Benjamin Franklin and Me
It was a sunny day in October when I first met Benjamin Franklin. I stood on Front Street in Philadelphia, looking out over the Delaware River, and suddenly, there he was, right beside me. (Remember, I’m a novelist.) The year was 1737, Ben was a middle-aged man—handsome in a shaggy sort of way, a printer making a name for himself in Port Philadelphia. The city was young, vibrant and in a state of flux. Passenger ships arrived daily, filled with German immigrants who were welcomed for their legendary work ethic.
A few months earlier, I had searched high and low to find the right tour guide for Philadelphia—the pre-revolutionary city. Nick Cvetovic from the Travel Channel emerged, and what a find he was. He scouted the city for buildings that were standing in 1737 (so many! Big solid brick ones—meant to last) and took me on a walking tour along the water, through alleys, old houses, under secret passageways. No wonder my mind felt soaked like a teabag into the mid-1700s. I was immersed in it.
Benjamin Franklin pops in The Return as an elderly statesman in a tiny bit of hot water with the Pennsylvania Germans (all true). He had a habit of sharing his opinions before he thought them through (can’t imagine that). In the novel, he pays a call on heroine Bairn Bauer to see the first Conestoga wagon—built by ship’s carpenter Bairn to have a boat-like-keep so barrels wouldn’t roll. Be Franklin couldn’t resist a new invention. He’d heard of this Conestoga wagon and had to see it for himself. In my novel, and in reality, he was duly impressed.
The details of the Conestoga wagon are true, though its ship-like design was created by German Mennonites who lived in Lancaster County, not by our Amish Bairn Bauer. These wagons were the trucks of early America; they transported all kinds of goods and products—coal, tools, mail, flour, eggs, on and on—from one end of Pennsylvania to the other. Some days as many as three thousand Conestoga wagons traveled between Philadelphia and Lancaster, as well as to other Pennsylvania cities to the west: Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. Today, US Route 30 and Pennsylvania Turnpike follow these old wagon trails, which in Ben Franklin’s times were more like bone-jarring, teeth-rattling rocky paths.
The men who drove Conestoga wagons were called teamsters because they drove teams of horses. Today most truck drivers belong to the Teamsters Union, a union formed when men drove teams rather than trucks.
And here’s one more piece of American history to end on that would’ve brought a smile to Ben Franklin’s weathered face: Those teamsters, robust and rugged men, smoked four-for-a-cent cigars. They were first known as Conestogas but soon shortened to stogies.
I wonder if Ben Franklin would’ve had an inkling of what the invention of those Conestoga wagons foretold. Next time I see him, I’ll be sure to ask.
This first appeared on mtlmagazine.com.
More about The Return
Beautiful and winsome, Betsy Zook never questioned her family’s rigid expectations, nor those of devoted Hans, but then she never had to. Not until the night when she’s taken captive in a surprise Indian raid. During her captivity, Betsy faces brutality and hardship, but also unexpected kindness. She draws strength from native Caleb, who encourages her to find God in all circumstances. She finds herself torn between her pious upbringing and the intense new feelings this compelling man awakens within her.
Handsome and complex, Hans is greatly anguished by Betsy’s captivity and turns to Tessa Bauer for comfort. Eagerly, Tessa responds, overlooking troubling signs of Hans’s hunger for revenge. When Betsy is finally restored to the Amish, have things gone too far between Hans and Tessa?
Inspired by true events, this deeply layered novel gives a glimpse into the tumultuous days of prerevolutionary Pennsylvania through the eyes of two young, determined, and faith-filled women.
Suzanne Woods Fisher is an award-winning, bestselling author of more than two dozen novels, including Anna’s Crossing and The Newcomer in the Amish Beginnings series, The Bishop’s Family series, and The Inn at Eagle Hill series, as well as nonfiction books about the Amish, including Amish Peace and The Heart of the Amish. She lives in California.