Wagon train keeps history alive

Hannah Grover
Aaron Zellmer of Durango, Colo., finds a place to camp with other members of a wagon train on Saturday off County Road 136 near Red Mesa, Colo.

LA PLATA COUNTY, COLO. — On Memorial Day in 1975, Dan Percell was fixing a fence in Ridges Basin in southwest Colorado.

The Army veteran had taken a break to eat a sandwich when he saw eight horse-drawn wagons coming up the road toward him. Percell said he could hardly catch his excited horse to saddle it, but when he did, he joined the caravan and rode into Durango, Colo.

More than four decades later, Percell was one of a group of wagon enthusiasts who got together to revive the Memorial Day wagon train. The last Memorial Day wagon train trip to Durango, Colo., took place in 1976, after eight years of the group taking the trip.

While the wagon train in the 1970s went from La Plata to Durango, Colo., this year's group followed a shorter route up County Road 136 in Colorado. The group plans on reaching its destination — Breen, Colo. — on Monday.

Cienna Frausto, 8, and Aaron Zellmer, both of Durango, Colo., scrutinize a shoe that fell off one of the horses on Saturday off County Road 136 near Red Mesa, Colo.

Percell hitched his two Morgans — Daisy and Champ — up to his antique wagon this morning  to start up the dirt county road through sagebrush and piñon-juniper forests. After a few hours on the road, the group set up camp, and he tied his bay horses in the shade of a piñon tree.

The participants in the wagon train acknowledged that it could be odd for people to see a group of riders mounted on saddle mules and horses accompanied by covered wagons like chuckwagons — a covered wagon that includes a small fold-out table and shelves for food — and noncovered "hooligan" and "spring" wagons.

"We enjoy the historic part of it," said Denney Schilthuis of Durango.

Aaron Zellmer, left, and Shawn Greyeyes, both of Durango, Colo., free horses from a wagon after stopping their wagon train for the day on Saturday off County Road 136 near Red Mesa, Colo.

The nostalgia about the old ways is part of what attracted Percell  and other people in the wagon train to the wagons.

"We don't want it to die," said Lorraine Taylor, of Mayday, Colo., who was one of the original members of the group.

Percell said wagon train caravans like the one this weekend are an important part of keeping that past alive.

"There's nothing anybody can do to bring this all back," he said.

Percell said his wagon was made in the 1900s. Its metal springs and iron work were sent to Durango on a train to be assembled by Jackson Hardware.

After being used in the early 1900s, the wagon was at one point abandoned beneath a tree until "a kid" found it in 1975, Percell said.

Cienna Frausto, 8, left, of Durango, and Tenley Haddon, 4, and Peyton Gibbons, 4, both of Bayfield, Colo, try to remove a root from their campground on Saturday off County Road 136 near Red Mesa, Colo.

Percell acquired the wagon in 1976 and has replaced almost all of the wood on it since then. He said he was attracted to the small wagon because his Morgans — a horse breed used both for riding and pulling — could pull it. The Morgans are much smaller than the draft horses like the Percherons that Schilthuis harnessed to Taylor's chuckwagon to pull it up County Road 136.

"It takes pretty big horses to pull some of these wagons," he said.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.