Rider recalls Pony Express centennial

Monday, March 22, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

ST. JOSEPH — Lee Shifflett tells the simple story of a man and his horse.

He would be the man, and Tony Boy would be the horse. But the story also has 55 other horses and 51 other riders. Plus 31 vehicles, a parade of horse trailers, a veterinarian, a press contingent and a trailing truckload of picked litter.

Trying to keep this circus in motion, the sleepless horseman also had to dispel rumors of a roped antelope.

Oh, yeah, and revisit history.

"They thought I was crazy," Shifflett says, "and they had me convinced I was crazy."

History recalls Johnny Fry as the first westbound rider of the Pony Express, departing St. Joseph on April 3, 1860. One hundred years later, give or take a few hours, Lee Shifflett mounted Tony Boy with a mochila of mail and headed for the Great Plains.

The Amity, resident helped organize the centennial re-run of the overland mail service. Shifflett reflects on the effort as the Pony Express sesquicentennial year arrives.

Over the course of 75 hours and 1,329 miles to the Utah handoff to another riding group, Shifflett discovered many of the hardships faced by the original riders and plenty of problems they couldn't have envisioned.

A native of southern Missouri, he moved to St. Joseph in 1948, his father having discouraged his initial employment choice in the coal mines. He worked 32 years for Dugdale Packing Co.

His interest in horses stemmed from a boyhood on the family farm. He served as president of the MO-KAN Riding Club in 1958 when Roy Coy, St. Joseph Museum director, gathered folks to discuss plans for the coming commemoration.

In the beginning, Shifflett intended his club, with only 30 riders, to have only a small part in the festivities. As planning proceeded and a larger saddle club dropped out, his participation grew.

During one organizational meeting at the Hotel Robidoux, Bartlett Boder, a local banker, historian and philanthropist, asked to speak privately with Shifflett. They adjourned, appropriately enough, to the hotel's Pony Bar.

After listening to Shifflett's opinions about the re-run, Col. Boder, a World War I officer, returned to the meeting, expressed confidence in the horseman and said he would bankroll the ride.

Financing secured, Shifflett had to deliver enough riders for an increasingly long trip. Initially, the local group was to go only through Kansas and to the Nebraska line, a two-day commitment. A Nebraska group, however, pulled out. St. Joseph-area riders, it was learned three months before the event, would have to carry the mail to Salt Lake City.

"Did you ever try to ask a guy to ride horses and camp out when there's snow on the ground?" Shifflett says.

He wanted 60 riders but settled for 52. After days of local festivities, including a Pony Express Ball at the Frog Hop, Shifflett and Tony Boy took the first steps of the re-run shortly after 1 p.m. on April 3, 1960. Two governors, a congressman and, according to news accounts of the time, 10,000 spectators crowded the Patee Park area for the sendoff.

His trip across the Pony Express Bridge into Kansas would be the last of his mail-hauling. He and trail boss Dick Chambers spent the westward trip working through the travel logistics.

At night, when riders camped at bonfire-lit fairgrounds, Shifflett would drive ahead to scout the roads. The ride began on Sunday, and he would not sleep until Wednesday.

He was 31 at the time and claims "it was the hardest work I've ever done in my life. ... I was lost all the time."

Not everything went as planned. In Muddy Gap, Wyo., at an altitude of nearly 6,400 feet, the temperature dipped to 15 degrees. One mountain pass was closed by snow just after the traveling party passed.

But school groups turned out throughout the journey, enchanted by the riders and the history. And the camaraderie of the riders extended to joking misinformation passed to a reporter. "I had to let him know, you can't rope an antelope," Shifflett laughs.

Breaking camp the last day, riders had 187 miles to reach their Utah destination and transfer the mochila to a California horseman. They arrived, to great ceremony, within 10 minutes of their scheduled time.

Shifflett finds a longed-for charm in the Bible-toting riders of the Pony Express, those who swore an oath to avoid profanity, alcohol and fighting with their fellow employees. His DeKalb County home, where he moved in 1967, contains a shrine to the centennial ride.

And as the Pony Express remains a signature bit of St. Joseph history, and its fascination endures across the nation, the horseman renews his appreciation for the difficulty of the achievement.



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