By Lee Kreutzer
When I was invited to help drive a light wagon as part of a wagon train on the Oregon and California National Historic Trails through northeastern Kansas in 2007, I felt like one of the luckiest history nerds alive!
My benefactors were Ken and Arleta Martin, of Oketo, Kansas, who were long-time members of both the Oregon-California Trails Association and the National Pony Express Association. Through the years they had organized several wagon train reenactments on the trails across Kansas, and this time they offered my National Park Service trails office colleague, Kay, and me the use of their horse and wagon. Kay, being a highly experienced NPS interpreter, was an old hand at this kind of thing, but it would be my first wagon trek and my first time driving a horse, so I was ecstatic. Another friend from the office sewed me a prairie dress and Kay loaned me one of her poke bonnets, and I was all set to roll out onto the trail.
We gathered with the other participants, a group of 73 “rut nuts” with various types of conveyances and quadrupeds –full-sized covered wagons, farm wagons, buggies, draft horses, saddle horses, mules, and dogs, at the Scott Spring Oregon Trail Park near Westmoreland on a mellow September evening. The next morning we shook the dew off our tents, got costumed and hitched up, and rolled out down a Kansas country road edged with beaming sunflowers.
If you’re thinking, meh, Kansas, brown and flat, you couldn’t be more mistaken. Northeastern Kansas is beautiful rolling prairie, sprinkled with wildflowers and tickled by streams. That autumn the farm fields were golden, the pastures green from a wet summer and full of fat, curious cows that lined up along the fences to moo at the passing procession. We soon left the roads and followed original swales, cut by 19th century wagon wheels, across private lands whose owners graciously welcomed the Martin wagon train.
Our horse, Lady Bay, was a dreamboat: a beautiful, long-legged bay mare (as her name rather hints), broke to harness by an Amish trainer, with a peach of a personality. (I kissed her on the nose one morning while preparing to hitch up, and she reached back and nuzzled me on the cheek! There were witnesses!) Our little wagon creaked and chirped cheerfully up and down the backroads and swales, and Lady Bay took it over the stream crossings like a boss. One such crossing, I recall, was a bit sketchy: a short, abrupt drop down to the water with a steep, long pull back up the other side. Kay handled the reins, urging Lady Bay into a mighty lunge to carry the wagon up the opposing bank. I was too chicken even to ride in the wagon for that one. I got out and watched from the safety of the streambank, instead. Bravo, Kay!
As the miles passed, some horses grew stiff and lame from the unaccustomed strenuous work and had to be trailered home or switched out. Who knew that horses are so delicate? I sure didn’t. No wonder nineteenth century cross-country travelers preferred oxen and mules.
In the evenings we moved our motor vehicles to the next overnight spot and pitched camp. I slept in the back of the trails office SUV, but others brought campers or slept in their wagons or tents. Meals were Dutch oven country comfort food prepared and served up by caterers. One evening we had musical entertainment by a local bluegrass/country-western group that boasted one of the best female yodelers I’ve ever heard – and that includes the Dixie Chicks, the Wailin’ Jennys and the rest of the pros. Such fine, athletic vocals! It was a real treat to hear them perform.
But my favorite memory of this incredible trip is that of driving our wagon along swales through rare, native tallgrass prairie. Most Kansas tallgrass has been plowed under over the past century and a half to make room for profitable fields of wheat, soybeans, corn, milo, and hay. Hey, farmers have to make a living, too. But some have saved acres of tallgrass because they are paid by the federal government not to plow, or simply because they treasure the prairie. I never thought I’d be lucky enough see any of it. Driving a horse and wagon in the authentic track of the Oregon Trail while passing my hand over the heads of big bluestem higher than Lady Bay’s back…well, it was as close as I ever expect to get to time travel.
Ken, Arleta, and Kay—and Lady Bay, too—gave me an unforgettable trail experience. Sadly, this was Ken’s last wagon train. Shortly after the trip he was diagnosed with cancer, which caused his death in 2012. Historic trails were an important part of Ken’s life, and he made them an important part of others’ lives, as well. Thanks so much for the memories!
Lee Kreutzer is a Cultural Resource Specialist for the National Park Service National Trails Intermountain Region.