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The Milk River Wagon Train, 1979

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Men and women sitting on or standing by covered wagons that are arranged in a double line. Some horses are visible.
The Milk River Wagon Train on the first day of its 10th Anniversary journey from Larb Hills to Malta, Montana, 1979. Veterinarian Jim “Doc” Curtis is driving the wagon on the left, while “Young” Billy Young drives the wagon on the right. Photo by Michael Crummett. American Folklife Center Montana Folklife Survey Collection.

On August 30th, 1979, a group of hardy adventurers left Dewey Hart Ranch in the Larb Hills, Phillips County, Montana, in covered wagons and other horse-drawn vehicles to meet the Milk River and travel along it to Malta. The goal was to experience the wagon train as Montana pioneers once did, and to arrive in Malta in time to join the celebration of Labor Day, a trip that would take five days. It was the 10th anniversary of the Milk River Wagon Train. Participants had to bring their own horses, wagons, and supplies for the journey. Among the travelers were two folklorists, Kay Young and Michael Crummett, who had brought cameras and sound recording equipment to document the trip for the American Folklife Center’s Montana Folklife Survey. The wagon train is preparing to go again at the end of August.

A man wearing a stetson hat seated on a horse.
Milk River Wagon Train trail boss Bud Hasler. Detail of a photo by Michael Crummett, 1979. American Folklife Center Montana Folklife Survey Collection.

Most of what is now Montana east of its western mountains was acquired through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but settlement by European Americans began in the 1860s. Gold was discovered in what is now far western Montana, in what was then Oregon Territory, in 1862. Prospectors coming from the east needed routes across eastern Montana’s plains. Those interested in the business of providing support for those making the trek west helped to create towns along the wagon train routes. Finding and developing the routes across the plains was of great interest to all concerned in the effort, including the Federal Government. James Liberty Fisk, a former Army officer, led several wagon trains across Montana in the employ of the Federal Government. One of his expeditions in 1866 traveled along the Milk River, one of several developing routes across the plains.

Today’s Milk River Wagon Train is a reenactment of that period of settlement in the 19th century. All reenactments have their own formal or informal guidelines about the players’ actions, costumes, and equipment, with groups like Civil War reenactors maximizing the effort to represent the past. The Milk River crew meets that effort halfway: they prefer antique wagons, appropriate draft horses or mules to pull them, and authentic trail equipment. Period dress, however, is not required although there are plenty of cowboy hats in use. The most treasured part of the wagon train experience is not something that can be seen or read about in a book. It is the knowledge of how to work as part of a wagon train team: driving wagons, repairing wagons, riding horses along side the wagons to protect the travelers, as well as training, working with, and taking care of the teams of horses or mules that pull the wagons. These things are taught first-hand from generation to generation. Even in the 19th century, the knowledge of how to manage a wagon train, requiring all the skills mentioned and more, was not common. That was why trail bosses like James Liberty Fisk were needed.

In 1979 the trail boss for the Milk River Wagon Train was Bud Hasler, who passed away in 2009. He was also one of the people who came up with the plan for the first wagon train. In this recording, made just after the wagon train met its destination in Malta, Bud Hasler and “Young” Billy Young talk with Kay Young and Michael Crummett in Stockman’s Bar about how the wagon train got started.

In a later section of this interview, Kay Young asks where participants in the wagon train get their wagons, leading to an interesting discussion. There are quite a variety of horse-drawn vehicles in the wagon train, including a sheep wagon, covered wagons, farm wagons, buckboards, buggies, and even a stage coach.  As you will hear, there is quite a lot of kidding between Hasler and Billy Young, as well as joking comments about other members of the wagon train. There are also a few swear words in this segment.

A man drives a covered wagon with spots painted on the canvas cover, pulled by two large horses. Two saddle horses are tide to the back of the wagon.
Jack McKuen’s covered wagon and team of Belgian draft horses. Photo by Michel Crummett, 1979. American Folklife Center Montana Folklife Survey Collection.

This recording shows something important about eastern Montana as the birthplace of this wagon train. The spare western plains actually have some surprising resources, not the least of which is the knowledge of people who live there. Old wagons and buggies can be salvaged and repaired, if one is not fortunate enough to have inherited one. When Hasler says he pulled one out of a coulee, he means a deep ravine.  Hasler also tells of a buggy he built “from scratch,” which also speaks to local knowledge. Veterinarian “Doc” Curtis is jokingly accused of “stealing” the chuck wagon he drove, which may simply mean that he purchased or borrowed it. Curtis was one of the founding members of the wagon train, but younger than either Hasler or Young, and consequently he endured a lot of kidding on this 1979 trip. He not only drove the chuck wagon but provided its use for the wagon train. He can be seen helping folks to get lunch in the rain in this photo (he is in the jean jacket and hat). When the subject comes to spreading the tradition farther, Hasler encourages Michael and Kay to spread the idea of having wagon trains beyond Montana, and asks if Kay could start a wagon train where she lives. Kay explains that they do not have draft horses where she lives in Nebraska. Some draft horse breeds are much less common since the introduction of tractors and other motorized farm vehicles, and are no longer found in some parts of the country. Finally, there were enough older people who had experience in driving a team hauling a wagon, and even some not so elderly who had learned from their elders, so that the knowledge needed to drive wagons makes this adventure possible.

Right, men and women examine a wagon that has fallen over and the wagon bed has separated from the wheel base. On the left, men work in a steep ravine where two sets of wheels have landed after a crash.
Hazards of the trail: Two crashes occurred during the 1979 Milk River wagon train. On the left, a wagon belonging to Dick Schwartz hit a rock and tipped over. It was driven by someone still gaining experience in driving a team. It needed to be taken apart and reassembled. A more spectacular accident was caused by a runaway horse team with parts of the wagon scattered across the plain. On the right, wagoners work to retrieve the front and rear wheel assemblies from a ravine. Photos by Kay Young. American Folklife Center Montana Folklife Survey Collection.
A woman riding a horse.
Folklorist Kay Young borrowed a horse to experience the role of outrider in the wagon train. The folklorists rode in several of the wagons and rode horses in order to learn as much as they could about the experience of the various participants on the wagon train. Photo by Michael Crummett. American Folklife Center Montana Folklife Survey Collection.

Learning how to salvage or build 19th century wagons provides an important education for wagoners. With people of varying levels of experience on the wagon train, animals that may not always do what they are told, and the uncertainties of the trail through the plains, things can happen, and they do. There were two crashes during the 1979 wagon train. In one a wagon hit a rock and fell over on its side. Because of the way wagons were built, it was possible to unload it, take it apart, right the base with the wheels, and then reassemble everything so that the wagon train could get back on the road. The other accident was much more serious: the driver lost control of the horses, who took off, and then bolted again. The box of the wagon was separated from the base as the wagon went through a fence, while the wheel assembly wound up in a deep ravine and had to be towed out. In that case the wagon was temporarily reassembled and then taken to a shop that had the tools needed for repairs to be made. The experienced members of the wagon train made the repairs themselves, providing the fieldworkers with an opportunity to document the process, learning still more about what makes a wagon work.  So in a sense the Milk River Wagon Train is not only a reenactment of wagon trains of the past, it is also a school intended to pass on the knowledge of how to do the various tasks needed to be part of a successful wagon train.

There are many more things for participants in the wagon train to experience and learn, and fun to be had as well. Folklorists Michael Crummett and Kay Young could not record the events while they worked as part of the wagon train during the day, although they took some pictures. They got out their recording equipment in the evening of the first night on the trail and recorded people singing songs and telling stories around the camp fire. This is the first of the recordings they made that night. It begins with a Montana version of the folksong sung by Art Warren, “Starving to Death on a Government Claim,” that he attributes to Frank Baker, named in the first line of the song. It is an old pioneer song that dates to the Homestead Act of 1862  and has had its lyrics adapted to make it a song about pioneering in different states. A version folklorist Vance Randolph learned growing up in Kansas and sings in the recording at the link starts with “My name is Frank Taylor.”

Today there are wagon trains organized for tourists, by small and large companies making a profit on giving people a wagon train experience. But what is happening in Montana is much rarer, a wagon train that is wholly home-made, relying on local knowledge passed on over generations.

This August, the Milk River Wagon Train makes its 49th journey, and hopes to inspire the 50th next year. Although the group has worked to pass on the knowledge of running wagon trains to the younger participants over the years, the loss of most of  the original members has had a cost. The future of the tradition beyond its 50th year will require a new generation of wagoners to take up the reins of the horse teams. The staff of the American Folklife Center wishes them well, and hope that the documentation of the 10th anniversary trip, now online, can help to provide inspiration for future journeys.

A wagon and people on horses on a town street.
The Milk River Wagon Train arriving in Malta, Montana, to celebrate Labor Day, 1979. Photo by Michael Crummett. American Folklife Center Montana Folklife Survey Collection.

Comments (11)

  1. Great to see and read this tribute to the wagon train! The interview in the Stockman Bar & Grill had a nice, excited quality, no doubt due to the Stockman’s high quality beverages. A quick web search brought me the cheerful news that Malta’s Stockman still exists.

    That recorded exchange offers a fine snapshot of ethnographic fieldwork IRL as folklorist Kay Young diligently pushes to learn about the wagons of today while wagoner Billy Young insists on naming his favorite wagons of yesterday, built by the Rock Island Plow Company that flourished in the 19th century. Interested readers will find facsimiles of old Rock Island catalog pages that feature the company’s wagons on websites assembled by fans of antique farm equipment.

    We wish the Milk River trail riders a great 49th event this month and look forward to hearing about the 50th next year.

    Best to all from Carl Fleischhauer

  2. This is such a wonderful refection of how the wagon train was when it started. I rode the wagon train a couple times. It was a wonderful experience. Thank you for this article. I remember when I was a young the wagon train started at the Kolczak place in Landusky. My family went to the early morning start. My friend from Malta. Had her horse and wanted me to ride. Now, I wasn’t an experienced rider, our horses were usually only rode by men. My sister Betty Hasler was riding that horse. So, I got on the horse and it being a brisk morning. The horse got spooked and took off running we me. I remember the horse was running towards the Louie Perry wagon. Louise raised his hands and spooked the horse. He reared up, I was able to hang on. Somehow I was able to get off. Lesson learned, I should of walked the horse around awhile.

    • Thank you! I am glad to see that these photos and recordings are reaching folks like you who have fond memories of past wagon trains. Updates to the collection are in the works that will make the items easier to search. I am not sure how long it will take for those updates to appear, but they are in the queue with updates to other LC online collections.

  3. I was able to be part of this Wagon Train from 1989 to about 2003.The first time we were part of the Great Montana Centenial Cattle drive.After that my daughter and other friends went along.We made lots of great friends and many memories.I don’t ride any more and only go on the NE Montana Wagon Train now.I ride along with friends in a wagon.I keep saying that I will get over to Malta again someday.
    Have a great 49th.

    • Thank you for your comment. It is great to hear from folks who participated in the wagon train!

  4. This is simply amazing. I grew up on the wagon train and have spent my life moving about as far away from it as possible (haha). But, I have a thousand memories from those days and reading the blog, looking at the photos (some of which are of me as a little kid!!), and listening to my parents around the campfire is an amazing experience. Who woulda thunk my childhood would end up at the Library of Congress? Ha! Ha! What a hoot!

    • Hi! As I wrote this essay I wondered how some of the little kids in the photos of the 1979 wagon train remembered it today. Great to hear from you!

  5. Looking at this again — my face is red — I should have spotted the misspelling of Mike Crummett’s name when I first read the text. The blog got it right one time out of eleven. Mike, if you see this, we apologize!

    • Yes, I see that I kept leaving of a t. Forgive me Mike and Carl. This has been fixed.

  6. It was wonderful to find Stephanie’s article and all the photos of the 1979 wagon train. I was an outrider – Bill Sommers (my Rugby coach) and I hauled horses from Colorado to go along. He was originally from Malta. Bill got hurt on the first day’s ride when his “city” horse refused to cross a small stream. I can’t believe it has been 40 years. What memories!

    • It is great to hear from people who were there. Thanks for posting!

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