This summer, some two dozen rigs and a company of outriders traveled more than 130 miles from Goodhue to Rushford, Minnesota, kicking up dust on gravel and low-maintenance roads, leaving wheel and hoof tracks on field access paths and bringing traffic to a respectfully slow speed on smaller paved highways.
Despite the joys of traveling the old-fashioned way, participants agree that the real reward came at the end of the journey, when they presented a check to Camp Winnebago, a facility near Caledonia in southeastern Minnesota that caters to children and adults with special needs. Over its 23-year history, this wagon train–the Friendship Wagon Train–has raised more than $400,000 for the camp.
“It’s the biggest fund-raiser for our camp, and we definitely appreciate all the work that goes into the wagon train,” says Camp Director Barb Cage. As far as she knows, it’s the only remaining wagon train of its kind in the region. “It’s fun and it’s unique–just like our camp.”
The wagon master for the June 26 through July 2 event, John Davis of Byron, Minnesota, was a regular participant in a similar fund-raiser, the Courage Center Wagon Train, for many years. He’s a Lions Club member, and that organization sponsors a cabin at Camp Winnebago. The Friendship Wagon Train was a natural outgrowth of those two connections for John and his wife, Monica.
The journey actually begins at the end of the summer, as John and Monica explore Minnesota’s back roads in search of a route for the next year’s wagon train.
“We use a gazetteer (a geographical dictionary); we’ve been on roads that most people wouldn’t even think are roads,” John said. “The hardest part is finding the campsites. Twenty years ago everybody had two-horse trailers. Now it’s all big camper units, and they take up space.”
This summer, a former fairgrounds that now serves as municipal parking held the group two nights in Wabasha, Minnesota, home of an eagle education center and site of part of the filming for Grumpy Old Men. Farmers sometimes allow camping in their fields; in 2011, a generous Amish family near St. Charles, Minnesota, hosted the wagon train for one night.
Best-laid plans often go wrong, however, so John and Monica try to find an alternate site for every night’s camping, just in case a field gets flooded or a city council gets wet feet (pun intended). Sometimes the alternates have turned out to be the best possible arrangements. In one case an 89-year-old man who had farmed with horses showed such an interest in the wagon train that he was invited to ride along. He was happy to volunteer his land for the group to use during a rest break, John remembered.
The route and camping spots are just the start of the hundreds of details to be worked out before the wagons line up and head out.
“When you first drive the route to look it over, you’ve got to be observant,” John said. “You look at the signs and see who does the road cleanups–what 4-H clubs, what church groups. Those are people to contact for help with meals and other arrangements.”
By the time they’ve contacted all the cities, villages, churches and various service and education groups, John and Monica usually will have secured meals for the wagon train participants, found sources of water for the 1,200-gallon tank that follows the group, learned where volunteers can put manure and soiled hay cleaned daily from the campsites, and have even received promises of donations for Camp Winnebago.
Over the years John and Monica have developed quite a list of people who are interested in participating in the annual wagon train. In 2011, the event attracted participants from Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Donald Thomas of Boaz, Alabama, for example, made the 18-hour drive north to participate in the Friendship Wagon Train for the third time.
“The people all are like family,” he said. “When you have been there a couple of years, it’s like a reunion.”
Don has led a wagon train in Alabama for more than 30 years. Although he’s had big teams, these days he’s driving a handy pair of Haflinger mules. Other teams in this year’s Friendship Wagon Train ranged from ponies to Belgians; the rigs ranged from home-made contraptions to antique wagons and buggies.
John and Monica’s Belgian team pulls a restored wagon that’s loaded with history.
During the 1960s, several African-Americans drove horses and mules to Washington, D.C., to emphasize to then-President Kennedy the need for civil rights legislation. Many of the wagons they rode in were abandoned in the nation’s capitol, simply stockpiled to be disposed of at a later date.
John and Monica’s rig is such a wagon. The running gear was from a tobacco wagon out of Kentucky. John, a professional carpenter by trade, redesigned the wagon to accommodate the Belgian team. He did not modernize the wagon, however, and he and Monica dress “old-timey” during most of the affair so they better match the rig.
“There are times I want to go to the convenience of rubber tires and something that is a little closer to the ground,” John said, “but so far we’ve stayed with it.”
The brakes push against a wooden block, and over the course of a 100+ mile wagon train, that block could see a lot of wear. John always carries a spare block so he can replace a worn brake if needed. Well, almost always.
“One year I got to looking for that block and I couldn’t find it anywhere,” John remembered. “Then one of the kids admitted he tossed it in the campfire the night before. He thought it was good firewood.”
Those are the kinds of memories group members share in the evening after the day’s traveling is through, horses are cared for and wagons and equipment are set up for the next day’s use. Sooner or later, John and Monica will be asked about their 1994 wedding.
“We didn’t tell anybody about it, but we set it up for New Harmony, Minnesota, during a wagon train stop,” John said. “We had to find a new campsite at the last minute; it was a hay field behind the nursing home.”
The morning of the wedding, the local radio station interviewed John and a friend about the wagon train, and the friend spilled the beans. Later, as the justice of the peace gathered the wagon train participants to witness the ceremony, an area television station crew showed up to film the blessed event.
“There on the 10 o’clock news was our wedding,” John said. “All along the route people were coming up looking for the people who got married.”
Their son, Dustin, was six months old when he rode in his first wagon train. In 2011, at age 15, he was one of the outriders, decked out in a colorful hat and riding a Percheron-cross gelding.
Outriders, drivers and passengers find that there are times when participating in the wagon train is hard work. July in southern Minnesota can produce hot and humid days, sticky nights, thunderstorms, gnats, deer flies and mosquitoes. Critters seem to take it all in stride, but humans can get a little cranky as the miles go by.
“Toward the end of the week, some kids from Camp Winnebago will come out to join us in the wagons or eat a meal with us,” Monica said. “That makes it all worth it. It’s getting on in the week, you’re getting tired, and then the kids come out and that gives us all more energy.”
Camp participants enjoy the outing. “Wagon train week” is the most popular week at Camp Winnebago.
“This year we took almost everyone from that session,” Barb said. “We had one guy who just clutched on to John and said he didn’t want to leave. It’s an exciting event for them.”
Nearly everyone who attends the camp receives direct support from the wagon train. Funds from the effort go to “camperships,” scholarships of $450 each that literally cut the price of camp participation in half. For many, that campership is the difference between being able to attend Camp Winnebago or missing out on the camaraderie and unique experiences the camp offers.
“Everyone who registers to be in the wagon train gets two donation books to go out in their own home town and solicit donations,” Monica said. “We also get donations during the wagon train–like the truck driver who passed us and handed a bill out the window. It was a $50 bill. We were really surprised.”
This year’s total was about $20,000 at the end of the wagon train, but John says that will increase as donations continue to trickle in. The most successful year was 2002, when the donations totaled more than $40,000.
By the end of September, Monica and John will have figured out a good route for the 2012 Friendship Wagon Train, and they will have started contacting communities and groups and finalizing all the details that will make the journey a success.
They’re also working full-time, providing wagon rides to various groups or events on weekends, keeping their family life going and taking care of their horses and equipment. How do they find time for it all?
It’s a matter of priorities, John explained, admitting without a hint of guilt that often the lawn just doesn’t get mowed.
“Life is a journey,” he said. “You make the time to do what you think is important.”