Shortly after Ezra Meeker wrapped up his second recrossing of the Oregon Trail in Puyallup, Washington, on August 26, 1912, another covered wagon train prepared to embark on the leaf-strewn streets of a little prairie town named Blue Rapids, Kansas.
There was none of the fanfare elicited during Meeker’s two-year exploit to raise awareness of the trail, its history and the pioneers who opened the frontier. Throughout Meeker’s journey the press and public were equally enthralled at his wagon, its team of oxen and the tales of derring-do. Crowds jostled him in New York City and Chicago; he was filmed with a moving picture camera while crossing the Loop Fork of the Platte River. A cloudburst in the Rockies claimed almost all of his books and other effects and nearly took the wagon. He camped at the Alamo adjoining “that historic spot where David Crockett was killed,” he wrote in his memoirs. “All in all, it was a more strenuous trip than the drive to Washington, and all things considered it was prolific in results.”
The same would not be said for Sadie and Fred Vail’s grand adventure. Other than a few friends, relatives and well-wishers, there were no pressmen, no cameras, no jostling mobs to see them off. Their trip would be in vain; less than four months after arriving, they boarded a Missouri and North Arkansas passenger train at the Eureka Springs depot and headed for home. By then Sadie was in her seventh or eighth month of pregnancy with their second child. She was 20 years old.
Three or four covered wagons lined the street—the precise number is never mentioned, but it was probably three; one for Sadie, her husband, Fred, and their daughter Lucile, the second for Charles Chambers and his mother, Maryetta (Fred’s aunt), and a third for Charles and Goldie Jewell—with the Vail team in the vanguard.
“We are leaving at 10:30 a.m., with our mules in the lead up on Genesee Street,” Sadie Keith Vail wrote on the morning of October 3, 1912. It was warm and sunny, auspicious weather for the start of what would become a three-week exodus to find work and land in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
Why Eureka Springs remains a mystery. They had only been in Blue Rapids about a year, having moved there from Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1911. Those first years of their marriage were restless ones, nor did it seem they could settle upon one place to remain long enough to sink roots. There’s some question about the availability of jobs outside of Blue Rapids’ mining industry, and some hints that Arkansas was in the middle of a growth spurt. Eureka Springs in particular was becoming famous for its “healing” waters, said to cure every disease or ailment known to man and a few that weren’t. According to early advertisements widely circulated around the nation, its springs were proven to cure kidney troubles, Bright’s disease, rheumatism, catarrhal troubles, liver complaints, stomach diseases, paralysis, diabetes, diseases of women and skin diseases. Ponce de Leon, in fact, thought the Basin Spring was the original Fountain of Youth—or so it was said. And the land: what wasn’t vertical was lush and verdant, the climate temperate, the air invigorating.
Maybe they bought into the idea of a promised land. If so, they were part of a long tradition of dreamers who swallowed the lies, delusions and half-truths of self-serving boosters. Manifest Destiny, the settlement of the West, was in part fueled by these misty-eyed seekers, and their bones and graves still littered the trails. But unlike those who followed the Oregon, Santa Fe or California trails of the 1800s, modernity had crept in with civilization so that their travels would be in many ways easier. Supplies were abundant at any town they passed, and they followed roads instead of trails. Indeed, highway maps were available, though certainly not to the detail of today’s offerings.
But for all that, travel in a covered wagon was the same whether it was in the 1800s or early 1900s, with a few new wrinkles thrown in for good measure: automobiles and trains. Axles could break, roads remained primitive and subject to extremes of dust or muck, weather could wreck havoc, and, above all, forward motion was completely dependent upon four-legged creatures who tended at times to be irascible, cranky, obstinate and petulant.
One such beast belonged to Charles Jewell. His horse balked at the reins, balked at the road, balked at the idea of leaving Blue Rapids on such dubious reasoning, balked for the hell of it. In desperation, Jewell ran the horse two blocks west to the park, where on the east side of a tiny rill stood a racetrack. Most towns had them—Frankfort and Marysville had extensive tracks—but those at Blue Rapids were destined to grow with the arrival of the county fair in 1916, when the track was expanded and a grandstand capable of seating 1,000 people was erected. Jewell prodded his balky horse into a gallop and let it keep the pace until it tired.
While Sadie and the rest of the group waited, she jotted a few notes which would become a short diary of the trail. Surrounded by family and friends, she reminisced about the prior evening before as they said their farewells. “Last night all our old friends came by surprise to bid us all goodbye,” she wrote. “And lots more came again this morning. They said I had grit because I did not cry. All the rest are crying. But we all feel empty somewhere for those we are leaving.”
Their wagons were loaded with what few possessions they could squeeze in with the grub, which Sadie listed as a sack of flour, almost three bushels of potatoes, about 35 quarts of fruit. A small topsy stove went along for cooking and heating, and Fred’s traps, a trunk, suitcases and bedclothes, tubs and washboard, tool box and cooking utensils, a few children’s toys for Lucile.
A menagerie of dogs accompanied them. Shortly after Jewell returned with his wearier but manageable horse, they started out. And immediately ran into a situation. A puppy belonging to Charles and Goldie jumped from a wagon and tumbled beneath a wheel. Goldie thought it was dead. Closer inspection revealed a faint pulse and the lift and fall of struggling ribs. They tenderly placed it back into the wagon.
One by one the wagons lurched into motion. Harnesses creaked, hooves clopped, people waved and cheered. They followed Genesee southward to the edge of town and cut over toward the town of Irving. Blue Rapids fell behind. On their right were the parallel steel rails of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, on their left the gentle downslope toward the Big Blue River. Before them stretched the open road. They were bound for Arkansas.
(To be continued)