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Past and present intersect in Grantsville

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In a cabin built in the 1750s, just a few hundred feet from a 201-year-old stone bridge across the quiet Casselman River, a man sits at a slab of a wooden table, an array of carving tools spread before him.

The rush of traffic from nearby Alternate U.S. 40, also known as Route 40, does not bother Gary Yoder. Nor does the "thump-thump-thump" of the weaving loom from the cabin next door.

The most celebrated crafter of wooden bird sculptures in Western Maryland is too engrossed to notice.

"What I do is more like an addiction than a career — a healthy one, I hope," he says, glancing up from a hawk feather he's carving from a piece of basswood.

Yoder has been practicing his craft at the Spruce Forest Artisans Village — a cluster of working artists' studios a mile from downtown Grantsville — for 42 of his 55 years.

The village, with its eight artists working in vintage cabins, sits in a larger glade known as Little Crossings, a 10-acre neck of the woods in Garrett County that once helped America bridge old and new, and where past and present still intersect.

On one side, the Casselman River Bridge, 80 feet high and 354 feet long, was once a key link on the National Road, the gravelly thoroughfare across which hundreds of thousands of settlers started traveling in the early 1800s.

On the other side stands the Penn Alps Restaurant, a sprawling log hostelry that started life in 1818 as a stagecoach stop along that road and that still attracts plenty of U.S. 40 travelers, as well as devoted local residents.

See more pictures from U.S. 40.

Yoder has never lived more than a mile or so from his workplace. He has never wanted to.

He has met authors, filmmakers and politicians from across the country, along with the families and tourists who stop by just about every day.

"The whole world comes through here," he says.

It's doubtful George Washington was pondering art when he passed through on June 19, 1755. Then 23 and an aide to a British general, he was helping lead an expedition toward an enemy stronghold during what would become known as the French and Indian War.

Half a century later, in 1806, President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill that gave birth to the National Road. It started in Cumberland 25 miles to the east, passed through here and reached into Pennsylvania and beyond.

Architects erected the bridge — then the longest stone span in America — in 1813. Today it's a well-preserved National Historic Landmark in the midst of a small park.

On a recent afternoon, the songs of wrens and warblers filled its four acres.

"How could I ever get bored making birds?" Yoder asks.

Sometimes the music can be hard to hear. Alternate U.S. 40, a two-lane road known around here as the National Pike, is the asphalt successor to the National Road. It's just on the other side of a grove of trees, and there's an intermittent whir of passing traffic.

Across a parking lot, a visitor enters Penn Alps for other local delights, including the roast pork and slow-cooked bacon and beans on the menu.

Nearly 200 years ago, the Tavern Room, with its double fireplace, pegged beams and mud-mortared chimney, was the heart of Little Crossings Inn, a stagecoach stop that served the National Road.

It was one of a dozen such inns along this road, all of them known, historians say, for their exceptional hospitality.

As the lunch hour wanes, six women from around the county wrap up a mah-jongg game in the room, gathering the tiles from atop a wooden table.

Pat Adams, 77, a native New Yorker who spent years living in Washington, says this is just the kind of low-key activity she was looking for when she moved 20 years ago to Grantsville, a town of nearly 800 near the Pennsylvania border.

She belongs to a quilting club, plays dulcimer at the senior center, welcomes her grandchildren during June's Grantsville Days and makes a study of local history.

Adams is so much more vocal than her native-born friends, she says, that when they want something done in town, they make her the mouthpiece.

The Penn Alps staff is full of such shyly effective types.

Take Edith Yoder (no relation to Gary), who has quietly waited tables for 32 years and says she has never had a better job. Or hostess-cashier Dorothy Eisentrout, 76, who was hired in 2003 after the factory she had worked in for 48 years was shut down.

She loves the place, too, in part for its well-established record of hospitality.

The night before, the restaurant was hosting a mix of regulars and travelers when a storm passed through, knocking out the power.

Rather than complain, says Eisentrout, diners took out pocket flashlights and continued enjoying their meals.

"This place feels like family," she says.

The cabins in Spruce Forest are open for visitors during business hours, and as dinnertime nears, Gary Yoder chats with an arriving family of four.

The carved bobwhites, swallows and grosbeaks in front of him — works that can take months to make and fetch thousands in commissions — have captured many national and regional awards.

When they ask what inspires him, the answer is quick as a sparrow. It's everything around him — the wildlife, the people, the history.

It's why Yoder never wants to leave.

"This is a fascinating place," he says. "The more you look, the more you see."

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jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

If you go

Spruce Forest Artisan Village (spruceforest.org) is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. (Individual artists' hours vary; call 301-895-3332.) Penn Alps Restaurant (pennalps.com) is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. (Call 301-895-5985.) Both are in the Little Crossings area one mile east of downtown Grantsville on the National Pike.

About the series

Postcards from U.S. 40 is a series of occasional articles taking readers on a summer road trip along the historic highway that stretches 220 miles across Maryland. Have a suggestion for where we should go next? Tell us about it at baltimoresun.com/US40Share.

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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