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The Gardner Family Credo: Have Cookie Jar, Will Travel

May 02, 1997|KATHY STICKEL

WASHINGTON, Neb. — I met the Gardner family and their intrepid cookie jar on the trail today. Ron and Cheryl and their five children came from Kansas City, Mo., to spend the day, and, as it turned out, walk 14 miles in the rain.

Their shoes and clothes are covered in mud, but they say they've had a great time.

Of course, I have to ask about the cookie jar, an earthenware behemoth that appears to have weathered the day better than has Amanda, 12, who is drenched and is standing with her arms wrapped around it.

Michael, a tall, thin 14-year-old, steps up to explain. "Our great-great-great-grandmother was 8 years old when her dad told her they were going to America. He said she could choose one thing to take with her, but she would have to take care of it."

"Kids," Ron says, and his laugh turns his walrus mustache up at the corners. "Wouldn't you know a kid would think the cookie jar was the most important thing in the house? And that cookie jar made it across the ocean, then 1,300 miles across this trail to Salt Lake."

"So you decided to bring your own cookie jar today to relive her trip?" I ask.

A pause, then they all shout: "No! This is the cookie jar!" "It's her cookie jar!" "Look at it!"

I look--and am amazed. The Gardners have slogged 14 miles up and down hills, through the mud, carrying with them a very large cookie jar that is older than the state they're traveling across. The lid has been broken several times, and the rim is slightly chipped, but other than that, Great-Great-Great Grandma's childhood treasure looks ready to sail into the next century in style.

Seems that humans will march into the most frightening of futures undaunted, so long as we can carry with us one relic to tie us to where we used to be. Does that explain the lines at the souvenir trailer? The attics and basements crammed with things we never use and rarely look at but can't bear to part with?

The Gardners are here for just one day, and when they hear that I'm leaving the wagon train for a few days to visit the trail head in Nauvoo, Ill., they offer me a lift back to Omaha to catch my bus. I thank them for the help, and that opens up another Gardner family pioneer story.

"It's a tradition in my family," Ron says. "My great-great-grandfather Thomas Gardner came here to Winter Quarters, anxious to get to the West. But since the pioneers had been driven from their homes by mobs, a lot of them didn't have enough food to make the journey. Brigham Young asked him to stay and grow crops to feed the people. He stayed here for 11 years doing that.

"He saw a lot of people go through here," says Ron, eyeing the hills to the north. "He sent tens of thousands of people on ahead of him, knowing that they would get the best land and a big head start on him in business, but he stayed and helped them along their way."

"So he got there eventually, right?" I ask.

"He did. And you know what? All these years later, it doesn't matter who got there first. He eventually got there and he did just fine. I'm prouder to say that he stayed here growing food for strangers than I would be to say that he was one of the first to make it to the valley."

Just outside Omaha, the Gardner kids insist that we stop at the pioneer cemetery. Randy, 9, pulls me over to the lists of names of those buried here. There she is, Emma Gardner, Thomas Gardner's sister-in-law and one of hundreds who died here in Winter Quarters.

She and Thomas and the others are long dead now, but today, Ron, Cheryl, Kevin, Kristy, Michael, Amanda and Randy Gardner celebrate their inheritance: a cookie jar, a name etched in stone, a belief that helping others is a good investment.

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