4-H Wagon Train

an adventure

George Horner, “Father, Musician, Horseman” & 4-H Wagon Train Pioneer

The first 4-H Wagon Train committee in 1982 had 80 people on 8 subcommittees and George Horner was one of the first Teamsters.  Every year he helped to plan the event and participated for an estimated 25 years.  My only connection to George is the wagon he drove for all those years is the wagon I’ll be borrowing this year, and I’ve heard a lot of stories about him. George died on January 25, 2017 at 96 years old.

In order to get a better understanding of the 4-H Wagon Train experience and meet others who knew George through wagon train, I semi-crashed George’s memorial service last Saturday.   I wasn’t fully crashing because I knew a few Teamsters who were there to honor George.  It was still a tiny bit awkward, but by the time the service concluded I felt like I knew him.  I wished I’d known him.  From the back of a packed church, I listened as a representative from every dimension of George’s life shared poignant memories of a long life, filled with family, friendships, community service, coaching, church and choir and so much more.  He was an inspiration to everyone who knew him, across the board, and he was obviously a man who knew how to bring people together and get things done.

When did George have time for all of this?  Where did he find the energy?  How did he so completely connect with every person in his life?  Then I remember, he made things happen before cell phones, texts, emails, and the proliferation of Facebook and all the other social media.  When George joined the first committee organized to plan the first 4-H Wagon Train, a long distance call was to the next county, meeting minutes were handwritten and letters were typed – maybe the typewriter was electric – and if you wanted to make a copy you used carbon paper.   The way people connected was directly, by spending time together, having face-to-face conversations, in a world that did not measure itself by bandwidth and megabits.  Anyone under the age of 45 probably thinks I’m kidding – no cellphone phones!

The last group to speak at George’s service was the “horse people,” who were all seated together, front and center of the church.  I see these guys working horses and mules on a fairly regular basis, wearing mostly dirt, so I was immediately moved by their dapper appearances.  They also got to the church early, judging from the place they were sitting.  They were indeed there to show their greatest respect to George as one of their own.

It was clear from all that was said about George during the service, before Lyle Spiesschaert stepped up to speak for the Teamsters, that George’s passion for horses was known but not well-understood by the non-horse people in attendance.   This wasn’t a room full of horse people – we even didn’t make it onto the program for the memorial.   But George so thought of himself as a horseman that he penned his own gravestone, “Father, Musician, Horseman.”  Of all the connections in the room, the Teamsters were the outsiders.  So, when Wayne Beckwith joined Lyle at the pulpit and told the attendees he was going to lead us in singing “The Garbage Song,” I held my breath.  Wayne explained that George led the singing of this song every night of the wagon train – George changed the verses to tell the story of all of the adventures on the trail each day and the group faithfully sang the chorus.

Uh oh, I thought, this isn’t going to go well.   I wondered how many people actually knew the chorus or would sing it and I thought it would fall flat.  Wayne sang the first verses he’d written to honor George… then there was one beat of silence… and then many, many, many voices joined in the chorus,IMG_2854

“Roll on you wagons roll on,

Roll on you wagons roll on,

We’re in this together and we leave at dawn,

Roll on you wagons roll on.”

That was a magical moment for me – proof that George had indeed connected everyone in the room, to himself and to each other, in life and in song.  George Horner will live on in the many connections he created, a lesson for me and anyone else who wonders about their place and purpose in this crazy world.

In the early years of 4-H Wagon Train, the trip was a unique opportunity for outdoor appreciation and adventure, but spending time together on the trail was a natural extension of everyday life.  Today, particularly in Oregon, outdoor appreciation and adventure is an extension of our everyday lives and the quest for respite from the frenetic pace we set for ourselves.  The unique opportunity of the wagon train today is for the connections, and the singing still inspired by George, and that’s definitely something I’m looking forward to on my wagon train journey.

Next Week:  Other Pioneers of 4-H Wagon Train

Wagon Train Past & Present, And “How Did I Get Myself Into This?”

“I had known long before I rode a covered wagon to Oregon that naïveté was the mother of adventure.”  Rinker Buck, “The Oregon Trail”

Love that quote. It sums my feeling about this journey.   I’m moving forward in spite of the unknowns, asking questions, making lists, and working horses when conditions permit.  I’m getting into the pioneer mindset with all of the information I can find about the trip as it is now and as it was 170 years ago when Barlow used axes and hand saws to blaze an 80 mile trail through Mt. Hood’s virgin timber.  The rest, I am leaving to faith in myself and my horses. After all, isn’t that what an adventure is all about – faith in oneself?

In 1845, when Samuel K. Barlow’s family lined up wagons on the Oregon Trail and headed west, loaded with a few worldly possessions and as many food provisions and necessaries as the wagons could manage, they knew very little about the adventure they would face across the next 2,000 miles.  Their journey into the unknown has been compared to the first moon landing, only it turned out to be much more treacherous.

I’m a decently trained outdoor survivalist – I know how to start a fire and build a warm, dry shelter out of nothing but what I find in the woods, navigate with and without a map and compass, and I know enough first aid to handle a crisis.  While these skills increase faith in oneself when setting out on the trail, I’m certainly hoping none of it will be necessary on this trip.  In fact, the 4-H Wagon Train has been operating for more than 30 consecutive years and, for the extensive committee of folks who organize the trip, there are very few unknowns.  Aside from the possibilities of broken equipment, a blocked route, injuries, or mishaps with animals (domestic, not wild), my fellow Teamsters tell me this is not rocket science.

That’s not saying I’ve been promised an easy trip.  I’ve been promised nothing except the opportunity for a great experience with some good folks who know how to take care of each other on the trail and meet any challenge it brings through cooperation and hard work, just like those early pioneers.  I’ve been promised that if my horses are properly conditioned for the trip, my team will graduate to a level of training and experience that could not otherwise be achieved.   I’ve been promised that I will not starve on this trip (but I’m a vegetarian who subsists on fast food French Fries) and there will be adequate sleeping, bathing and alone-time (but I’m an introvert who has very little experience with kids and I take my alone time seriously).   I’ve been promised all of the support I need, and so far this has been more than true – not only have I received a constant flow of support and encouragement since I decided to take this trip, I feel I’ve been adopted into the 4-H Wagon Train family with open arms.

My new family doesn’t really know me, they are accepting me on faith, but the people who have invited me to participate are my other family, the horsemen and muleskinners of the Oregon Draft Horse Breeders Association (ODHBA).  That’s a fancy title for a bunch of like-minded people, called Teamsters, who spend all of their free time having fun with mules and draft horses, driving, plowing, logging, showing and anything else that can be done for fun with our teams.   This family knows me and my horses, and I trust them to know my abilities and not to get me into trouble.  After all, isn’t that what an adventure with other people is all about – trusting each other?

As a member of the ODHBA family for a number of years, I’d known of the 4-H Wagon Train from the Teamsters who regularly participate in the trip.  Without these Teamsters, there would be no wagon train, and every year they are looking for commitments from teams to pull wagons.  Every year, I say “no.”

But you know, when someone asks you to do something enough times, with that sparkle in their eye like “don’t worry, it’ll be great,” and you love and respect the people doing the asking, and your heart is open to an adventure, and the stars and planets seem to align in favor of saying yes, then, you finally say “yes.”  Actually, I said “maybe,” but once I let in a little bit of the possibility of this adventure, the rest came like a flood and there was no denying to myself that I was all in.

All in – doesn’t mean no doubts.  There will be times in the next few months when I’ll ask myself, “self, how did you get yourself into this?”  I will credit (or blame) two muleskinners who I love and respect, Neal McCool and Wayne Beckwith, with finally persuading me to say “yes.”   Neal, Head Teamster for the 2017 4-H Wagon Train, is responsible for recruiting Teamsters for this year’s wagon train.  He is 77 years young and he estimates he has been on the 4-H Wagon Train 20 times.  Wayne is 70 years young and he estimates he has been on the 4-H Wagon Train 19 times.  He was Wagon Master, the leader of the event, from 2008 through 2010 and two of those years were on a similar route to this year’s route on the Barlow Road.  They are both passionate about their wagon train experiences, and both are delightful story-tellers.   They are the Teamsters I can count on to tell me the good, the bad and the ugly, who will answer my millions of questions with patience and kindness and, most importantly for this adventure, give me wagon-driving lessons.

A mule is hybrid between a female horse and a male donkey.  They are sure-footed, less prone to injury and exhaustion, need less frequent forage and water, and pound for pound they are stronger than a horse.  No offense meant to my fellow draft-horse-horsemen, but mules and their handlers are smart – “muleskinner,” a person who drives mules, means smart enough to outsmart a mule – and they and their animals are the most sensible, colorful, fun-loving and hard working members of the equine family.   Teams of mules (and oxen) were preferred over horses by Oregon Trail pioneers.  So, if a muleskinner adopts you, encourages you, offers to mentor you, or asks you to be a part of his wagon train, you say “yes.”   It’s the next level in your education as a horseman.  Ultimately, I think that is what this adventure will be all about for me, having faith in myself and others, and getting one step closer to being the best Teamster I can be.

Next Week:  George Horner, and the Pioneers of 4-H Wagon Train

The Wagon and The Craftsmen

In trying to imagine the history of this wagon I’m borrowing, I have to think back to a time before cars and trucks and decent roads existed and what it would take to haul anything for any distance.  In the 1840’s, when American pioneers began their massive westward migration from St. Louis across the plains and mountains to the west coast, long before the first individual motorized vehicle, the wagon was the main transport for goods and possessions.

In 1834, Henry Mitchell, a 24 year old wheelwright, immigrated from Scottland to Chicago and began a wagon building business.  Over the next 80 years, Mitchell became widely known as one of the finest craftsmen of wagons available commercially.  They were also the first to be constructed factory-style rather than pieced together by your friendly local carpenter, wheelwright and blacksmith.  (And, by the way, imagine all of this happened before the invention of power tools – Black and Decker didn’t make the first electric power tool in the U.S. until 1916.)

At the height of Mitchell’s wagon production, the factory covered 20 acres in Racine, Wisconsin, had it’s own railway, and shipped 25,000 wagons a year through shipyards, rivers and railways to every major city in the U.S. and a few cities internationally.  Racine was the birthplace of the factory-built wagon as much as Detroit was the birthplace of the automotive industry.

So, in 1917, when this particular wagon was purchased in Portland, Oregon*, it wasn’t a unique wagon, and buying a new Mitchell wagon was about as simple as going to your friendly local Ford dealership today for a new F-150.  That’s probably how this wagon came to be located in Oregon.  Since there’s no Carfax report, no odometer, no title, no VIN #, and someone painted over the original paint and pinstriping, I can only guess about it’s age and origins.

The last year Mitchell made wagons before the brand was sold to John Deere was 1917, the same year the United States entered World War I and the automobile replaced the wagon as main transport for goods and possessions.  Over the next 100 years, through today, the wagon has become a symbol more than a necessity, and the craft of wagon-making has returned to the hands of a few rare craftsmen.  Even with the modern power tools available to today’s carpenter, wheelwright and blacksmith, wagon-making is almost a lost art and repairing and restoring a 100 year old wagon is a labor of love and nostalgia.

Enter Rob Lewis, and The Anvil Academy.

As soon as the discussion started concerning repairs to the wagon, Rob volunteered to become involved and make the wagon repair project part of his curriculum for The Anvil Academy students.

Rob is the principal and dreamer behind The Anvil Academy in Newberg, Oregon, a school so unique it almost defies a description.  Physically, it’s a wagon shop, and Rob is jolly serious about the craft of wagon building.  Academically, it teaches woodworking and blacksmithing, and Rob not only teaches and mentors, he brings in other respected craftsmen to teach these trades.  Philosophically, it fosters an appreciation for the history of these trades as a way to better understand process, design and application toward a goal.  Whether the goal is building a wheelbarrow or a stagecoach, students make a plan, learn the tools, and use their minds, hands and hearts to build character, self-confidence and life skills.

dsc_4710When I visited The Anvil Academy this week to talk with Rob about the wagon, I watched middle-school aged students pick up a hand-saw, hammer and chisel for the first time and spend an hour trying to master a concept, building nothing more than a skill for the sake of itself.  Zero screen time, no keyboards, no electricity, just good ol’ fashioned trial and error.  I met high school students who spoke passionately and articulately about their projects in the works at the school and the skills they are learning.  So, you see, it’s more than a school and it’s not just about wagons.

No doubt, Rob is a craftsman and a visionary, but a humble one.  He learned woodworking in his father’s cabinet making shop, but he is basically a self-taught wheelwright and possibly the only one remaining in Oregon.  Over the past three decades he admits failures more than successes in trying to start his school, but he beams about his opportunities to teach wood craftsmanship to at-risk kids.  His heart seems to be as big as his whole body, and he is full of stories and experiences that inform and entertain.  These stories also tell me that Rob is obviously one of those people who dream up projects at a much faster rate than his plans can be executed, and his list is perpetually getting longer.  Luckily for me, he reordered his priorities to accomodate the need for repairs to the wagon.

dsc_4721Also, luckily for me, Rob is committed to the wagon project, because the list of repairs grew longer in the past week as careful inspections were made.  Last week the wagon needed a new seat and new bows for the cover.  When I visited with Rob this week, he gave me a tour of all of the rotted wood (the wagon had lived outdoors for many of the last 30 years) and declared that the wagon was in need of a whole new front end (front panel, foot rest, tool box, etc.).  I am beyond grateful that this was discovered, as the wagon would’ve been unlikely to hold up to the rigors of the trip.  Instead, because of Rob, I have faith that the wagon will be sound.

This was the second installment of a blog telling the weekly story of what I learn and do to prepare for an 8-day journey with the 4-H Wagon Train and the stories of the people who help make it possible.

Next week: “Wagon Train, Past and Present & How Did I Get Myself Into This?”

*NOTE:  The wagon was purchased from Mitchell, Lewis and Staver* in Portland, Oregon, a manufacturer and seller of agricultural equipment.  Mitchell, Lewis and Staver is still in the business today, in Wilsonville, Oregon.  The origin of the name “Mitchell” in this company was through mergers and partnerships throughout the years, beginning William Mitchell, son of Henry Mitchell, who opened a Mitchell wagon dealership in Portland, Oregon in 1882.

December 30, 2105 Newberg Graphic Article:  The Anvil Academy Setting Up Shop in Newberg by Seth Gordon

December 21, 2016 Newberg Graphic Article:  C.S. Lewis Partners With The Anvil Academy by Seth Gordon


The Pacific Overland Expo Horse Drawn Vehicle and Equipment Auction, April 21-22, at The Yamhill County Fairgrounds, benefits The Anvil Academy scholarship fund.  It’s a very cool event where horsemen, muleskinners, wagon enthusiasts, historians and aficionados of farm equipment for work and fun are gathered.   It will expand your horizons – I highly recommend it!  Click HERE for more details.




The Wagon (wooden hoops are The Bows, 2 missing)


Rotted Wood (front panel, footrest and tool box)




The Journey Begins

My journey officially begins July 8, 2017, when I will set out on The Barlow Road through the Cascade Mountains for seven days with the 4-H Wagon Train.  I’ll hitch my team of two horses, June and Johnny, to a fully loaded wagon and follow and be followed by other wagons going up the trail for 8-12 miles a day.  We will make camp together each night and break camp together each morning, sharing the work and creating a rolling community for a week.  At this point, I know very little else of what to expect from this adventure or the people involved.

For me, the journey actually began today.  Today, the wheels on the wagon that will take me on this adventure started rolling, traveling from the home of Lyle Spiesschaert in Forest Grove to The Anvil Academy in Newberg, Oregon where it it will receive a variety of repairs.

Lyle is the current owner of the wagon and the one entrusting it to me for my first wagon train adventure.  Lyle agreed to load the wagon onto his trailer and let me tag along for the delivery.  I’d met Lyle several times over the past few years, but I’d never talked with him.  As we drove, I got my first chance to hear Lyle’s personal story, learn about his passion for the 4-H Wagon Train, and hear more of the history and significance of the wagon we were hauling. Built in 1917, the wagon turns 100 years old this year. For 3 decades it has served the 4-H Wagon Train and covered hundreds of miles with dozens of families who’s lives were made larger by the experience, an experience symbolic of a time when people risked everything for a better life. The origin of the American road trip, only without highways or truck stops or GPS or Roadside Assistance.

From the time I started seriously thinking about this adventure, about a month ago, I’ve met numerous people who regularly participate and share the same passion for the 4-H Wagon Train as Lyle expressed to me today.  When I first say that I am thinking about going on the trip, their eyes light up and I feel their excitement – like a salesman making his first sale, every time.  It’s contagious. I don’t know how you could meet these people and hear these stories, and not feel drawn in.  I must admit that it sounds too good to be true.  So, I’m letting my desire for an adventure with my beloved horses, and the opportunity for this unique experience, be the driving force toward the moment we hit the trail on July 8th.

This blog will be the weekly story of my journey and the stories of the people who help make it possible.

Next week:  “The Wagon & The Craftsmen”

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