Wagoners’ Ride Raises Funds on Asphalt Trails

Times Staff Writer

Seven prairie schooners set sail Thursday from Moorpark with the same hope of hitting pay dirt as the Forty-Niners who poured into California during the gold rush of 1849.

But the drivers of these horse- and mule-drawn wagons are not spending four days on the overland route to Camarillo to enrich themselves, but to raise funds for the Ventura County Arthritis Foundation. The event earns money by charging businesses about $400 apiece for ads on the sides of wagons, and by selling meals to the public.

“Some people get a thrill out of watching TV, but I just can’t get with the program,” said Dennis Blazewick, 50, an overall-clad retired Navy petty officer who trucked in two mules and a 124-year-old cart from Oroville for the annual event. “I guess I was just born 150 years too late.”

A Jack-of-all-trades, Blazewick is typical of the self-sufficient breed of 15 to 25 wagoners and their families who have put up with heat, steep grades and traffic each year since 1979 to benefit the charity. For several members of the wagon train, the trip is a chance to relive the six-month Bicentennial trek they made across country to Valley Forge, Pa., where thousands of people gathered in 1976 to celebrate the nation’s 200th anniversary.


For four days and nights, the Ventura County group plods along back roads and city streets past orange groves and office buildings, winding up Sunday at Freedom Park in Camarillo for a noon barbecue.

Thursday, the wagons rolled down Grimes Canyon Road--three miles of switchbacks reminiscent of the mountain trails that the pioneers often had to use.

“It was easier for the pioneers because they had dirt trails, and our iron wheels slip on the asphalt,” said Linda Menary, 41, of Chatsworth as she struggled, white-knuckled, to rein in her team of two dappled horses as they skidded downhill. “Hit” and “Miss” reached level ground without damaging Menary’s 100-year-old covered wagon.

The train will pass through Ventura twice--once on Friday as it travels westward and northward toward Oak View and again on Sunday on the way to Camarillo.


But this year may mark the group’s last journey because the city of Ventura, claiming the train causes traffic problems, is charging the wagons about $1,000 for a parade permit. Other law enforcement agencies, such as the California Highway Patrol, which assigned two officers Thursday to shepherd the train from Moorpark to Santa Paula, escort the group for free.

“The issue here is they want to stay together as a procession and that will have a tremendous impact on traffic,” said Capt. Ken Thompson of the Ventura Police Department. “We don’t provide such services for free anymore.”

Faye McDonald, executive director of the Ventura County Arthritis Foundation, said the fee probably will force the charity to cancel the event. She said the train could not avoid the city, because the charity’s offices are located there and because it is the county seat.

Although volunteers donated 3,300 hours to organize the event last year, the train only raised about $7,800, McDonald said.


“The beauty of the train up until now has been the low overhead,” McDonald said. “It’s sad it will end because it is such a colorful event.”