Visitors to the new National Road Interpretive Center in Vandalia may find themselves being guided through the center by lifetime Vandalia resident Joyce Mueller.
Mueller not only gives the documented history of the displays of interest, but she also can share personal memories of Vandalia, which makes the tour all the more interesting and brings old photographs of Gallatin Street to life.
Those who knew her when she was young Joyce Van Sant – the daughter of the owners of the well-established Van Sant Dairy, located on U.S. Route 40, west of Vandalia – may remember that she was a pioneer in her own way while a student in Vandalia High School, paving the way for other girls interested in farming and animals.
She was the first girl in the area allowed into the FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America), a goal she finally reached through tenacity and determination.
Join in on the tour as Joyce Van Sant Mueller knowledgeably and enthusiastically takes us through the National Road Interpretive Center, and then modestly shares some of her own life history.
Mueller begins the tour by pointing out several colorful, illustrated, descriptive and informational works created by John Goldsmith, the executive director of the National Road Association of Illinois.
An interesting fact is the role that our country’s first president, George Washington, played in the building of the road.
She continued on with National Road artifacts, which include a treasured original timber that was used in the “corduroy road,” a portion of the National Road that enabled travel by horse- and oxen-drawn wagons through the muddy conditions of long ago.
The log, although severely deteriorated, is still distinguishable as to what it is and its past use. It and several other logs were found west of Effingham.
Also in the center is a large photograph of Albert Gallatin, who is known as the “Father of the National Road,” and for whom Gallatin Street is named. He was the first man who even suggested the plan for making the Cumberland Road (as the National Road is also known).
There’s also a photo of a statue of him that stands before the Treasury Department building in Washington, D.C. Gallatin served as the secretary of the Treasury.
A large map on the wall indicates the towns located along the National Road.
Some items carried on the covered wagons for survival on the National Road are on display, including a salt container, compass, axe, rifle, oaken water bucket, pots and pans, and a shovel.
A true-to-scale, half-view replica of a Conestoga wagon is in the plans, in order to place the survival items where they would have been placed for the journey.
The items are currently placed near a detailed drawing of a Conestoga, courtesy of the University of Illinois.
The center also has a diary written by a young lady who describes traveling on the rough road and mentions the hospitality of a family west of Effingham named Funkhouser, which offered a large newly built log cabin as a tavern and inn for travelers.
There is much information on Abraham Lincoln and his time in Vandalia and in Greenville, as well as his famous debates with Stephen A. Douglas.
There are several large photographs of the Vandalia Statehouse, showing the changes made in the structure over the years and also the location of the Madonna of the Trail statue.
One photo shows the town’s World War II “Honor Roll” placed near the statue.
Also displayed are older photos of Vandalia’s Gallatin Street, which evoke memories of long-time residents.
As Mueller viewed the old pictures, she shared her memories of some of the things that were around when she was young.
“I remember those telegraph poles running down Gallatin Street,” Mueller said. “There were no telephones then.”
She remembers many of the buildings and businesses that on Gallatin Street years ago.
Although hesitant to talk about herself, she did recall being the first girl to join the FFA.
“The first year I wanted to join, Mr. Murphy was against it.”
The next year, as a sophomore, Joyce was accepted in the organization. She met some opposition from an out-of-town teacher, but she stuck to her guns and was accepted.
“The boys didn’t seem to mind, and Mr. (Max) Grinnell, I had no problem with him.”
Joyce proved her worth as a member and even served as the FFA secretary. She showed her beloved Guernsey’s calves (choice cow of the Van Sant Dairy) and won awards.
She recalled the first 4-H show she ever went to.
“It was 1940, and none of the guys (at home) were around, so Mom just took the back seat out of our car and, with Joyce and the calf in the back, we went to the 4-H Show.”
Joyce married “Cotton” Bigham, and they had three children, Ann, Scott and Bruce. She later married “Dutch” Mueller.
Two years ago, her daughter, Ann, was one of a hundred of Delta Airlines employees that won a special Chairman’s Award, and one of the perks was tickets for two to anywhere in the world.
“Scott and I felt sorry for her and we took them off her hands,” Joyce said, laughing. They traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland.
“That’s where Robert, the Bruce, king of the Scots, is buried and as we’re descendants of his, we wanted to go there. That’s where my Bruce got his name,” she said.
They enjoyed a two-week trip of visiting different countries, but what stands out is a huge ferry trip to the Island of Guernsey, a part of the United Kingdom, where her beloved Guernsey cows originated.
Joyce Van Sant Mueller is not only a good source of information about the National Road and Vandalia’s history, but, as a pioneer on a different pathway, she has her own story to tell … if you can persuade her to share it.