The members of the John Henry Shaddox Memorial Wagon Train -- nearly 100 people riding in eight wagons and on horseback -- made it across the Ozarks for the 40th time. The wagons and riders left Friday morning from Harrison and arrived Wednesday in Springdale, in time to join the 73rd annual Rodeo of the Ozarks Parade.
Leading the way were wagon master Jim Parker and his co-master and brother, George Parker, both of Harrison, riding in the front wagon made by their father-in-law, the late John Shaddox, and pulled by Minnie and Jude.
Rodeo of the Ozarks
When: Through Saturday. Gates open at 6 p.m.
Where: Parsons Stadium, 1423 E. Emma Ave.
Rodeo tidbits: A rodeo parade will be held 3 p.m. Saturday, starting at the rodeo grounds and traveleing west down Emma Avenue. The rodeo hosts more than 400 cowboys and cowgirls and a wide variety of classic competitions, including bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, women’s barrel racing and bull riding. This year’s rodeo features Sweethearts of the Rodeo, cowgirl trick riders, and the Marine Corps Mounted Color Guard. The final night of the rodeo be followed by a 20-minute fireworks show.
Information: (877) 927-6336, rodeooftheozarks.org
"They are the face of the wagon train -- with their mules," said Vickie Gratlan of Harrison, who has organized the wagon train registration for 15 years.
"We say it every year," said Jim Parker. "'If we can make it one more year, we'll be happy.'"
During this nation's bicentennial celebration, a wagon train traveled across the country, with a prairie schooner representing each state. Shaddox, also of Harrison, and his family joined others from Northwest Arkansas to travel south through the Ozarks to meet the bicentennial train in Fort Smith. Many of these people had ridden together for years in the Northwest Arkansas Cavalcade.
Shaddox decided the next year to start a wagon train to the rodeo. The Harrison Roundup Club quickly hitched on as sponsor of the event.
The Harrison wagon train travels 103 miles each year, mostly across private property and down deep rural roads. But law enforcement -- from the state police, county sheriff's offices and city forces -- has provided assistance every step of the way, especially on the busier roadways.
"Nobody has been anything but helpful and nice," Jim Parker said.
Organizing the train took a lot of work -- before they named a committee, Jim Parker said. Each year in advance of the train, committee members call on friends, neighbors and acquaintances to host on their land the train, the animals, the horse trailers and trucks. All overnight and lunch stops must be made in a location with a stream capable of serving as a watering hole for the horses, although most do carry heavy barrels of water for the animals. And kids often take the opportunity to cool off in the streams and create a "muddy, filthy mess," said Beth Clem, who rode the wagon train many years with her husband, the late Cotton Clem, and daughter, Carri.
The Parkers and committee members also helped landowners along the route cut limbs, down trees and mow grass to make the way passable for wagons.
Jim Parker praised the late Cotton Clem and Tex Holt, the current Rodeo of the Ozarks Board president, for taking care of things on the Springdale side of the ride.
"One hundred three miles over 40 years ...," Jim Parker contemplated. "If we added that up, it would take us to California and back."
"Both are fine people, and both are very, very different," said Beth Clem of Jim and George Parker, now 77 and 78 years old, respectively. "And they both have very fine wives." In fact, the men married Shaddox's daughters, both unions lasting more than 50 years. George married Bonnie, and Jim married Dickie. And the fact that brothers married sisters is just coincidence, the women said.
"George is just a country boy," Clem continued. Friday, before the train left Harrison, George, who worked for his father-in-law's construction business when he was younger, was found at the Roundup Club's park wearing an old hat and red suspenders and whittling a piece of wood. When asked what he was making, George replied, "Shavings."
"And Jimmy was a bank president who always worked in the public eye," Clem said. Jim Parker served as senior vice president of what was then First Federal Bank in Harrison.
"They are both characters," Clem continued, retelling fond memories. "But if either one of them thinks something, it comes out of their mouths. They always had something going on."
The Parkers' father-in-law built and restored wagons; their father built and restored buggies. "And our grandfather was a blacksmith," George said. "It just came natural for people back then, like cars for young folks today."
George Parker sleeps in the wagon on the way to Springdale. Jim insisted that he sleeps in the living quarters of the horse trailer.
"When I leave here, I live in the wagon until we get to Springdale," George said. "I'm with the wagon and team."
"There's one time I slept in the wagon," Jim remembered, but not fondly. "We were stranded because of high water we couldn't cross. We had to sleep in the road."
"There's not enough room for him in the wagon," George countered.
Bonnie and Dickie no longer ride the wagon from Harrison, but they do meet their husbands -- with a flatbed trailer to carry the wagon home -- on the last night of camp at Blue Springs, just east of Springdale. They ride the wagon into town and in the parade.
"I'm always amazed at the crowds for the parade, no matter what time of day," Bonnie Parker said.
Both women quit riding the wagon train while their father was still alive, because he always gave them the worst jobs, their husbands said.
"We didn't have the catering wagon then -- or porta potties," Dickie said. "We picked up trash. We had to take care of the horses and stock."
"We cooked the meals, and would pack and unpack," Bonnie added.
"They had no idle time," George noted.
"But I did enjoy cooling off in the creeks," Bonnie said.
Today, the Parker women still help their husbands by making and freezing meals -- usually in jars, Clem said -- that the men can warm up on the trail. George and Jim were looking forward to their traditional Friday night meal of beans and cornbread.
"If they didn't help us and pack things for us to eat, we probably wouldn't think about going," Jim admitted, and George agreed.
"They are some tough guys," Gratlan said. "Especially, considering, that typically, they're happiest when they are sitting in a recliner."
"That first wagon train was rough," remembered Clem. "You never knew how many wagons were going to show up. But they refined it."
"We had all kinds of experiences," Clem continued. "Rain. Occasionally a really, really cool day. And lots of years we had hot, hot days."
Gratlan remembered folks lining the little country roads to watch the parade of wagons and horses pass. Some would hand Popsicles to wagon train riders, calling her to ensure they bought enough. Others would provide plastic baby pools of water and hoses for the riders to cool their animals and then themselves.
Riders enjoyed the catered meal provided by the Roundup Club on the night before the train pulled out of Harrison and the potluck meal served the last night in camp. And somewhere along the route, members of the Rodeo of the Ozarks Board would bring watermelon to camp.
"I remember nights with George and Jim playing some kind of musical instruments and Hugh Askew on the fiddle," Clem said.
The wagon train and its riders have been blessed with very few treacherous incidents. George remembered one year that the train missed the parade as public safety officials had to clear an automobile wreck on the highway before letting the train pass. And the first year the current four-lane bridge was built on U.S. 412 over the White River just east of Springdale. "We didn't know if they would let us cross it," George said. "We were told horses were not allowed. But we crossed it, and nobody said a thing."
Another year, they had to load the animals and wagons back into trailers and take another route to cross the flooded Kings River.
"But if anybody ever got in trouble, there were 40 people to help them out," Clem said.
However, one year, as the group left the roadside park in Carrollton, one of Jim Parker's mules kicked George and broke his leg. George climbed in the wagon and traveled at the head of the train most of the day. "If you fool with horses and animals, you're going to get hurt," George said. "I found out I wasn't as tough as I thought I was."
Jim left his brother sitting in a lawn chair, under a tree in a church yard somewhere in Carroll County. George waved at the wagon train riders as they rode by before someone returned in a truck to take him to the emergency room.
George noted that he asks Jim every year if he can buy that mule, but Jim won't sell. "It's a great mule," George said. "You can do anything off the back of that mule. You can work cattle off that mule."
"And he hasn't kicked since," Jim added.
All members of the wagon train feel a sense of accomplishment when they top the Fry mountain in Carroll County.
"On a really steep hill, [the mules] will blow," Jim Parker said of his ride to the top. "It's hard on them pulling, but they keep pulling it for you."
Sometimes, outriders attach a rope to a wagon, giving its animals some more "horsepower" to make it up the hill. Some years, tractors have been called into service to top that rise.
The Parkers note they work their mules several times a week, taking them on 13- to 14-mile drives at least two times a week to condition them before the marathon trek. And the wagon masters stop the train under shade trees several times a day to give the animals rest.
"You don't just jerk them and go," Jim Parker said.
Each morning before Parker says, "Wagons, ho!" wagon train participants move their trucks and trailers up to the next night's stop. For many years, each driver paid a small sum for a ride back in a packed cattle trailer. For the past several years, the Roundup Club has contracted with buses to return the riders, putting a long-held tradition to pasture.
"A lot of devoted people have been doing this for years," Gratlan said. "Over and over again you see the same faces."
B. Gierman of Green Forest has been riding with the wagon train for 27 years. "It's not so bad, if you can stand Jimmy," she said with a quip at her friend.
"She rode six hours in a rainstorm. It's hard to find someone to do that," Jim Parker said of Gierman. "She rides 'drag' [behind the train, in case anybody falls out of the wagon train needing help]. And that's not something you find every day, somebody willing to ride drag."
Barry Leivan took his seventh ride this year, in charge of the "flaggers" who stop traffic or the train when the two meet. For him, it's all about family. He rides with his wife and two kids ... and all the neighbor kids, he said. "Last year, I loaded and unloaded 13 horses. This year, it's just eight."
Clem recalled, that as some wagon train members got older, their children would drive them to camp each morning, secure someone to take care of the horses at lunch and meet their parents down the road to take them back home for the night and bring them back for the next morning's ride.
"A lot of the younger generation, it's not their thing," George Parker said.
"Horses and mules have to be taken care of, and there's a lot of other things to do," Jim Parker added.
"If you like it, you like it," Jim Parker said of the wagon train. "If you don't, you don't. Some people who join it, hate it, and they don't even make the whole day."
But these guys do, totalling 400 days on the road together.
"You're living a different life. It's a dream for a week," said George Parker of the wagon train.
"I really don't know why I like it," Jim Parker said with a laugh. "For six months, I make 25 lists getting ready for the wagon train."
"We had a little bit of something every year," Clem said. "But it was always like a bunch of good friends having an adventure together."
NAN Our Town on 06/22/2017
Print Headline: Harrison to Springdale