On the road again: Wagon Train celebrates 125 years of statehood | TSLN.com

On the road again: Wagon Train celebrates 125 years of statehood

Matthew J. Trask
for Tri-State Livestock News

Every morning in a different town in South Dakota until September 20, the trace chains will jingle, the wagons will rumble, and cowboys and cowgirls of all ages will hold in their ponies. About 8:30, wagon master Gerald Kessler will muster what little voice he has left to shout "wagons ho!" to some forty wagons.

The South Dakota 125th Anniversary Wagon Train, after a rousing send-off the night before, left Yankton on Saturday, Sept. 4, and made its way past corn, soybean and hay fields, reaching Tabor, S.D., about 3 o'clock that afternoon. The Wagon Train is going from Yankton, the former territorial capital, to Pierre, the current state capital.

There's a reason Kessler's voice is hoarse. Being in charge of a wagon train is hard work. "I was up at 3:30 in the morning the day before yesterday (Sept. 4)" he says. "We had a team of horses and a team of mules get loose and go clear downtown, so the cops came knocking on my door. I went down there and got 'em and I knew better than to go back to sleep. Then yesterday, (Sept. 5) KSFY TV in Sioux Falls wanted to do live broadcasts for their morning show, so I was up at three again to do that."

Most everybody thinks he's doing a good job though. Daniel and Martha Stahl of Bridgewater, S.D., brought a buggy and their daughter's eventing horse. They're traveling in style with their little dog along on the buggy. "We said to ourselves 'there's never gonna be a closer wagon train, let's just do this.' And boy am I glad we did. Everybody's just so nice, and Gerald's doing a great job. And for $125? He can't be making much money on this. I'm impressed. I'm big into antique tractors, but this is even older, and we're having a ball."

D.W. Koss brought four blue roan colts from his home in West Salem, Wisc. "I pull wagons at Cheyenne Frontier Days, and a friend of mine there said 'Hey you should go on this South Dakota ride,' so here I am. This is perfect weather for these hides. I hope they can make it clear to Pierre, 'cause this is just what they need, miles ya know? They get a little better everyday. If I get them into Pierre, I'll have something now, boy. I'd like to leave Pierre and drive them back to Wisconsin. Wouldn't that be something?"

There have been spectators at almost every rural intersection along the way, and the host towns have been excited to have a wagon train in their town. The people of Tripp handed out free local watermelons and muskmelons to wagon train participants who wanted them, and the citizens of tiny Kaylor, a noon stop, served all-you-can eat tacos at the local bar for seven dollars.

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Not to be outdone, the towns of Tabor and Scotland, both night stops, offered free will breakfasts to the wagon trains. "Really, I've had trouble with the towns we just can't get to," says Gerald Kessler.

And a lot of interesting family history is being made on this historic ride. Dale and Jane Brehe participated in the Centennial Wagon Train in 1989 with their daughter Jenny, who was eight years old at the time. "Now," says Jane proudly, "Jenny is here on this wagon train with her daughter, who is eight years old." Jenny, who's last name is now Brinkwater and her four kids, had to leave four days into the ride, but they made some family history riding with Dale and Jane in period costumes, pulled by Ben and Adam, two massive Belgian horses.

The 125th Wagon Train will merge with the Kyle Evans Memorial Wagon Train near Wessington Springs. Evans, a regionally popular cowboy singer from Wessington Springs who died in a motorcycle accident in 2001, was named the Centennial Troubadour in 1989. "Kyle Evans was a cowboy's cowboy," says Aaron Humphrey of Marion, S.D. "He was the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet, and he always rode a good horse."

"And having them along, I can relax a bit," says Gerald Kessler. "There's a lot of good hands on that wagon train."

And the pioneer spirit is still alive and well. Friends of the family brought Gerald Kessler's mother Gladys, now 97, from the nursing home in Mitchell, S.D., to Mitchell Livestock, where the Wagon Train was taking a break, to ride to the rodeo grounds with her son. "We hadn't gone a block," says Gerald, "when she said 'hand me those lines, boy, I'm driving this team," and she drove Elmo and Reverend right through town. She drove right by the nursing home and the nurses were whooping and hollering. I said 'Mom you still like to show off don't you,' and she said 'Well why shouldn't I?'"

The 125th Wagon Train will reach Pierre about noon on Sept. 20. The public is welcome to watch the Wagon Train pull in, and festivities, including an address by the Governor, will follow. To follow the Wagon Train online, visit facebook.com/geraldkessler. F

TSLN sat down with Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton, who was instrumental in organizing the events in Yankton. Mr. Hunhoff is a state legislator and the founder of the South Dakota Magazine. Just last week he announced that he was handing over publishing duties to his daughter Katie Hunhoff and partner Heidi Marsh. But as the founder of the magazine and a resident of Yankton, we thought he’d know something about frontier politics, and we were right.

“We had the Yankton Ring or the Yankton Gang down here in the Territorial days” Hunhoff says. “People probably called them other four letter words too. They loved South Dakota, but let’s be honest, they loved their pocketbooks more. So you had things like Governor Pennington naming Pennington county after himself and giving all the county jobs to his friends in Yankton. And they didn’t even move to Pennington county. They ‘fulfilled’ their jobs from home. Then they made a law that the capital could not be moved from Yankton. So a majority of the legislators got on a train in Sioux City, Iowa, and when it reached the city limits of Yankton, voted to repeal the law and move the capital. If the Yankton Gang had been more fair, if they’d played nice, we might still be the capital.”