Trailblazers: Nearly 300 trek Medora Stage and Forwarding Co. route
BELFIELD -- A late summer heat wave that had temperatures approaching 90 degrees in southwest North Dakota on Thursday wasn't enough to deter 98-year-old Les Fritz from participating in a wagon trail ride that crisscrossed the property where he raised his family.
One of close to 300 participants, according to organizer and Medora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Leona Odermann, Fritz took part Thursday in a leg of the 2013 Medora to Deadwood Wagon Train Trail Ride that traveled from Amidon to an area about 16 miles south of Belfield, where the convoy camped before picking up again this morning.
"It was quite an experience," Fritz said. "It was a little hot out there, but we all made it just fine. It was hot years ago, too, and they had to deal with it then. It was just very enjoyable to be out there."
This year, the ride began Aug. 31 in Buffalo, S.D., and is scheduled to make it to Medora sometime on Saturday. Featuring several dozen wagons with a contingent of horseback riders, the trail ride is modeled after the route of the Medora Stage and Forwarding Co., which originated in 1884 as the brainchild of French entrepreneur Antoine de Vallombrosa.
The goal of the stage company was to link the Black Hills region of South Dakota with major railway traffic to the north.
"Going on a ride like this takes you back to a time gone by -- a time that maybe shouldn't have gone by," said Doc Curtis of Malta, Mont., who stopped his coach at the top of Rocky Ridge to admire the view before continuing on. "There are a lot of people who still live a lifestyle that this ride represents and most of America doesn't even know we exist. The people, the horses, the camaraderie, outdoors in a beautiful place like this -- you just can't beat it."
Clyde Wetzel of New Salem and Jim Staiger of Hebron, who rode together Thursday in Wetzel's wagon, said they were eager to be a part of this year's ride.
"There was a connection back (in the 1880s) that people had with the land and with animals," Wetzel said. "A lot of that has been lost over time and I don't think most people have that these days. Doing something like this is a way to kind of reestablish that connection. I was really excited to be a part of the ride this year -- it's a great experience."
Fritz's daughter-in-law Chunks Fritz, who along with her husband Rocky currently resides at the N/L Ranch, where Les Fritz came with his bride several decades ago, waited atop Rocky Ridge near her home for the contingent to appear Thursday.
"This is really a great thing," Chunks said. "I'm going to ride for a leg later to say that I did. They're saying there could be as many as 400 people riding into Medora this weekend."
Riders cruised along Thursday at an average speed of about 3 mph, Chunks said.
Organization of the ride was a joint venture by the Days of '76 Museum in Deadwood and the Billings County Museum in Medora.
"I'm really into the history of this area and I know a lot of us on the ride are," said Days of '76 board of directors member Kat Thompson, who rode on horseback Thursday. "Looking at the scenery, you can really take yourself back to how things were years ago. It's a wonderful trail ride."
In 1884, the trip is said to have taken about 36 hours. Though it didn't exactly follow the trail from nearly 130 years ago, the 2013 ride -- which required landowner easements -- is as close as possible to the original route, according to organizers.
Some in his family had reservations about Les Fritz being on a wagon ride on a hot summer day, but one thing is for certain -- the resident of Evergreen, an assisted-living facility in Dickinson, will have another story to tell.