Friday, December 6, 2019

Before the memory fades: Annie Wilkins – Last of the Saddle Tramps

By Walter Lunt

Part 1: The amazing story of a Maine woman’s equestrian journey to California, inspiring hundreds of well-wishers along the way, including one Windham family

Although just an ordinary day in mid-November 1954, the local folks at Windham Center probably did double-takes at the sight of a heavy-set woman riding an aging horse down Route 202. The old mare, plodding along slowly, unfazed by traffic, was also burdened with a heavy pack strung over its hind quarters. A small dog on a long leash kept pace with the slow-moving horse and rider. The trio stopped at the four corners and the friendly-faced equestrian asked one of the locals about lodgings for the night. 

Miss Annie Wilkins ready for her trip to California
from Maine
More about the lady rider’s brief visit to Windham later. First, who was Annie Wilkins? How did she come to be riding a horse into this town? And where was she going?

Messanie (Annie) Wilkins, in 1954, was 64 years old, homeless and broke. But, astonishingly, these were the least of her problems. She had grown up on a pig farm, living with her mother, father and an uncle. All had passed away. Unable to sustain the farm, she lost it to the bank. Soon after, a doctor told her she had less than two years to live, “provided she rested.” Her situation could be summed up simply: no home or family, no money, no future. A more destitute person would be hard to imagine.

In her memoir, Wilkins said she turned to the Lord, who told her to pursue her dreams, whatever they might be.

Her dream, it turns out, was to see the country – to meet people far outside the narrow and limited world she had known in Minot, Maine for over a half century.

In the months following the loss of her family, Annie sold homemade pickles. She had accrued the princely sum of $32. Now, with no prospects, she decided to do as the Good Lord had commanded. Surely, she could work her way across the country.

She paid $5 for a grumpy old camp horse named Tarzan who had been retired from a local riding academy, packed all her belongings and along with her dog, a shaggy brown and white mongrel, rode away. “I didn’t have the heart to look back at my little house,” and assumed she would never see it again.

The route she chose would take her on a 7000-mile equestrian journey. Starting out with just a few dollars in her pocket, and still traveling the plain dirt road away from her ancestral farm, Wilkins said she felt a sudden surge of “the jitters.”

“What sort of idiot am I? Who in his right mind would hire an old woman to work at odd jobs along the way? …plenty of men were out of work, so who would hire a complete stranger, especially an old woman dressed like a man?”

Fighting against her misgivings, Annie soldiered on. The goal: to take a dip in the Pacific Ocean.

One can only imagine the thoughts flowing through Annie Wilkins mind as she rode Gray Road into Windham that chilly afternoon in 1954. She had heard that wayward travelers were often welcome to sleep in jail houses, but she would settle for a warm barn for her and Tarzan.

Windham Center turned out to be a fruitful checkpoint for Annie and her troupe. Residents were patronizing the corner grocery store (now Corsetti’s) and public library. After some discussion, someone suggested Annie visit a family less than a half-mile down Windham Center Road. Doctor and Mrs. Laurence Bennett ran a nursing home and were known to be hospitable.

It turned out to be a visit Annie would never forget. She would write glowingly about the Bennett’s in her memoir. Nellie Bennett provided Annie with hot meals and a comfortable bed. A telephone call to a nearby farm family yielded accommodations for Tarzan. The next morning, Nellie would drive Annie to the farmhouse where she would begin the next leg of her cross-country odyssey.

Next time, “Before the memory fades” will trace the rest of Annie’s journey. As the weeks turned to months, and then years, she would face harsh conditions, meet hundreds of well-wishers and fill her road diary with amazing stories.

In one encounter, an admirer would print post cards about Annie and her journey. Annie sold them along the way for spending money. The cards were about life goals and contained inspiring messages. 

One inscription read, “Don’t look back; that’s not where you’re going.” 

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