By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
When Patrick Goodknight was in the first grade at Irving Elementary School in Joplin, his teacher asked the pupils to draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grew up.
“I drew a cowboy and an Indian,” Goodknight said.
He ran his own saddle business for about 10 years, but these days he is an Edward Jones financial adviser on South Main Street in Joplin, having followed in his father’s footsteps.
But several times a year, his dream does come true — sort of. The tall, slim man who prefers cowboy boots to dress shoes harnesses his quarter horses Bud, Tex, Burt and Boomer to a wagon, says goodbye to modern conveniences and hits the trail.
Sometimes it’s to church in Nashville, Mo., about five miles from his rural home. On Thursday, it was clip-clopping along with a wagon train of six teamsters on a 20-mile scenic ride from Liberal, Mo., to historic Cato, Kan.
Along the way, the men recounted stories of how they got their wagons and teams, what appeals to them about stepping back into the past, and the lifelong friendships they’ve formed along the way.
Goodknight got his first wagon when he was 10, after persuading his dad to buy it at a sale. These days, his team pulls a Springfield wagon, named after the Springfield (Mo.) Wagon Co. that produced them from 1872 to 1942.
Like the others in the group, his wagon is topped with the iconic off-white canvas tarp that is featured on what many refer to as a “covered wagon.” It’s a thrill, he said, whenever its wagon wheels are on a path once traveled by pioneer settlers and frontier military men.
Teamster Tony Stussy also is a Joplin businessman. He owns Gaylen Plumbing not far from Goodknight’s office on South Main Street. He grew up in Frontenac, Kan., now lives in Seneca, and in his off hours he, too, loves going back in time.
“It’s amazing the things you see this way that you’d never see in a car,” Stussy said as he drove his team of gray Percherons, Mary and Kate, past rolling native Missouri prairie. “That’s the nice thing about going four miles an hour.”
George Parsons, of Nashville, Mo., was the only wagoneer not in a covered wagon. His team of Austrian Haflingers, Gidget and Curly, pulled a dray, or market wagon, that in recent years was used by the Amish as a hearse.
Parsons, whose grandfather Toby Wilson was a muleskinner in the Pittsburg, Kan., area, has never been far from a farm and said he likes it that way.
“I went to school on a rodeo scholarship and wound up working for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources,” he said. “Now, I do this.”
Parsons also plays roles in Civil War re-enactments, many of them filmed — including one that shows at Branson’s Imax Theater. In past years, he was a rodeo clown.
On a rutted dirt road not fit for cars, he enjoyed a slow pace that allowed him to identify species of wildflowers in a nearby prairie, notice a wild turkey that another wagon startled up and spot a snapping turtle in a puddle near the horses’ feet.
“The most remarkable thing about this is how much you see from here,” Parsons said.
Another on the trip, Jim Bohannon, of Neosho, often uses his team — Pee Wee, a female, and Pokey, a gelding — to help Goodknight disc and mow hay. He started going on wagon trains about three years ago.
“I guess I just like the atmosphere of it,” said Bohannon, a retired Joplin School District bus mechanic. “Time don’t mean nothing. We’re in no hurry.”
Larry Osborn, a retired truck driver from Asbury, said Thursday’s ride was his maiden voyage for a trip of any distance with his black mare and gelding team, Maggie and Tate, in his Springfield wagon.
He acknowledged that it’s hard work and that there are challenges along the way, such as when one of the horses lay down on a watering stop at Arcadia, Kan., in full harness and wouldn’t get back up. She was cramping, explained the men who tugged and pulled at her to get her back on her feet.
“It’s been a long two days,” Osborn said. “I hope I have as much fun as tired as I am. But I crave it. What’s not to like?”
For Ken Brous, a farmer and horseman from Lamar, wagon rides are a connection to his late father, Jack.
“My dad did an eight-day wagon train in 1976 from Lamar to Kansas City, when I was a kid,” he said. “He died four years ago, and I inherited his stuff. It’s a way to keep him with me.”
Goodknight said he enjoys the bond he has with the men on the trip, because they, too, are dedicated history buffs whose thoughts often drift to the past.
“It’s just fascinating that our ancestors did this, and it wasn’t that long ago,” he said. “It just feels like we’re stepping back in time.”
ON THURSDAY NIGHT, the men were treated to an evening meal by the Historical Society of Cato, Kan., where they camped. Today, they will pack up after breakfast and travel mostly gravel country roads to Fort Scott, Kan., where they will join hundreds of other cowboy enthusiasts from across the Midwest for the 17th annual Echoes of the Trail Cowboy Gathering to be held through Sunday.
THE EVENT, held on the 1,000-acre Tucker Ranch and also at Fort Scott Community College, is open to the public, but tickets are required. It will include cowboy entertainers, historical activities, vendors, a chuck wagon, a trail ride, a cowboy church service, and a juried cowboy poetry competition, which will be filmed by RFD-TV’s “Best of America by Horseback.” Details: echoesofthetrail.com.