Sign on the Blaine Hotel in Chadron
On June 13, 1893, 120 years ago, at 5:40 p.m., nine rugged rural Nebraska cowboys began a 1,000 mile race from Chadron to Chicago.
This became known as America's longest horse race. The riders put northwest Nebraska in the news and on the map for the world.
The idea began as a practical joke by Dawes County clerk John G. Maher, who was known for astonishing his eastern readers by outlandish exaggerated accounts of pioneer life.
Chadron people shrugged at the news report -- they knew Mr. Maher. The outlandish idea was picked up by the eastern media and Europe accepted the 1,000 mile race idea as fact. Letters poured into Chadron from all over asking for race details.
The race was delayed to straighten directives.
Town leaders met and elected a committee to set up rules for ‘the race’ which began at the Blaine Hotel. All entries were to ride western horses, with a western saddle and equipment. An entry fee of $25 was charged. The purse was $1,000 from the city of Chadron and another $500 was offered by Buffalo Bill Cody, urged on by his friend “Billy the Bear.”
The Colt Revolver Company offered a revolver to the first place winner.
Local businesses provided prizes to their favorite cowboys. Lowenthal clothing store gave Doc Middleton a cowboy hat and spurs.
The humane society was concerned for the horses. When the horses and riders began the "race," it was at a slow trot for horses as their riders observed a cheering crowd of Chadron townspeople. The population was swollen, doubling to 4,000 people, watching along the route out of town. Dawes County Sheriff James Dahlman cautioned the riders to be careful and take care of their horses.
Chadron Fire Chief J.O. Hartzell fired a colt revolver to begin the race.
The president of the American Humane Education Society was the most outspoken critic and the most misinformed spokesman. The Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as well as the Parent American Band of Mercy were also influential and vocal spokesmen opposed to the race.
Humane Society groups tried to stop the race, but eventually agreed to provide two representatives, one a veterinarian, to ride the route on a train and check the horses at every stop. At each location, the horses were pronounced in excellent condition and well cared for.
The riders didn't always look as good.
The cowboys were given extravagant titles like Cockeyed Bill, Dynamite Jack, Rattlesnake Pete, Snake Creek Tom and the “boldest all-around bad man” -- outlaw Doc Middleton. These were listed as early contestants.
Some feared the cowboys would be booed along the way, but instead cowboys and their horses were greeted and treated to rest and meals as they traveled. Some bands played and provided escorts to lead them through their town.
The rugged race proved much harder on the men than the horses. Each rider was allowed two horses, one to ride, another to lead. Several turned lame and were left in stables for care along the way. The horses were checked at each town as an added safety measure.
At 43, Doc Middleton, the reformed horse thief, was Chadron’s favorite.
He was married and with two little children besides being mayor of Chadron.
John Berry was disqualified because he had been a railroad scout and helped lay out the race route and the stopping places. But, he was a substitute when an original rider became ill just prior to the race.
Berry rode his horses Poison and Sandy and his stops were verified.
Buffalo Bill Cody put up $500 and said he would recognize Berry as a contestant.
Joe Gillespie, at age 58, was the oldest and heaviest rider at 185 pounds. Teenager Dave Douglas got sick and had to drop out of the race.
The cowboys averaged 72 miles each day; the race took 13 days.
John Berry came in first, Josiah Gillespie was next and Charles Smith was third. The money put up by Chadron was divided with the finishing contestants, excluding Berry. Berry received a cut of Buffalo Bill's award money. Montgomery Ward gave a saddle to the winner. Doc Middleton dropped out and took a train to finish, still he was included in the race payoff.
The race information, pictures, the pistol and the hide of Gillespie’s winning horse, "Poison," are displayed in the Dawes County museum -- three miles south of Chadron.
There are newspaper articles, pictures and memorabilia related to the famous race. The memory of the race continues. Chadron is recognized as origin of the race.
Years later, a group of Dawes County residents staged a recreation of the Chadron to Chicago race. They took their time and hauled their horses between towns. They rested, but made quite a media splash. They were loved by the towns they passed through.
Riders and their horses were reported with pictures and stories for the duration. Coverage by newspapers along the route was thorough.
Joe B. Gillespie received the Colt Revolver and $200 planning committee funds for his ride. Years later, in 1985, his family presented the revolver, his quirt (with part of his horse's tail woven into it) and his holster to the Dawes County Historical Museum.
Many family members were in attendance for this special event. The family is scattered with several living in California but they visit whenever possible.
The valiant efforts by the country cowboys and their horses have never been surpassed.
The tough qualities of the western horse and riders were recorded and noticed. Both gained respect and admiration world wide. Chadron was on the map.
Tough cowboys and horses still abound in rural Dawes County.
On June 22, the annual "Ride The Ridge" was held through the hills adjacent to Fort Robinson. The ride was open to all who wished to participate with their horses.