Descendant of early Hamilton County settler has sole Christmas wish granted at Conner Prairie

Sara Wood heard many tales about her family’s 1847 journey in an old covered wagon from Pennsylvania to Indiana and always wanted to feel the wagon’s presence herself. Today, that happened at Conner Prairie.

By Duane Brodt and Ephraim Rudolph
On Thanksgiving, 89-year-old Sara Wood told her family a tale about how her ancestors relocated from Pennsylvania to Indiana in 1847 by traveling in an old covered wagon pulled by oxen.

Passed down through generations since built in 1797, she said the relic was a special family heirloom that she’d always heard about but never seen. Wood told her family she didn’t know where it is today, though she’d heard rumors that it might be somewhere in Chicago.

She told her family that she had just one Christmas wish this year. Her wish was to see that covered wagon herself.

That happened today. At Conner Prairie.

Sara Wood is surrounded by her family at Conner Prairie earlier today, including grandson Dax Norton (from left), daughter Rosanna Wood-Finchum and great-granddaughter Charlee Norton, inside the museum’s collections. 

The very wagon that carried the Gascho family to a new life in a new land 170 years ago is at Conner Prairie, part of a sizable collection of artifacts representing life and times in Indiana in the 1800s.

Called a conestoga wagon, named after the Pennsylvania town in which it was built, the wagon was bought by museum founder Eli Lilly in a local auction in 1939, the largest of three the Gascho family used to navigate their way west, first to Strawtown, Ind., then finally to just north of nearby Noblesville.

>> Up close: Take a closer look at this conestoga wagon.

Dax Norton is Wood’s grandson. Inspired by her holiday wish, he started investigating. He called several museums in the Midwest before he picked up a lead that the wagon might be at Conner Prairie. Oddly enough, over the years many members of the extended Gascho family, who have strong ties in Hamilton County and throughout the state, have visited the museum to see the wagon. The museum’s collections department even has a Gascho Family Wagon guestbook for family members and friends to sign.

But Wood had no idea. Neither did Norton. Or his mother, Rosanna Wood-Finchum.

So Norton, who is manager of the town of Whitestown, made a call to the museum. He spoke with collections manager Lana Newhart-Kellen. And today was chosen as the day Wood’s Christmas wish would be realized.

Escorted by her daughter, son and 13-year-old great-granddaughter Charlee, Wood was amazed to finally fix her eyes on her family’s wagon expertly cared for and masterfully preserved.

“Oh my goodness,” was her initial reaction when rounding a corner and seeing the wagon for the very first time.

She rose from her wheelchair with the help from her daughter and touched its side panels. She ran her hand along the curve of its right-side front wheel. She peeked through a gap in its side panels to see the space her ancestors endured day and night for days during their travels.

Another “Oh my goodness.”

The family spent about an hour examining the wagon inside and out, learning more about its history as part of Conner Prairie’s collections, posing for photographs and sharing their story with area news outlets.

Sara Wood (right) with daughter Rosanna Wood-Finchum tours a barn on Conner Prairie property today that used to stand on property owned by her family, the Gascho family of Noblesville. Built in the  late 1840s, the barn used to stand near Ind. 37 and Ind. 32, where Kahlo Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram is located today. It was relocated to Conner Prairie in 2001.

After their time in collections, Wood and her family bundled up and headed outside to the southern portion of Conner Prairie’s historic grounds. There stands another piece of Gascho family history.

It’s a barn sitting on top of a hill, with its top section filled with straw and various farm necessities and a bottom section comprised of pens, shelter for hogs and sheep during the winter months.

The Pennsylvania Barn, a unique type of banked barn that features side walls overshooting its foundation, was built on Gascho family property in the late 1840s in Noblesville, just northeast of where Ind. 37 and Ind. 32 intersect. The barn was relocated to Conner Prairie in 2001.

Wood, only slightly steadied by her daughter and great-granddaughter, toured both levels of the barn, located in the Civil War Journey experience, and was amazed about how well it has stood the test of time.

“What a wonderful day,” Wood said before leaving the grounds with her family. “What a wonderful, beautiful place.”

— Brodt is director of public relations at Conner Prairie and Rudolph is a communications specialist at the museum.