By Francis Champ Zumbrun
It was a hot, humid summer day in LaVale, Maryland that mid July 2013 when I picked up the phone ringing in my kitchen. “Hello,” I answered. From the other end of the line a jolly greeting came my way: “What a joy it is to hear your voice!” It was my old friend, Offutt Johnson.
Offutt was calling from Oakland, Maryland to share with me some of his thoughts about the Casselman River Bridge bicentennial celebration coming up on the weekend of September 20-22, 2013 at Grantsville, Maryland. At the time, Offutt was serving as a volunteer on the bicentennial planning committee, a group of which I also was a member.
Offutt asked me, “Hey, can you meet me at Wendy's Restaurant in Oakland? I have something I want to show you.”
A few days later, I met Offutt at the agreed place and time. He often had a humorous story to tell me when we first would meet, and this day was no exception. “Hey Champ, I just talked to DeCorsey Bolden. You remember him, the former Maryland Delegate. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have a bridge to celebrate. He helped find the funding to save the Casselman in the 1970s when it was in poor condition.”
Offutt continued, “DeCorsey just told me a funny story about the bridge. Someone recently told DeCorsey that when cars were allowed on the bridge, he went air-born speeding over the center hump of the structure. DeCorsey asked the person how long were they suspended in air. The man said he didn’t know for sure, but it was long enough to shout out frightfully three times - ‘Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!’ until the car finally slammed safely back down on the pavement.”
We chuckled at the thought that the Casselman River Bridge probably served as one of America’s first motorized speed bumps.
I saw that Offutt had brought with him to the restaurant a large poster board. From where I sat, I could not see whatever was on the front side of the board because Offutt positioned the poster so that the blank backside faced me. “You know,” Offutt said, “I have been thinking lately about the Casselman River Bridge State Park. We have something very special in that four-acre state park."
Thinking about parks and natural resources was nothing unusual for Offutt. He had spent his whole life thinking about state parks, state forests, and public lands. His father had been a forester for the Maryland State Forest Service. Offutt's parent at one time oversaw the operation of the camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps in western Maryland. Offutt eventually obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Recreation and Parks from the University of Maryland. He followed this pursuit with a very productive and eventful career working for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), first in Program Open Space, then as a park ranger at Patapsco State Park in Baltimore County. He retired in 2001 from DNR.
“You know, they talk about the crown jewels of parks - the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone,” Offutt said. “Well let me tell you …from the smallest tot-lots to the largest parks, they are all jewels in the crown; they are all special places, and Casselman is no exception."
Offutt glanced over at his poster board with the back of it still facing me. I still could not see what was on the other side. Offutt kept talking: “You know, if we do this celebration right, we can tell an incredible story about Maryland's State Parks and how important they are to the citizens of Maryland. We should not miss this opportunity!”
Finally, I said, “Offutt, you keep looking at that poster. Show me what’s on the other side.”
Offutt turned the board over. “This is what I wanted to show you,” he said. “This is the Casselman River Bridge bicentennial poster. This poster depicts what makes the Casselman River Bridge State Park special.”
I saw that Offutt had cut out paper images of the Penn Alps Restaurant Gift and Craft Store, the Spruce Forest Artisan Village, and the Casselman River Bridge. I noticed he had also sketched a very primitive map with streams, roads, and other objects. On this hand-drawn map, Offutt had pasted the cutout images in the appropriate places.
“Offutt, just what do you plan to do with this poster?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you, but first let me first explain what it is I’m trying to convey with this poster,” he said.
Offutt pointed to the different images he pasted or drawn on the board: “Here is the National Road, the road that built the nation; here is the Casselman River Bridge, one of the oldest surviving stone arch bridges in the country; and here is the state park. This is where you find people picnicking, flying balloons, riding bicycles, and fishing … all of these activities occurring right in sight of the Spruce Forest Artisan Village and the Penn Alps Restaurant. What a story we can tell. Why, the Casselman River Bridge community represents Americana at its best!”
This visit proved to be just another typical day spent with Offutt. He was in his glory, talking about the wonder and awe of state parks and public lands. This was his passion.
He went on talking. “This board represents Dr. Alta Schrock’s vision of a rural area sustained by agriculture, wood products, and the arts and crafts community next to a beautiful state park setting rich in American history. Dr. Schrock had the ability to manifest her vision into reality at the Casselman. She in essence was carrying out the motto of Fred W. Besley, our first state forester, ‘Conservation through Education.’”
“You know, I met Dr Schrock.” Offutt went on. “I invited her to speak to my Parks and Recreation class at the University of Maryland in the 1960s. She told my class that she had recently visited Europe where her ancestors were from. She saw that they still made arts and crafts as her ancestors had done centuries ago. Dr. Schrock was concerned that Americans were losing their heritage and forgetting their connection to nature as well as the craft making skills and abilities of their ancestors. She wanted to bring back and revive the old world traditions at the Casselman. She wanted to promote this ideal: farmers working the land by day, maybe cutting wood, harvesting corn, making maple syrup. Meantime, joyful children would be playing outside, rolling their hoops in the hollows of Appalachia. At night, the families would be sitting by the fireside in their log cabins, rocking in their chairs, the mothers weaving quilts. A dog would be sitting nearby at their feet. Over there in the corner of some of the cabins would be toy Radio Flyer wagons with wooden slats on the sides. Oh boy, every boy and girl should have one.”
Offutt pointed to different places on the poster board. “It’s all here! Here is the Penn Alps Restaurant and Craft store. Here is the Spruce Forest Artisan Village where artists create crafts from forest products that help sustain the forest industry. Here, artists are employed making and selling bird carvings, wooden toys, baskets, nature-based paintings, drawings, and greeting cards. Here, authors write and sell their books on local history. The arts and crafts community promotes and enriches the local economy. Meanwhile, the artisans’ ancestral crafts from the old world are passed on to the next generation - crafts made not only as an avocation but as a recreational hobby, something that is good for the soul.”
I Interrupted Offutt. “I understand what you are trying to say, but I still don’t know what you are going to do with your poster.”
“I am going to use this to raise funds so that we can properly celebrate the bicentennial of the bridge.”
“That’s all well and good,” I said, “but we only have a month and a half until the actual celebration. Although I appreciate what you’re trying to show in your poster, I don’t think many people will buy a copy of it.”
“Oh no! I am going to recruit an artist to make a professional painting of this poster,” Offutt said. Then he pulled a puzzle out of a cardboard box he carried with him. The cover of the box holding the pieces of the puzzle showed an early Americana painting.
“This is what I envision for our painting,” Offutt said, “I want it to look something like this.” The painting Offutt showed me on the cover of the puzzle box was a Charles Wysocki painting depicting an early American town in a beautiful country setting.
I reminded Offutt of our short deadline and my concern for fund raising to pay for an artist should he find one. “Let not your heart be troubled," Offutt said. “It will all work out.” Our meeting was over.
About two days later, Offutt called me again.
“I’ve found an artist! You may have heard of him. His name is Mark Stutzman.”
I said, “You mean THE Mark Stutzman? I asked incredulously. “The one famous for the 1990s painting of the U.S. Elvis postal stamp?”
“Yes, that’s the one.” Offutt said, “He is a prince of a man. He lives in Garrett County. He feels confident that he can get the painting done in time for the bicentennial celebration.”
To make a long story short, Offutt quickly organized a successful fund raising plan that financed the entire painting project. Mark Stutzman did indeed complete the painting in time for it to be unveiled at the Penn Alps banquet during the bicentennial celebration of the Casselman River Bridge. Many who knew Offutt and saw this remarkable masterpiece felt that the painting perfectly captured Offutt’s vision.
Sadly, Offutt never saw the finished project. Several days after Offutt shared his vision board with Mark, and before the painting was begun, Offutt unexpectedly passed away. Ironically, just an hour and a half before the incident that took his life, Offutt sent an email to Mark with final instructions for the painting.
In the email, Offutt asked Mark to paint the Penn Alps Restaurant and Craft Store with folks “exiting with take-home boxes, the parking lot appearing almost full. At the Spruce Forest Artisan Village, people are shopping.” Offutt continued, “ We want to represent Dr. Alta Schrock talking to a bird carver.” Offutt was referring to the well-known bird carving artist, Gary Yoder. Offutt also wanted Mark to show “a painter with an easel,” as well as “a maker of wood toys with craft people, guides, and visitors scattered throughout.”
At Casselman River Bridge State Park, especially dear to Offutt’s heart, Offutt instructed Mark to “show a Ranger wearing a khaki shirt, forest green pants, and forest green Stetson hat…The Ranger is standing beside a forest fire patrol truck … talking to some visitors and pointing toward the stone arch bridge … picnic baskets are on state park tables.” He also asked Mark to paint “a fisherman... wading in the river and holding a bent fishing pole… he has caught a fish!” Also drawn in the picture Offutt wanted “a person walking his bike, some kids with balloons… others [children] playing catch, while there is a person with a camera taking photos. There is a family picnicking in the state park. A group has gathered at a bicentennial speaker’s platform where a speech is being delivered.”
Offutt provided instructions that the painting should “represent a fall scene to give even more color to the trees and shrubs. The sky is blue with fluffy clouds and birds are swooping through the air. Early fall leaves are scattered here and there.” Offutt wrote Mark that the painting should show people enjoying “a sunny day in the park” with flags flying and 200th anniversary banners hanging in several locations. “People are having a good time during this festive time celebrating the birthday of the historic old bridge.”
Offutt wanted the painting to show the unique relationship of the three bridges at the Casselman on Interstate 68, U.S. Route 40, and the National Road. He also wanted depicted the historic trace of “Nemacolin’s Path”/”Braddock Road” that include the frontier characters of Thomas Cresap, Christopher Gist, and Chief Nemacolin.
He also wanted the surrounding buildings at Casselman included: Offutt wrote, “Over at the Bed and Breakfast, a couple is unloading suitcases from their car. A bride and groom are coming out of the church. Relatives and friends are throwing rice… a Miller rolls out bags of ground corn on a hand truck at the mill.”
As if from some scene in the 1950s “Twilight Zone” TV series, Offutt wanted depicted in the painting bustling about all at one time the different modes of transportation that crossed over the Casselman River Bridge or around the Grantsville community over the past 200 years. Offutt asked Mark to paint “a steam locomotive and flat cars [fully] loaded with logs belonging to the Casselman and/or Meadow Mountain Railroad … the train pulling cars loaded with logs, [with] puffs of white smoke coming from the smoke stack [as the train] rolls along on the extreme right side of the painting.”
Offutt also wanted included in the painting a covered Conestoga wagon; a stage coach; an assortment of vintage 1950s automobiles with a few antique cars including a Model T Ford; and a horse and buggy [that pulls] a “surrey with the fringe on top” carrying passengers, “the buggy pulled by a matched team” that “clip clops along.”
Offutt’s final words to Mark were, “What we hope to have throughout the painting is Americana at its best.”
(Note: Happily, Offutt spent his last day on earth doing what he loved to do best, taking his family or friends to his favorite place, a Maryland state park. On this particular fateful day, Sunday, July 26, 2013, Offutt took some companions to New Germany State Park, where they looked at the lake and some structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. They also visited Deep Creek Lake State Park, inspected the Thayerville Forest Fire Tower, and stopped by the Discovery Visitor Center. Here, Offutt purchased a blanket that contained images that represented all the western Maryland State Parks. That night, this blanket covered Offutt at the hospital and kept him warm during his final moments. The image of Herrington Manor State Park, one of his favorite state parks, stretched over his heart. The image of the Casselman River Bridge State Park rested at his feet where his boots had just gotten dirty assisting that state park prepare for the Casselman River Bridge bicentennial celebration.
Those who knew or just met Offutt often came away impressed with his can-do, optimistic attitude, and his “infectious enthusiasm.”
Mark Stutzman, the artist who commemorated the bicentennial of the Casselman River Bridge with a magnificent painting for the occasion, recently shared some of his thoughts about working with Offutt.
“However brief it was that I knew Offutt, the impression will be everlasting. As a commercial artist, working with him was a joy, putting him at the top of my list of working relationships. Good work is a result of good collaboration and he had a clear direction that guided me from start to finish. There was never a doubt or second guess as to how the painting would progress. People like him are rare and wonderful. It was truly an honor to commemorate not just the Casselman River Bridge Bicentennial, but also to play a role in immortalizing a fine man’s impression of a world we all can embrace.” - Mark Stutzman
Photographs (top to bottom):
Offutt Johnson taken on the day he unveiled his vision board.
Mark Stutzman, the artist is standing to the right of the painting. Chuck Thomas, retired Maryland State Park Ranger, and Erin Thomas, State Park manager for Casselman River Bridge State Park and New Germany State Park, are standing to the left of the painting.
Links to Related Stories
Francis Champ Zumbrun, author,
is the former Manager of Green Ridge State Forest.
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