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Happy trails

ROUND LAKE -- As they settled in for their first evening after a long day on the trail, the last thing Gwen Fleace had expected to sit through was a program on the snakes of South Dakota.

On the wagon train
Jerry and Gwen Fleace of rural Round Lake prepare to set out on another day of their wagon train excursion across western South Dakota with their horses, Suzi, Cola and Smokey.

ROUND LAKE -- As they settled in for their first evening after a long day on the trail, the last thing Gwen Fleace had expected to sit through was a program on the snakes of South Dakota.

Here she was, after the first of what would be 17 challenging days across prairie lands and country roads stretching from Fort Pierre to Deadwood, and she and her husband, Jerry, were handed an identification book on the snakes they might encounter on their journey.

It was the Fleaces first wagon train experience, but this wasn't just any wagon train ride -- this particular journey marked the 100th anniversary of the closing of the freight and stagecoach trail that weaved from Fort Pierre to Deadwood. The route was deemed the most direct and least difficult to traverse back in the days when supplies had to be shipped from the town along the Missouri River to the booming gold rush taking place in western South Dakota.

The Fleaces signed on for the journey last December and arrived in Fort Pierre on July 29 for the excursion that would end 240 miles later with a parade through the streets of Deadwood on Aug. 15. Their truck and trailer filled with the supplies they would need for the journey, the rural Round Lake couple headed west with their trio of American Quarter Horses, Suzi, Cola and Smokey, along with a covered wagon, and feed and hay for the horses.

Approximately 60 percent of the trail ride was along the original trail -- a feat that took two years to organize and establish easements with current property owners of the land -- while the remainder was along country roads, said Gwen Fleace. In exchange for the land easements to travel the old trail, the landowners were allowed to ride along, not only across their own property, but along the entire trail.

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The excursion began with 54 wagons and 250 horseback riders on a 102-degree day in Fort Pierre and, by the time they reached Deadwood, just 34 wagons remained.

"There weren't a lot that made the whole trip," said Gwen. "Work, I think was a lot of it. Some, the horses got sore."

"There was lots of wrecks," added Jerry.

In fact, a 70-year-old rider died after his horse spooked and threw him off. The man was in surgery for a ruptured spleen when he died of a heart attack, said Gwen. Another man, an 80-year-old, was seriously hurt after a team of horses leading a stagecoach across the Cheyenne River spooked and turned back, breaking loose from the stagecoach and running toward a crowd of people.

The Fleaces drove their horses three abreast over oftentimes hilly and rocky terrain -- much different from what they are accustomed to traversing.

"Our horses are flatlanders," said Gwen, adding that the couple had conditioned them for the trip by taking them to area events, including the Heron Lake Quasquicentennial celebration this summer, where they gave wagon rides for an entire day.

Despite the rough terrain, the Fleaces said their horses took the excursion well -- much better than some of the other horses, and riders for that matter.

"Our horses lost some weight, and so did both of us," said Gwen with a laugh.

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All kinds of horse breeds took part in the trail ride, from the large Percheron and Belgian breeds to the smaller Haflinger and everything in between, even mules. Their owners hailed from 16 states, from New Mexico to New Jersey and points in between. The youngest of the trail riders was a 9-year-old girl and daughter of the wagonmaster, while the oldest was well into his 80s.

"There were a lot of older people," said Gwen.

"Some of those older ranchers, they hadn't rode for years," added Jerry.

One of the most difficult days of the journey for the Fleaces was the day they crossed the Cheyenne River.

"Usually there's no water in the river," said Jerry, but with steady rainfalls last spring and summer, the river had expanded to nearly three feet deep.

"It's a real steep bank down into the river," said Gwen, adding that the evener broke when one of the horses leaped ahead of the other two as they entered the water.

Aside from the evener breaking, the only other damage their covered wagon suffered was a flat tire -- that happened as a result of a cactus prick.

The wagon train averaged about 18 miles per day, with the group getting started by about 7 a.m. each day by hauling the trucks and trailers ahead to their next campsite, and then getting a ride back to camp on one of two 32-passenger buses. Once they returned to camp, they prepared to head out on the trail for the day. An hour-long break for lunch gave the horses and riders a chance to rest.

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During the glory days of the freight and stagecoach trail, oxen were often used to drive the freight wagons, with 20 oxen used to pull three freight wagons hooked together. Oxen were used because they could graze the land and didn't require additional feed like horses do.

Each night of the wagon train, the riders were treated to a history lesson that either had to do with the trail or the people who lived along it.

And as for that first night, when the Fleaces were warned about the snakes they might see on their journey?

"One day the wagonmaster stopped, he got out and he had a big stick and he hit this snake. He picked it up on the stick to show it to all of us, then he took out his pocketknife and cut off the rattles and put in his pocket and he gave the snake a fling," said Gwen. "He always saves the rattles."

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Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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