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Published: March 13th 2011
The riders of the Pony Express rode their way into history and legend. One hundred and fifty-one years later, we can now explore the stable where it all started. The Pony Express Museum is at home in the very stables that Express riders so many years ago departed from. The exhibits open a window into history that gives us a chance to see into the lives of the riders and others involved with the creation, operation, and decline of the legend known as the Pony Express.
As we step into the past, we find ourselves in the Blacksmith/Wheel Wright shop where a man is busy fitting a shoe onto a horse. On the wall hang all the necessary parts constructing wagon wheels and making shoes for the horses. Studying this exhibit, you will see how difficult and rudimentary the work and tools were around 1860.
Beyond the Wheel Wright shop, you will see a horse and rider anxious to depart the stable and begin their journey into legend. The stable hand is trying his best to steady the horse until the door slides open and Johnny Fry, sitting tall on his horse, can begin the two thousand
Behind the departing rider stands two horses in their stalls, ready at a moment’s notice to carry mail and rider to one of the one hundred and sixty relay stations that dotted the trail to California. The harness and tack room houses the various harnesses, straps, saddles, and saddlebags necessary to saddle and ride an Express horse and ensure the mail stayed safe during the long and dangerous journey to the West.
Stepping straight from the stable of the 1860s, into the museum you will come face-to-face with a life-size buffalo sculpture by artist, Karen Cade. One side of the sculpture depicts a stagecoach rushing by a buffalo and the other side shows a man panning for gold. The title of this piece is ‘Gold Fever’.
As you turn away from the buffalo, you will meet the three men responsible for the creation and funding of the Pony Express business venture, William Russell, Alexander Major, and William Waddell. After almost two years, the Pacific Telegraph line made the need for the Pony Express obsolete, leaving the founders in bankruptcy.
The difficulty in moving supplies becomes obvious as we come upon the life-size oxen and wagon.
The oxen are harnessed side-by-side pulling a wagon-load of supplies while the people walked along beside of it. Children can plan a load to put into the wagon for a trip to California.
Across from the wagon is a 60 feet long display that shows the different conditions that the riders dealt with. Although the displays are inhabited with miniatures, the lightning flashes and the backdrops lend a life to the display that can lure you into the spirit of the rider’s challenges and experiences. As modern as the displays are, they capture the grittiness of the two thousand mile trail and the dangers faced daily by the riders that were brave enough to take up the challenge.
Despite sitting in the middle of a modern day museum, the replica of the relay station brings it home with how difficult life was, not just for the riders but also for the people who supported them. Usually manned by a station keeper and a stock tender, riders depended on these stations for fresh horses, food, and water. There were approximately one hundred sixty relay stations stretched along the trail. The living quarters were tight and simple, only what was
required for surviving and doing their jobs. There were two beds in the back, a small dining table lit by a single candle and a fireplace to cook with and to keep the station warm. Allowing yourself to experience the atmosphere of the relay station will give a sense of what living and working must have been like.
An interesting point to study is the excavation site showing the different levels of building from 1858 through the arrival of the Museum. From its beginning as stables and the home of the Pony Express, through manufacturing and brewing companies until the 1960 when the museum took the site over, restoring part of the stable and set up some of the best historical displays documenting the doorway to the West.
Just beyond the site is a giant map showing the various trails that were ridden by the riders from Missouri to California. The map also shows the location of the various landmarks and stations that the riders used to navigate the extensive trail.
The Messick Gallery occupies the hall to the left of the map. I found the most interesting display to be the jacket worn by Buffalo Bill
Cody. To see an authentic piece of history in superb condition was a remarkable experience. Also in the gallery is a display of civil war era firearms, two rifles and a handgun with examples of the ammunition they fired. Various sculptures celebrate the memory of the hardship of the Pony Express riders and the rigors they faced in the name of progress.
A children’s play area affords the little ones a chance to play dress up and see the types of toys and learning that children had in the late 19th century.
Just passed the play area is a great souvenir opportunity. You can choose from four different Pony Express designs to be imprinted into a penny. This would make a great addition to anyone’s scrapbook that wants the fond memory of visiting this museum.
From start to finish, the museum is a treasure of knowledge that retells the history of the Pony Express. Children and adults alike will walk away with a new appreciation of the costs and perils that these men faced on that two thousand mile trail that departed Missouri and sent them straight into legend.
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