Fort Pierre man leads 17-day wagon train journey

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SCOTLAND, S.D. (AP) — Gerald Kessler gently sang to his mules as he fastened on their harnesses early on Sept. 6 in Scotland, S.D.

Kessler, of Fort Pierre, is the wagon master for the 125th Statehood Anniversary Wagon Train, which departed from the Dakota Territorial capital of Yankton on Sept. 3 and is scheduled to arrive in Pierre on Sept. 20 after completing a 17-day, about 250-mile trip.

There was a chill in the early morning air as Kessler and others prepared to leave a makeshift campground in Scotland and ride nearly 18 miles to Tripp on the third day of the wagon train’s journey. Kessler readied his mules, Elmo and Reverend, that morning with poise gained through years of experience. He has been involved in more than 100 wagon trains in his life, though he’s only led a handful of them himself.

“When you can look back and see you’ve got three-quarters of a mile of people following you in wagons, it just warms your damn heart,” he said.

With his mules ready at the head of his wagon, Kessler moved to the gate of the campground, and a line of wagons settled in behind him. On the third day, there were 45 wagons taking part in the ride, and many other people riding on horseback. More than 200 people have signed up to take part in all or part of the wagon train, according to Kessler.

Only moments before the wagon train was scheduled to leave Scotland, shouts erupted from the back of the line. In an instant, a driverless wagon pulled by two horses charged ahead wildly at great speed, nearly colliding with other wagons and a fence post near a road at the edge of the campground before barreling down the road and into the town itself.

In all the chaos a man was left hurt on the ground and riders quickly jumped from their wagons to come to his aid. The injured man, Mike Strohfus, of Volga, was taken by ambulance to a local hospital and was later airlifted to a hospital in Sioux Falls, according to Alden Olsen, of Hendricks, Minnesota, a friend of Strohfus who was also taking part in the ride. Later in the day, Olsen said Strohfus, who reportedly suffered some memory loss in the accident, would spend the night in the hospital, but was otherwise “in pretty good shape.”

Accidents aren’t uncommon on wagon trains, when people and livestock live in such close quarters for an extended period of time, Kessler told The Daily Republic.

“Any time you get up to 250 head of livestock together with 250 people, you’re going to have some mishaps,” he said. “It’s no different than a car race or a motorcycle rally.”

Once the runaway horses were tracked down and secured, the wagon train moved out only about half an hour later than Kessler intended that morning. Still, the accident remained on Kessler’s mind and was the day’s topic of discussion for many of the wagon train’s participants.

“You just never want to be the one to have the problem,” Kessler said. “But it can happen to the best of them.”

The accident on Sept. 6 wasn’t the first mishap to take place on the wagon train. The day before, Orville Blue Coat, a 72-year-old Eagle Butte resident, was bucked off the borrowed horse he was riding. Blue Coat, a self-described fixture at wagon trains, wasn’t seriously injured in the incident.

“I dusted off my hat, put my boot back on, and walked over and climbed back on my horse like nothing happened,” he said.

As the wagon train rolled on toward its midday stop in Kaylor, the mood turned back to positive.

Bob Glanzer, of Huron, drove an antique chuck wagon pulled by two gold-colored horses. It’s the first time Glanzer has ever driven a wagon in a wagon train himself, though he’s ridden along on others. It took him about two months to prepare for the ride, he said.

“It’s a lot more work than a guy thinks,” he said.

It’s the mystique of the era and the link to history that drove Glanzer to take part, he said.

Willie Cowan, of Pierre, and his wife, Loretta, enjoyed the ride, joking and telling stories with fellow participants and waving to onlookers who stopped at many of the intersections and farms along the way to watch the wagon train pass by.

“I’ve got a good team and a good companion coming with me,” Cowan said. “It don’t get no better than that.”

For Kessler, the most rewarding part of the wagon train is the connections those who take part are able to make with each other and with history.

“That’s what’s really great,” he said. “You can talk to people who are related to the people who settled this country.”

The wagon train arrived in Tripp shortly after 3:30 p.m. that day, about seven hours after leaving Scotland. As the wagon train passed through the town, residents lined some of the streets to watch and take pictures. That’s been a common occurrence as the wagon train moves from town to town, Kessler said.

“They’re proud of the fact that we’ve been able to use them as stops,” he said.