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WEST OF ABSAROKEE — Stillwater Valley rancher W.J. Thompson treated the Bozeman Trail wagon train and other visitors to something that hadn’t been done in almost 140 years.

From a steep hill on his ranch, a prairie schooner was lowered using a snubbing post.

“I saw a picture of what it must have looked like, but I wanted to do it,” Thompson, 83, said. “I wanted to see what it must have been like.”

The reenactment took place at the same spot where the wagons on the Bozeman Trail used to stop and, one-by-one, get eased down the rocky 600-foot-long slope. The tracks where the wagons circled are still visible.

The original snubbing post is long gone, but old timers remember it. What happened to the post is still debated — some say a vandal sawed it down and made off with it, while others say it rotted, toppled over and was used for firewood by a sheepherder.

Thompson replaced it with a 10-foot fir post, sunk four feet into the ground.

Back then, the wagon team would be unharnessed but the wagons would remain loaded, some weighing as much as two tons. Men replaced the oxen or mules on the wagon yoke while others held onto the stout rope attached to the back axle and wrapped twice around the post.

Some modern day changes made for a safer descent. A polyester 12-twine rope was used. The wagon was not loaded as original wagons were, but still weighed about 1,200 pounds, Thompson said.

And back then there wasn’t a former pro football player helping anchor the rope at the snubbing post. Ron Heller, whose career included lineman duties with Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Miami, muscled up with Chuck Miller and Alex Devilbis to hold the line wrapped around the post. Manning the wagon yoke were W.J.’s son, Tim Thompson, with Shane Dykstra and Kim Merchant.

The six men didn’t labor much, they said. The snubbing post took the brunt of the weight, evidenced by the seared marks in the wood when the wagon reached the bottom.

“Actually, one guy could have held the line up here,” Miller said.

And Tim Thompson said sometimes the three yoke men were actually pulling the wagon down, unlike earlier depictions of men, heels dug in, backs arched to brake it.

This was the only location where a snubbing post was used on the trail. Near the end of the trail’s use in 1866, another, easier route had been found eliminating the steeper route.

Why they didn’t go a few miles up the Stillwater Valley where they could go down and avoid the hill is still a mystery. Conjecture is that the valley was more heavily forested then, they could avoid some river crossings, or they were trying to avoid confrontation with Indians.

Or they simply didn’t know of the easier route until Jim Bridger showed them.

The route out of the Pryors beelined toward the Stillwater River crossing, about six miles west of present day Absarokee. From there, they would follow a northwesterly route angling down to the Yellowstone River near Reed Point and then follow that river to Bozeman. By now, they had traveled about 500 miles, according to Nick Shrauger.

This was Crow country, although some made the mistake of assuming other hostile Indians didn’t intrude into Crow territory. That was a fatal mistake for George Thomas, who was killed with his son and a hired hand after leaving the wagon train, crossing the Stillwater and camping near Reed Point.

On Sunday, only one wagon was lowered down the hill, now called Sandborn for the homesteader who first staked a claim here. During the trail days, as many as 200 would make the descent daily.

The atmosphere was probably more jovial during the reenactment. One woman wondered if the Thompson crew didn’t also have a bungee cord. Others boasted they could drive a team down without the snubbing post.

“My team would make it,” 71-year-old Herb Walton said.

Walton had reason to feel confident. A few days ago, with his 68-year-old wife Joretta aboard his wagon, the couple survived a run-away after leaving camp near Plenty Coups State Park.

One of Walton’s horses slipped a bridle, rammed the wagon in front, shook loose a blanket over a chicken coop, which then got entangled in his horse’s head and spooked the other horse. The wagon thundered off with Walton controlling the line to only one of the horses, according to Yvonne Parrott, who had a close-up view of the whole episode from horseback.

“I saw a look of sheer terror on his face, but he was holding on like a hero,” she said. “I saw this horse with a blanket draped over it charging right at me.”

Fortunately the runaway occurred on fairly level and open terrain. Outriders managed to catch up and stop the wagon before it wrecked.

And then another modern day convenience came in handy. The wagon train port-a-potties were brought up. Walton was first in line, according to Mikel Cameron.

“I’ll say this, if it hadn’t been him, it would have been a disaster. Herb is a veteran and with one horse totally spooked, he kept the other in hand,” Cameron said.

Not 30 minutes later another runaway happened, this time with twin sisters aboard a buggy that rammed into a creekbed.

“This is nothing,” Walton joked of the snubbing post hill. “I’d take my wagon down it easy.”

“Go get the port-a-potty,” someone yelled.Dan Burkhart can be reached by phone at 328-7133 or by e-mail at stillwtrlodge@montana.net.

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