An epic gift: Great-grandmother’s birthday wish fulfilled by discovery of historic wagon 


It started as a conversation around the Thanksgiving table.

Over turkey and stuffing, Sara Wood, 89, told her grandson that for most of her life she’d wanted to see her great-great-great-grandfather’s wagon that the family used to make their way from Pennsylvania to Hamilton County in the mid-1800s. She was confident it was still around; she’d heard stories that it was in Chicago.

So her grandson, Dax Norton, decided to do some digging. And it didn’t take long.

“It took one phone call to find out we didn’t have to go to Chicago,” Norton said. “It was home where it should be.” 

Norton, a Zionsville resident and Town of Whitestown town manager, discovered that the wagon was resting in a storage area at Conner Prairie, a museum in Noblesville. It is too frail to put on public display, but Woods and a few family members were permitted to get an up-close look at the wagon Dec. 15.

Woods repeatedly exclaimed, “Oh, my goodness!” as she finally got to touch a piece of family history.

“This is my birthday wish,” Woods, who turns 90 in April, said after inspecting the wagon. “Oh, it must have traveled a long way.”   

The wagon made its way from Pennsylvania to Hamilton County in 1847, when the Gascho family decided to head west for new opportunities. In 1854, Wood’s great-grandfather, John Gascho Jr., bought a 120-acre farm that is still in the family. The pig and cattle farmer also purchased 80 acres in the northeastern part of Noblesville township and 165 acres southeast of Noblesville along Stony Creek, according to “History of Hamilton County, Indiana,” by John F. Haines.

Much of that land is still in the family, Norton said, but it may see drastic changes soon.

“There are endangered sites that are Gascho farmsteads that development is potentially going to take out of existence,” Norton said. “Grandma wants to make sure some of that still exists for future generations to see.”

Although the wagon isn’t available for the public to see, Conner Prairie guests can see a replica of it in Prairietown, a historic village that lets visitors experience what life was like in Indiana in 1836.

“It’s a very important part of Indiana history, especially Hamilton County history,” said Lana Newhart-Kellen, Conner Prairie collections manager and registrar.

Conner Prairie has had the wagon in its possession since Eli Lilly purchased it for the museum at an estate auction. Lilly knew the Gascho family and its history in the area, Newhart-Kellen said, and believed the historic wagon should be preserved.

The wagon was also instrumental in bringing railroads to central Indiana. William Conner, a fur trader who settled in Indiana in the 1800s and Conner Prairie’s namesake, hired the Gascho family to bring the boiler for the first local train engine to Noblesville.

“This wagon was the only wagon in the county that was big enough to do it,” Newhart-Kellen said.

And for Woods, it was the only thing that could make her lifelong dream come true.

“My grandma is absolutely thrilled to have this birthday wish fulfilled,” Norton said.

Also on display

The wagon isn’t the only piece of Gascho family history on display at Conner Prairie. A barn built on the Gascho family property in the late 1840s in Noblesville was moved to the southern end of the museum in 2001. It originally stood near Ind. 37 and Ind. 32, where Kahlo Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram is today.

The Pennsylvania-style barn features banked walls that are wider than its foundation. It is part of Conner Prairie’s Civil War Journey experience and stores straw and farm necessities in its top level and provides shelter for hogs and sheep in the lower level.