Subscribe for 17¢ / day

ON THE BOZEMAN TRAIL — The only things that top 90 out here are the temperature, the trail itself and George Miller.

Friday, the thermometer registered 90, his age; the trail is near 140.

“Doesn’t seem too bad,” Miller said from the seat of his prairie schooner, most of which he built himself 20 years ago. “You stay pretty cool in here.”

Even at the two- to four-mph pace of the wagons, if there’s any breeze, it’s funneled into the canvas covering, which is stretched over oak bows attached to an oak and pine wagon box, Miller said. He built the box and rebuilt the wheel gear from a wagon that had sat in a sheep shed, embedded in manure, for 40 years.

“It’s like a funnel,” he said of the cone-shaped canvas top. “It’s surprising how cool it is. It’s also surprising how cold it gets.”

The wagon train has hit some chilly days as well as steamy ones, “But it’s been going along real well,” he said. “It’s all memorable.”

His wagon, as the train pulled in for a night’s stay at Cooney Reservoir, was piloted by Mikel Carmon, a psychotherapist from Buffalo, Wyo. Carmon said she was learning the finer touches of driving a team from Miller.

“Not a better man in the world,” she said. “The only man I’d ever cook for.”DAVID GRUBBS/Gazette StaffMiller is a veteran of wagon train adventures. He drove a team during Montana’s Centennial from Bannack to Helena. He steered another wagon from Casper to Cody during the Wyoming Centennial. He doesn’t keep track of how many miles, but his wife Dorothy, interviewed at their home in Absarokee, said it’s seemed like thousands.

This summer Miller intends to complete the Bozeman Trail wagon train journey, which embarked June 11 from Guernsey, Wyo., and will wind up July 28 in Virginia City.

“I didn’t go this time,” she laughed. “Too much work, all that loading and unloading and cooking and washing up. But he was determined he was.”

She said she was worried about her husband embarking on such an arduous trip. His hearing and sight are poor, she said.

“I was afraid he’d take a tumble out there. But he told me if he dies, he’ll die with the lines in his hands,” she said.

According to Miller, he is as apt to fall and hurt himself at home as on the trail.

“Besides, at home she might throw something at me,” he said jokingly.

Miller is holding up well on the trip, according to his son, Chuck Miller, who is driving another Miller-made wagon, a surrey, pulled by the Belgian draft horses he and his father own. Dan and Ready are 18 and 22 years old, Chuck Miller said.

“They’re in their prime,” he said of the draft horses.

George Miller’s wagon is pulled by two Percheron draft horses.

Which is better?

“That’s like arguing over a Chevy or a Ford,” he said. “You’ll get a long debate, and no one changes their mind.”

For Miller, wagon train trips combine his interests in wagons, horses and history. He gives a quick lesson in wagon lore: What was called a Conestoga east of the Mississippi became a prairie schooner west of the river, he said; Stogies derived from the teamsters driving Conestogas loaded with tobacco; The American flag colors came from the Conestoga colors: White canvas top, blue wagon box, red wheels.

Draft horses weren’t often used to haul wagons on the trail, if at all.

Mules and oxen were preferred.

Driving a wagon is not a sleepy pastime despite the slumbering speed.

“It’s hard work,” Miller said. “You have to feel from the lines what the horses are thinking. You have to watch the terrain. You watch their ears and head and body motion. You listen for how they breathe, see how they’re getting wind.”

The most important lesson is to not overwork the horses. Just as a person wouldn’t climb a hill with a 100 pound pack without resting, you can’t expect horses to tug a 3,000 pound wagon uphill without a breather at the top.

Miller’s mentor was his father who raced the Cherokee Strip to homestead in Oklahoma.

“He only stayed there two years before he got dried out and went to Kansas where the same thing happened,” Miller said. “He told us kids he got tired of eating jackrabbits and white gravy so he went back to Missouri.”

Miller’s dad knew horses.

“He taught me two lines for one horse, two lines for two horses and every time you add another horse, another line,” he said. An accomplished teamster may have handled eight lines or more.

On this trip he has only two lines to worry about, but they’re attached to horses weighing 1,700 pounds each.

“You don’t just doze off,” he said.

Miller is spelled from driving by Cameron and Nick Shrauger, a retired Montana State University electrical engineering professor. Shrauger said he and Miller, a former electric line contractor, pass the time discussing their former careers as well as history.

“We let him nap sometimes,” Shrauger said.

But while other wagon train members watch out for Miller, he endures the same days and nights they all experience. He beds down on a sleeping bag in the back of his wagon. He eats his share of beans. He declines a helping hand dismounting from the steep wagon, gingerly feeling with a foot for a grip on a wheel spoke.

“Hot, cold, wet and windy,” Shrauger said. “He’s in it all with the rest of us.”

That doesn’t surprise his wife of 68 years.

“He’s from Missouri,” she said, “Those are the ‘show me’ folks.”Dan Burkhart can be reached by phone at 328-7133 or by e-mail at stillwtrlodge@montana.net

0
0
0
0
0