In spite of its name, the Chadron to Chicago Cowboy Horse Race was more a test of endurance than of speed, but the determination of the cowboys entered in the feat put Chadron on the map of early pioneer cities 125 years ago today.
It’s an event that wouldn’t have taken place at all if not for a prank by John Mahner, who served as a western correspondent for several daily newspapers in the eastern U.S. Wanting to provide the easterners with tales of the Wild West, he jokingly included mention of an upcoming horse race in which cowboys would ride all the way from Chadron to Chicago. The idea took root, generating so much interest that the leaders of Chadron decided they had to put something together, lest they be left looking foolish.
The nine riders ambled away from the starting line on the evening of June 13, 1893, each knowing this race would not be won under whips and spurs. If they hoped to finish the 1,000-mile trek, the cowboys knew they couldn’t run their two allowed mounts to the ground and so they walked or trotted their horses away from Chadron in an easterly direction.
Leading the pack away from town was Joe Gillespie of Chadron, with his two horses, Billy Mack and Billy Shafer. Gillespie would go on to be the third rider to arrive in Chicago (June 27, 1893), though politics and cheating disqualified the previous two riders from laying claim to the prize money collected in Chadron, giving Gillespie the win by default. He earned $250 from two purses and a special Colt revolver, donated by Colt Firearms Company featuring a carved ivory handle, a blue barrel and a gold-plated cylinder.
Today, the prized revolver is part of the Dawes County Historical Society’s collection, and earlier this spring, it was placed back in the hands – albeit briefly – of Joe Gillespie’s descendant when his great-grandson Daniel, along with his wife, Jean, visited the museum.
Holding the revolver won by his great-grandfather 125 years ago, Dan said, brought back a lot of memories, mostly of the celebration taking place when they donated the revolver to the museum.
“It was one of the most enjoyable weekends of my whole life,” Dan said. “It was really wonderful.”
Family lore has it that Joe Gillespie didn’t intend to participate in the race initially, and that the family horse he took along, Billy Shafer, was treated as the family pet, much like a dog.
The race, which began under the auspices of saving face, gave Chadron an early claim to fame and cemented the reputation of the horses and men of the Wild West. The riders finished the race in front of Col. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s tent at the World’s Fair. Cody, upon hearing the race was being organized donated $500 in prize money, in addition to $1,000 raised for the purse in Chadron. The event’s conclusion had Cody proclaiming that American horses would be in great demand overseas.
An 1893 Dawes County Journal issue reads, “Col. Cody (Buffalo Bill) is greatly pleased with the race. He declared that there was a great deal more to the race than a mere prize. ‘It will show to the world,’ he said, ‘what the native horse is worth. European nations have been watching this race. It is a test of the hardiness of the broncho, and after the wonderful result of 150 miles in twenty-four hours, over 1,000 miles in thirteen days and sixteen hours, there will be a rush after the American animal. The European nations will want American bred horses for their cavalry.’
The Chadron to Chicago race was not without its detractors, however, at least early on. As word of the race spread, the humane societies in Iowa and Illinois sought to stop it, citing concerns that the “semi-barbarians” entered in the race would essentially ride their horses to death in their quest for the prize money.
Last minute negotiations between the organizing committee in Chadron and the humane society on race day delayed the planned 8 a.m. start. Humane society representatives finally agreed to the race after they inspected the horses, found them in excellent condition and won the compromise of being allowed to inspect the horses at each checkpoint along the route.
The society’s concerns weren’t the only controversy on race day, however. John Berry’s last-minute entry prompted objections from the other riders, as he had been a scout for the railroad and part of the organizing committee who selected the route for the race. The rest of the committee agreed Berry had an unfair advantage, and he was disqualified from winning any part of the $1,000 prize money. Berry refused to drop out, and Col. Cody announced Berry would still be eligible for his $500 share of the purse.
Once the politics of the race were settled, the riders gathered at the starting line, and at 5:33 p.m. Police Chief Jim Hartzel, standing on the balcony of the Blaine Hotel, fired the prize Colt revolver to signal the race’s start.
“Boys, the hour has now arrived for the cowboy race from Chadron to Chicago to start. I trust you will take care of your horses, and I know you will conduct yourselves as gentlemen and uphold the good name of Chadron and the state of Nebraska,” he said prior to firing the shot.
Organizers expected 25 riders, but only nine registered. George Fisher and Frank Albright each had their horses branded with the race committee’s brand but did not ride in the race. Emma Hutchinson of Denver, rumored to be a man dressing as a woman to make the trip, never materialized.
The riders who left Chadron on the journey included Gillespie, Berry, Davy Douglass, Doc Middleton, George Jones, Jas Stephens, Joe Campbell, Chas Smith and Emmett Albright. Nearly 4,000 spectators wished them well.
“People were strung along Second Street for a full block, ten deep, and quite a number drove to the hill east of town to see the boys pass. Housetops in the neighborhood were at par,” reads a Dawes County Journal article on the race.
Middleton, a likeable outlaw and horse thief turned popular resident of Chadron, was the local favorite. A booklet compiled by the Chadron Centennial Saddle Club on the race reads, “Still at the starting line, Doc Middleton was surrounded by well wishers as he leaned down to kiss his children and wife farewell – bringing, as one account recalled, ‘tears to many an eye.’ With a wave to the crowd, Doc proclaimed, ‘Boys, even though I am last to leave, I may be first to cross the line in Chicago!’ Then to the shouts of encouragement of his many friends, Chadron’s favorite rider trotted after the other riders.”
The rules of the race called for each rider to have no more than two horses, and they had to check in at various points along the way, allowing their horses to be inspected. The registering stations were set up at Long Pine, O’Neill and Wausa in Nebraska, at Sioux City, Galva, Fort Dodge, Iowa Falls, Waterloo, Manchester and Dubuque in Iowa and in Freeport, Dekalb and Chicago in Illinois.
By the time the riders reached Atkinson, Douglass had withdrawn, as one of his horses was already in bad shape, and he elected to return to Chadron. Middleton, despite the well-wishes at the starting line, was down to one horse by the Sioux City stop and elected to withdraw as well. He continued on to Chicago by train to be on hand for the finish.
Berry, though disqualified by the Chadron committee, was the first to arrive in Chicago at the entrance to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, registering June 27 at 9:30 a.m. astride his horse, Poison.
“He left Freeport, Ill., at 9:30 last night, and so made the last 150 miles in twenty-four hours. Both horse and man were mud spattered, but the former was in better condition than the rider,” reads an 1893 account in the Dawes County Journal.
Albright arrived at 11:15 a.m., arguing that he should receive the prize money since Berry was disqualified before the race started, but it was determined Albright shipped his horses by train for part of the trip and was therefore ineligible for the purse.
And so it was Gillespie, 58, riding Billy Shafer and crossing the finish line at 1:30 p.m. who was declared the official winner. Smith finished 17 minutes later, having also traveled 150 miles in roughly 24 hours.
“Gillespie is the character of the contestants. He is 58 years old. A boy who joined him in Iowa said that Gillespie would have won the race had he not wasted his time on the road the first part of the race. He staked his horses and slept out of doors, and in Iowa town he stopped to see a circus and amused the spectators by riding a trick mule,” read a newspaper account.
The humane society representatives, now thoroughly impressed with the condition of the horses and the treatment they received by their riders, were put in charge of distributing the prize money. Paul Fountain considered not only the order in which riders crossed the finish line but also his own observations at the checkpoints.
Buffalo Bill Cody’s $500 was distributed as follows: Berry, $175, Gillespie, $50, Smith, $75, Jones, $75, Stephens, $50, Middleton, $25, Campbell, $25 and Albright, $25
The Chadron purse was distributed as follows: Gillespie, $200, Smith, $200, Stephens and Jones, $187.50 each, Middleton, Albright and Campbell, $75 each. Berry also won a saddle donated for the race by the Montgomery Ward Company.
Chadron committees have since re-created the race in some fashion twice, the first in 1960 as Chadron celebrated its 75th anniversary. Four men and two drivers left from Chadron to drive to Chicago, planning to complete the route in reverse. They left Chadron July 23 that year.
“Plans for this trip vary considerably from the original race in which the riders were to stay on their horses the entire 1,040 miles between Chadron and Chicago. For this modern-day version of the race, the group will travel most of the way by truck, stopping at the edge of each scheduled stopping place to unload the horses and ride into town for the scheduled ceremonies. Following the ceremonies the horsemen will ride out to the edge of town, where they will reload their horses and proceed to the next stop,” a Chadron Record article says. “For the night stop the travelers will picket their mounts in some friendly pasture and spend the night in sleeping bags close to their horses.”
The second version of the race also faced difficulties, including a scheduling issue with starting the race in Chicago.
“The Republican National Convention, which started in Chicago the same day, squeezed out all efforts to actually start the horses from Chicago. No arrangement had been made by the Chicago Chamber of Commerce or the Dekalb Chamber to allow the horses to come to their cities. Two of the men, (Orla Rucker and Milton Grantham) were dispatched to the Republican convention and Chicago to actually start the race from there. The men entered Chicago, attended the morning session of the GOP meeting, passed out hundreds of souvenir Chadron Jubilee wooden nickels at Convention Hall and visited the Chicago Tribune office, where they placed a story of the race in the paper,” the Record reported.
The remaining men (Don Berlie, Billy Kohler, Raymond Eaton and Bob Bishop) started the race from Freeport, Ill., instead.
The riders spent their final night on the road in Hay Springs and rode the final 21 miles to Chadron on horseback.
The third version of the race, following a similar pattern as the 1960 re-enactment, took place in 1985, sponsored by the Chadron Centennial Saddle Club. This time riders were accompanied by ham radio operators, and special collector cards were sent to each ham operator who made contact with the travelers along the route.
Chadron State College science professor Jim McCafferty organized the communication caravan, taking with him Rip Radcliff, who was just 12 at the time but who had recently earned his novice operator’s license. According to Chadron Record archives, there was some concern that storms would interfere with the operator’s voice communications. Plans called for a switch to Morse Code if that happened.
“That would create an even more realistic re-enactment of the race,” McCafferty said, as the original race featured plenty of telegraph messages in code as the public followed its progress.
The nine riders for the third race left June 28, 1985, completing most of the route by truck but checking in at each original registering station on horseback. As they neared Chadron they were joined by descendants of Gillespie, public officials and Charley Evans, a Buffalo Bill Cody re-enactor. Gillespie’s descendants presented the Colt revolver to the Dawes County Historical Society Museum at the conclusion of the event.
The donation was decided on by family consensus. Dan’s father, the oldest son, had the gun in his possession while Dan was growing up, and it was kept in a dresser drawer in his parent’s bedroom. But once it passed to Dan’s uncle, he worried about having such an important piece of history in his possession.
The family decided as a group to donate it to the museum for safekeeping. His recent trip to Chadron was the first time since the donation that Dan has seen the family heirloom.
“It used to be covered in gold and silver. That’s all worn off now,” he said.
He and Jean’s reception in Chadron this time was much more low-key than the weekend the revolver was turned over to the museum, but no less hospitable, they said, as they were welcomed by museum volunteers.
“Chadron should be very proud of their museum and its contents. The locals have made many wonderful donations from items stored in their barns. And the Gillespie family is proud to have participated in the exhibits,” Jean wrote of their visit.