Spotted Horse to Upton in 1947
Moorcroft — World War II was over. It was the time between the “Dirty 30s” and the post-war recovery period in our country. The people of Crook County, like folks all across America, were looking forward to a fresh new economy while trying to forget the losses and atrocities of the long war.
Popular new country and western musicians — the likes of Gene Autry, Hank Williams and Bob Wills were hitting the charts. The big band sounds of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Glen Miller were favorites. At the cinemas, folks were standing in line for the latest movie, “Song of Old Wyoming,” starring Lash LaRue as the Cheyenne Kid.
In far northeast Wyoming, horse racing had become a popular sport in Crook County. Horses were plentiful and inexpensive. Besides traditional horse races, endurance racing had grabbed the fancy of horsemen and enthusiasts throughout the area. Summer 1947 several long endurance races took place — one from Gillette to Douglas and another from Wyoming into Montana. The Brislawns of Crook County, with their Cayuse horses, had participated in the two-state race.
Chuck Williams and his dad Charley Williams, also known as “Wild Horse Charley,” did not overlook the interest in horses and horse racing. Chuck Williams and his wife Minnie continue to ranch in Crook County as do Chuck’s younger brothers Donny and Dennis.
Charley first spied the half-Shetland mare during the roundup for Tom Zimmerschied’s horse sale. The little brown horse was owned and ridden by Harold Castor, who in 1947 was riding for the John Berger brand. Word got around that Harold had purchased the horse from Berger.
The little horse probably wouldn’t have been so conspicuous to Charley were it not for the size of her rider. Castor was a big, long-legged man. The little horse, big man combination became increasingly obvious as Charley saw how well the small mare, which probably didn’t weigh more than 900 pounds, performed beneath the weight of the big cowboy. Charley’s interest grew with each passing day as he became more and more fascinated with the stamina of the horse. At the end of each day’s hard chase of the roundup, it was amazing to Charley how much energy she had left. That fact was even more astonishing when he thought of the load she had been packing around all day!
It was inevitable — before long, Charley talked Harold into a horse trade.
Shortly after Charley acquired the little brown mare, word was received of an upcoming endurance race. The race would be sponsored by the Upton Commercial Club and interested parties from the area. The racecourse would be 86 miles long spanning from Spotted Horse to Upton. The date was set for Aug. 7. Upon hearing of the event, Charley knew he had just the right entries — the half-Shetland mare ridden by his then 16-year-old son Chuck.
Chuck was working for Elb Zimmerschied that summer, helping with the haying. Chuck began training for the race. Every chance he had he rode the little mare back and forth from Elb’s place to Moorcroft, a round-trip of about 40 miles. Generous amounts of oats added to the horse’s conditioning and the long sprints began to get the little mare legged-up for the race.
Charley’s entries were made by the July 31 deadline. A $600 purse, funded by entry fees of $50, was guaranteed. Prizes would be awarded in percentages with first place paying 50 percent, second 25 percent, third 15 percent, fourth 10 percent.
A number of rules and regulations, including recording the weights of each horse and rider, were drawn up and published in the Moorcroft Leader. A state veterinarian would inspect horses at any time during the race. A two-hour rest period would be taken at Rozet, the approximate halfway point. Horse owners were to furnish their own horse feed at Rozet and race sponsors would furnish it at Upton.
The race had received a fair amount of attention throughout Crook County. As early as July 4 the residents of Moorcroft were guessing what time the contestants would pass through town.
On Aug. 6, 1947 Charley and Chuck loaded the little mare and headed for Spotted Horse pulling an old horse trailer behind their Chevy car. As for Charley and Chuck, one can only guess that Chuck was keyed up in anticipation as to how his mount would stack up against the larger horses and how he would fare against the older, more experienced race participants. Charley, on the other hand, was most likely confident in his entries, having first hand knowledge of the stamina of the half-Shetland and the abilities of his son.
At 5 a.m. the day of the race 19 riders left the starting line in a high gallop. It wasn’t long before Chuck and his stout little mare were among the leaders. Chuck began to pace his horse, stretching her to the lead and then slowing down to a canter, keeping up with the others.
Hour-by-hour the miles slipped beneath the riders and their horses. The hard pavement on Highway 16 took its toll on the horses’ shoes and the pace was grueling. Chuck kept his mind tuned to the ever-changing situation. He had prepared the little mare well and knew just how to pace her to conserve her energy. Still, it was his first long race and he knew it would not be easy. There were other riders with lots of experience in the race; some with big, tough looking horses.
All along the way, spectators stood alongside the road offering drinks, candy and encouragement to the riders. The first rider reached Gillette at 7:59 a.m. Several entrants had already dropped out near the Gillette airport. Horses and their riders were being pulled out of the race at various places along the highway.
The first rider, Jack Moore riding a Matheson horse, arrived in Moorcroft about 1 p.m. After a brief rest, he proceeded towards Upton. Approximately seven minutes later, two other riders (Jimmy Materi riding a John Read horse and an unnamed rider riding a horse owned by Walter Brown) arrived in Moorcroft. One of these horses dropped out shortly after leaving Moorcroft. Riders still in the race arrived in Moorcroft in the minutes following, but most pulled out of the race shortly after leaving town. A couple of those horses succumbed to exhaustion and died just outside of Moorcroft. One of the riders by the name of Antelope (or Coyote) Brown tried unsuccessfully to revive his horse with whiskey.
The long, hard race wore on. By mid-afternoon a large excited crowd gathered at Upton to see if anyone would finish the race. Folks, having already heard of the fatalities along the way, began to think the race was too long and that perhaps none of the horses would make it.
At 3 p.m. two horses, wobbly and weak legged, staggered across the finish line. Jack Moore on the Matheson horse took first place and Jimmie Materi on the Read horse placed second. A Junior Woods horse came in third, but was barely able to wobble across the finish line. In fourth place was Chuck aboard the little brown mare and traveling at a gallop. His mount had energy to spare. Of the 19 horses that started, only four completed the race.
The entire Williams family was present to greet Chuck. Everyone in the crowd was amazed to see how much stamina the little mare had, that is everyone except Charley. All along, he had the inside scoop. He knew his race entrants — the half-Shetland pony and the savvy 140-pound 16-year-old, well.
After some of the excitement settled down, Chuck enjoyed a complimentary steak dinner in Upton from Wilbur and Edna Zimmerschied.
The years have stolen from Chuck the names of most of the race participants. Besides those already mentioned, one of the other riders was Cheryl Slagle, a rancher from Upton. Chuck remembers him in particular because he was riding a bronc, one of the horses that did not endure the strain of the race and died near Rozet.
The Williams’ eventually gave the little mare to Brislawns and they raised a colt out of her. As for Chuck, the race was an experience he will never forget.
Barb Zimmerschied Crowl is a native of Crook County, raised on a ranch near Carlile. She’s written a book on the history of ranches in that area and the stories told by her father.