On Prairies, the Wagons Roll Again : Centennials Join Cowboy Chic With Modern Schlock

Times Staff Writer

The sound is the thing that gets to Jim Reinartz most, that creaking, rhythmic "crunch, crunch, crunch" as the wheels of his antique horse-drawn wagon rattle across gravel roads and rut-covered fields.

"Hear that rumble?" the one-time rodeo star asked wistfully. "When I was a kid we always had steel-wheel wagons and that's what it sounded like. That's probably the way it sounded back when the pioneers crossed the prairies, too."

Zigzagging across his native South Dakota on a summer-long commemorative wagon train, Reinartz is wallowing in the biggest nostalgia craze that has hit the Great Plains since Custer began wishing he'd taken that desk job after all.

Both South and North Dakota, as well as Montana and Washington, are celebrating statehood centennials this year with a smorgasbord of rodeos, parties, hoedowns and historical hoopla that combine the best of cowboy chic and the worst of American schlock.

Already this summer, South Dakota's party animals have taken part in everything from the Schmeckfest (don't ask) in Freeman to the Farkleberry Festival in Hayti and the Ugly Horse and Road Apple Roulette contests in Philip. All the while they've been snapping up a cornucopia of souvenirs, from the ubiquitous T-shirts and mugs to official centennial quilts, doilies, windsocks, rifles, beef jerky, wine and mixed nuts. There is also an official centennial record album with official centennial songs recorded by an official centennial troubadour.

Up in Montana, the Red Lodge Grizzly Peak-a-boos not long ago tossed a Centennial Can-Can revival, a historical review featuring the world-renowned Cow Capitol Kickers and actors re-creating famous Montanans of the past, including somebody named Liver Eat'n Johnston.

And over in North Dakota, in addition to the Fargo Fire Festival, the 400-mile centennial challenge bicycle race and the modestly titled Bismarck "Party of the Century," officials seriously debated whether to rename the state simply "Dakota."

Backers said the state should enter its second century unencumbered by the modifier "North," which evoked an image of a frigid, uninviting climate that could turn off investors and visitors alike. Nevertheless, Montanans, whose favorite pastime after raising cattle is ridiculing North Dakotans, voted in a newspaper-sponsored centennial contest to suggest that their neighbor to the east rename itself "Manitscolda."

The official centennial booby prize, if there was one, would probably be awarded to President Bush, who flew to Bismarck in April to preside at the planting of an official centennial tree, a 12-foot American elm. However, North Dakota state forestry experts discovered that the White House gift was infected with fast-spreading, tree-killing gypsy moths. The tree had to be sprayed with pesticide before Bush could plant it.

Indian Leaders Unhappy

Although almost every town and service club from Anamoose, N.D., to Zillah, Wash., has cooked up some festivities to commemorate the centennial, not everyone has been overjoyed. Some, but by no means all, Indian leaders have refused to participate, claiming that statehood in these parts only intensified an assault on the culture and rights of Native Americans. The Lakota Times, an Indian-oriented newspaper based in South Dakota, urged in an editorial that Indians wear black armbands and fly their tribal flags at half-staff to illustrate their attitude toward the centennial.

The most ambitious events of the year have been a pair of wagon trains that have already traversed thousands of miles of South Dakota's flat landscape. And up in Montana, organizers are working on the final arrangements for a massive 60-mile, five-day-long cattle drive kicking off on Labor Day from Roundup, the trail head where turn-of-the-century cattle barons once gathered herds for their trek to market.

In South Dakota, by the time the wagon riders circle up for the last time at the state fair in Huron next week, more than 500 different covered wagons and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of saddle riders will have joined up for at least part of the 3 1/2-month-long trek across the state. Officials in Montana expect as many as 5,000 head of cattle, a few thousand riders on horseback and up to 250 wagons to take part in their drive.

Wild, Wild West

But organizers of the centennial events have discovered that, no matter how hard they try, it's impossible to faithfully recreate the Wild, Wild West. For starters, a century ago nobody in Montana had to worry about environmental impact statements, land easements, right-of-way leases and paramedics when they trailed cattle. Participants are expected either to contribute cows to the mass herd or, at the very least, "rent" a few as the price of admission.

Kim Kuzara, the logistics coordinator for the cattle drive, said the biggest headaches come in trying to herd people, not cows. "It ain't the way they did it in 'Lonesome Dove,' " said Kuzara. "Getting the Porta Potties out there, the water and the food and all that kind of stuff. We're basically moving a town of 3,000 people every day."

The finale to the drive will be different. More than 200 cowboys on horseback will be standing guard to keep livestock from getting spooked and stampeding through department stores, yogurt shops, banks and fast-food franchises as the herd trails down Main Street in Billings, Montana's largest metropolis. Bringing up the rear will be a sanitation squad with sweepers and water hoses to clean up after the cows, no respecters of today's urban sensibilities.

Some 20th-Century realities have also set in on the wagon train, covered by liability insurance that cost $28,000 in premiums. The old wagons that brought settlers across the prairie were quaint but not all that comfortable. Many of the new breed of wagoners have outfitted their rigs with rubber tires to cushion the bumps. They also have coolers for refreshments and stereos, tape decks and walkie-talkies to help pass the time.

Touch of Commercialism

And surely nobody a hundred years ago ever traveled in a rolling billboard. Many of today's wagons are covered with ads: "Norwest Bank," "Zip Feeds," "Coors Official Centennial Beers," "Aaladin Cleaning System," "Pulling for Christ." And one vehicle, propelled by double horsepower, asks the question, "Have you driven a Ford lately?"

Even with a touch of commercialism, however, the response that the wagon train has evoked in the sparsely populated towns that dot the landscape shows that old-fashioned values of generosity and neighborliness are still very much alive in South Dakota. Onlookers gather by the dozens along remote highways to watch the wagons rumble slowly by. Many others grab their horses and trail along for a few hours.

At almost every town along the way, residents greet the riders with a lavish potluck supper or barbecue lunch. In June, about 1,500 turned up in Labolt when the train passed through, quite a crowd for a community with a population of only 90.

Here in Wessington Springs, about 1,000 people flocked to the city park the other night, their arms filled with casseroles, Jello molds, cakes and brownies galore. After the meal, town fathers gave awards to the riders, then everyone joined hands to sing hymns and say prayers. The next morning, Mary Lynch and Babe Dooley drove over from Woonsocket, about 15 miles down the road, to pass out homemade cinnamon buns to the riders as they rolled out of their sleeping bags.

Almost everybody has a different reason for making the trip. Don and Stella Kraft, both long ago widowed, were getting married and wanted to do something different for their honeymoon. Sally Baker, who grew up on a sheep station in the Australian Outback, wanted to see some place that was, by her standards, crowded--though not too crowded.

Dale Newhoff, at 80 the oldest wagon driver, just wanted an excuse to get out of his house back in Iowa and see how things had changed in his native South Dakota since he moved away in 1938. "There wasn't any fences and there weren't any paved roads back then," said Newhall, who grew up on a ranch 55 miles from the nearest town. "There were these huge herds of cattle and they had horns. Even Dad was afraid to walk very far on foot because the cattle could get around you and just gore you."

Simpler Way of Life

For Jim Reinartz, who still owns the ox yoke his great-grandfather used to drive a team here from Illinois in the early 1880s, the 1989 version of a wagon train symbolizes the last gasp of a simpler, happier way of life.

"You sit here and you watch the feet on the horses and you watch the ground and you're going slow and the road just hypnotizes you," said Reinartz, clutching the reins of a team of tan-colored Belgian horses. "I haven't looked at my watch in three days. Time doesn't mean anything out here. Next year, I'm going to get me a team and a wagon and a radio and some beer and just drive up and down the ditches someplace."

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