit on a nearby bench with Fannie Mae. I had brought along a few bottles of water and gave her one. Dad tramped about a lot, and with his gimpy knee, Steve and I were mildly concerned he would overdo himself. But he didn’t. He was excited and eager the whole time. About an hour after arriving at the camp, we were done. We loaded up and headed out.

The abandoned stretch of the Turnpike is not accessible by vehicle, but the gravel road passed within 50 feet of it in places. So on the way out, Carl stopped the convoy and we all got out and walked on the abandoned highway. It was half-spooky; a four-lane highway completely unused, empty and deserted, sloping and rolling into distant mountains. Dad very much wanted to see the old abandoned tunnel that was several miles down from where we were on the Turnpike, but since we could not get access with our vehicles, we had to give that up. Dad didn’t let on, but we felt he was disappointed.

Dad and Carl


Looking down on the abandoned Turnpike

Ira, Mom, and Dad walking onto the Turnpike


Dad leaving the Turnpike for the last time

Dad told us how the work crews from the camp would go out each day along this very road and plant grass and trees beside the Turnpike. One particular bank was quite long and steep, and the crews worked hard for three weeks preparing, seeding and landscaping the bank. The very night after they finished, a great thunderstorm crashed through the area, dumping inches of rain in a short time. The resulting washoff created massive gullies, instantly ruining three weeks of sweat and labor. The next day and for days thereafter, their Director sent them off to work in the opposite direction so they wouldn’t see the futility of their toil at that spot.

Fannie Mae took good care of Mom at all times.

Mom in the van waiting to leave. “I think I’ll just take your picture,” I said, and did.

At the outlook point; the last stop

Our final stop was at an outlook point about four miles west of Raystown along Rt. 30. We parked and viewed a stretch of the old Turnpike winding past a lake and through the mountains in the distance. Soon Dad made moves to leave, as he still wanted to travel to Boonsboro, MD that day and visit the old farm on which he had served as a CO from 1943-45. As a family, we thanked Carl for his time and hospitality. Dad thanked Steve and me for coming. We said good-bye to Mom and Fannie Mae. And then they were gone.

We watched them leave. It was over. Despite the ravages of age and time, and the barriers of distance, he had returned. It is unlikely that he ever will again.

Appendix: Communication with Carl DeFebo

From: Ira Wagler
Sent: Wednesday, June 20, 2007
To: Defebo, Carl
Subject: Thanks from Ira


Thanks so much for taking the time Monday to show us around the Sidling Hill Camp. It means a lot to us that you took the time because it was important to an old man you had never met before. We will always treasure that day with our Dad and Mom.

I have attached a few pictures I took that day. Thanks again.

Ira Wagler

Carl’s reply:


I was happy to do it, and I had a wonderful time meeting your family. Your dad is a treasure, and I enjoyed hearing his stories about working on the turnpike. When I write about those days, it’s nice to have a real person, someone I know personally, who had some role in bringing this historic highway to fruition.

Thanks for the photos, I’m glad you sent them along.

Take care!




(No Comments)

  1. WOW!..Ira, interesting report! Appears like you gave Mom
    & Dad the royal treatment …PA style!

    Comment by Rhoda — June 22, 2007 @ 9:19 pm

  2. What a priceless jewel, that piece of history, that you and Steve could share with your parents. Steve

    Comment by Bear — June 22, 2007 @ 11:01 pm

  3. Mom and I thoroughly enjoyed all the amazing photos AND your detailed description of your time with Doddys!

    I was amazed at the strong family resemblances in the photos of Mommy and my own mother. These photos will be treasures for years to come! Thanks for sharing such a priceless “work of art.”

    Comment by Dorothy — June 22, 2007 @ 11:31 pm

  4. Ira, thanks for that bit of history. It is precious. You got a good shot of your mother, but I’m disapointed the pictures of your father are not better. Perhaps someday you can get one of him at his desk writing something for the Botschaft. That would be frameable, and I would like a copy myself. “We are the sons of our father, and we shall follow the print of his foot forever.”

    Comment by LeRoy — June 23, 2007 @ 12:00 am

  5. Wow, what a story…very interesting, even for non family members. It’s a good reminder to take the time to do things like that, that we may never again have the opportunity to do.

    Comment by Patrick — June 23, 2007 @ 9:16 am

  6. I really enjoyed the update w/all the pics! Even though it really made me wish I could’ve been at home to see my grandparents again. Sounds like you all took good care of them. -elaine

    Comment by Elaine Wagler — June 23, 2007 @ 8:31 pm

  7. What an interesting story about Mom and Dad’s visit!! Am glad they got it done, pictures were really great. That is probably how sentimental we will be at that age. Somehow those old memories are hard to transfer to our children. Thank God you were able to glimpse into and share the memories, your life will be fuller, richer becuase of it. love, Rachel

    Comment by rachel — June 23, 2007 @ 11:49 pm

  8. Great coverage, Ira. Great photos too. Wonder why the turnpike is in such good shape, mowed and all, it being closed? In S.C., pines take over in a few, a very few yrs. It’s only because of a stroke of genius by President Ike that we don’t have tollroads all over our great nation, adding hundreds of dollars to each trip we take. In the early 50’s the big bond & money people wanted to do so [capitalism run amok?]. But President Ike said ‘No, we’ll do it ourselves’. Thus the interstate system was started. You sometimes see the small blue signs that credit him, about 2 ft. square……..Elaine, is Jamaica safe to be in? Seems the cruise ships are pulling out because of high crime there. Armed holdups of tourists and such…….Jason Y, about the Ayn Rand book you mentioned, it ends extolling the communist way. In a big way……..And, the campout was great. 7 days. Sitting beside a stream, stoking a fire to cook & warm with, calling home to check on broiling conditions there, is just fine. Well,time to go,to work.

    Ira’s response: Such a misrepresentation cannot stand. Ayn Rand was the greatest foe of communism in the 20th century. Having all our interstates privately owned would be a great thing if we could then get rid of the 50 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. Private enterprise is ALWAYS more efficient than anything government-owned.

    Comment by jess from S.C. — June 26, 2007 @ 10:17 am

  9. Ah yes, Guess it was ‘The Jungle’ book by Sinclair someone, that was the commie book. Can’t recall how the Ayn Rand book did go. Something like unbridled me-1st-ism, seems like…Also noted the camp sign spelled it as a CCC labor camp. Our Late Great Pres. Roosevelt started those in the mid 30’s, I think, to put the common man back to work. Perhaps our best Leader, by far.

    Ira’s response: He was the Great Leader all right, Great Socialist Leader. Did more to ruin our country than any other single person in history.

    Comment by jess from S.C. — June 26, 2007 @ 10:38 pm

  10. Good job on the Sideling Hill story! As far as Comrade Roosevelt, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think he was definitely one of the worst presidents ever.

    Comment by jason yutzy — June 27, 2007 @ 12:16 pm

  11. Ira,

    I’m glad for your comments about Rand, Eisenhower & Interstates, and FDR (though Rand is not perfect, either, but still made a valiant attempt to provide a philosophical base from which to fight Statism in all forms). If you hadn’t, I might have popped a gasket or written a long essay.

    A personal reminiscence on this topic: I was shocked when I visited DC with our oldest children a few years ago, and went to Rep. Pitts’ office to ask about the then-new George Mason Memorial, and to get a tour of the Capitol. The aide giving the tour commented that FDR was his favorite President! And this, in the office of a supposedly-conservative Congressman. I refused to visit the FDR Memorial, which was down the path past the appropriately larger-than-life Mason; had we done so, it would have been only to spit.

    Instead we visited the Geo. Mason one. He was the author of the Virginia Bill of Rights, which is the basis for the Bill of Rights added to our Constitution. I got down on my knee with my children (facing outward to avoid any idolatrous impressions) and prayed for revival and restoration of true liberty and manly courage in our country, so that it might be a greater light for the gospel in the world.

    Enough of that. But note that not only was FDR a fascist usurper, the neoconservatives beginning with Eisenhower are actually leftist Statists as well, and not conservative in any reasonable sense of the word. The problem with the current RNC is precisely that the Neocons hold the reins.

    I reference these two websites as to the facts:

    http://www.jbs.org/node/4487. (Read them, Patrick.)

    Comment by LeRoy Whitman — June 28, 2007 @ 6:14 pm

  12. LeRoy: Aaaaah, finally – some red, raw meat. I’m not certain which is more inane – the bankruptcy of your JBS dogma, unsophisticated ramblings caused by the lack of intellectual curiosity or the gospel you try to foist upon the uneducated.
    Please don’t play the usual game of running and hiding when a response other than glowing approval is placed before you and asks you, for a change, to to think and comprehend. You’ve dropped some “fighten words” as they used to say in the old west, and I intend to take you to task about them in the days to come. Will be back to you shortly.

    Comment by Thorne — June 29, 2007 @ 6:22 am

  13. Mr. Thorne,

    I cannot comprehend what you mean. But truth will always stand. Gospel is history; and history is interpreted by Gospel (for it belongs to God, not us, to interpret what events really signify).

    Comment by LeRoy Whitman — June 29, 2007 @ 1:39 pm

  14. LeRoy:

    Please. Let’s dispense with formalities. My first name is Thorne. I reserve the Mr. for my father.

    My apologies if my verbiage caused you difficulty in discerning what was posted. Perhaps I can ask the questions in a different context that would allow you comprehend and expound on my queries.

    1) What is it about the John Birch Society that has you support it?
    2) What has you believe in Pat Buchannan and so disparage a President that put a nation back to work after a crippling of the economic structure, that read the tea leaves and was prepared for global conflagration even in the face of the strong opposition, who directed a world war through strategic alliances and utilization of many capable if unknown individuals and ultimately gave up his health and life in a committment to insure the success of his strategies?
    3) Which “Gospel” do you do you consider the Truth? Guttenburg? King James? Tyndal’s? Wycliffe’s, Greek, The Torah? Gnostic, The Koran, Luther, Upanishads, etc., etc.,etc.?

    I look forward to your response and suggest we continue this on the new blog Ira will be posting – if that’s alright with you?

    Thorne Warner

    Comment by Thorne — June 29, 2007 @ 6:45 pm

  15. Dear Thorne,

    Sorry, I don’t know you, and so didn’t know your name from a web pseudonym, first name, or last.

    I’m not sure why I have to answer to you, but I’ll be glad to when I get more time.

    I just now checked this blog again before I head home for supper. I don’t know any other site we should use. I’m not really sure we should discuss it at all, since your attitude seems set against whatever I present. But because I know you will disparage the links I posted in a false association of “my failure to respond=lack of courage=untruth of what others have written”, I will when I can.

    For others (especially Patrick, if you’re still listening in), see the web links already posted as they are valuable information.

    Thorne, one clarification: in your Q2, do you mean Senor BUSH?

    Later alligator,

    Comment by LeRoy Whitman — July 5, 2007 @ 7:37 pm

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