Friday, December 20, 2019

Before the memory fades: Jackass Annie’s epic horseback ride to the Pacific – Windham stopover yields support, encouragement

By Walter Lunt

Part one of a two part series. Part one can be read at this link

In what has been described as one of America’s most remarkable equestrian journeys, a 63-year old down-on-her-luck woman from Minot, Maine rode out of her hometown in a quest to fulfill a life-long dream: to see the country and swim in the Pacific Ocean. Along with Mesannie (aka Annie) Wilkins on that chilly November day in 1954, were ‘her boys,’ an aged horse, Tarzan, and her energetic and faithful dog, Depeche Toi, a Spaniel/Dachshund mix.

Annie riding Tarzan with Depechi Toi perched
atop pack horse
After losing her family and her home and learning from her doctor that she had only about two years to live due to a lung deficiency, Annie decided it was time to strike out. The plan: to ride Tarzan across the country, sleep in jails and barns and work odd jobs.

As to the dangers and the improbability of success, Annie would often say that the Lord has a plan for all of us – “everything is foreordained.” But, as it turned out, she would have to toil very little on the long journey because newspapers, radio and television along the way would take up her cause and sympathetically publicize her cross-country trek as courageous and daring – reporting on every mile and every hardship and misfortune.

Both her admirers and detractors dubbed her ‘Jackass Annie,’ which she happily embraced with her usual high spirits and good cheer.

In her book, “Last of the Saddle Tramps”, a memoir of her cross-country adventure published in 1966, Annie discussed the events surrounding her stay in Windham, which was one of her first overnights. Her account was different from that described in Part One by extended family members of her host’s family (The Windham Eagle, Dec. 6, 2019).

According to Annie, she had bedded down in a grove of trees along a road in the town of Gray. Her sleep was interrupted by Depeche Toi’s angry growls. It was a deputy sheriff, who told her it was improper for them to sleep there, and that he had secured shelter for them with a family in Windham. Tarzan stayed the night in a nearby barn. The deputy drove Annie and her dog to the home of Dr. and Mrs. Laurence Bennett who ran a nursing home on Windham Center Road.

Devoting nearly a full page of her book to her overnight stay at the Bennett’s, Annie wrote:

“So…at one in the morning the sheriff drove me to a small, private hospital that was run by a doctor and his wife (Nellie). They were waiting for me, although the doctor wasn’t really up – he was flat on his back, as he had been for twenty years-paralyzed. His wife wheeled him about on a special contraption. He was still practicing, still helping people. A wonderful man. His wife drove me back to Tarzan’s barn the next morning. While the horse ate his grain, she and I talked. It was (a) pleasant conversation, but I sensed that she was trying to tell me something and didn’t know quite how to go about it. So, I tried to make it easy for her by saying, ‘Some people don’t approve of what I’m trying to do.’

‘My husband and I approve,’ she said.

‘Thank you.’

‘And we wish you would change your mind.’

I wasn’t sure that I’d heard correctly. Depeche Toi was sitting there, head cocked and looking at her, as if he was puzzled, too.

‘While you and I were having breakfast this morning, my husband phoned Minot,’ she continued. ‘He talked to your doctor there. So now we know about you, too.’ She paused, then added, ‘Courage isn’t everything. It’s just one thing.’

I nodded and waited for her to say more, but she didn’t. I was grateful for her concern and pleased that she didn’t press the issue. She was just reminding me of the time limit on my life…I came close to telling her my secret: I had the Lord’s approval. Or was it His blessing?

…Now, I said, ‘I’m feeling better than I have in years. The fresh air helps some, I suppose, but the nice people I’m meeting along the way helps more.’
Described as a 'breezy read,' most reviews
rate "Last of the Saddle Tramps" from 4.5 to 5.0.

She smiled, then put her hands on my shoulders and looked right into my eyes. ‘You’ll get there, you MUST get there,’ she said. Then she kissed me on the left cheek, turned and walked to her car and drove off. I don’t think she looked back, but I waved goodbye anyway.”

Verbatim from her book, that was Annie’s account of her first brush with humanity before the media had begun telegraphing her story. Today, the Bennett family operates Ledgewood Manor, Inc. on Tandberg Trail in North Windham.

Later, in New Hampshire, a Portland Press Herald reporter and an AP photographer caught up with Annie. “That’s what started the whole press thing,” she observed.

After that, nearly every town expected her arrival; she would often be given a police escort. “I felt like Lindbergh from Paris, but I must have looked more like Buffalo Bill’s wife.”

On the way through Massachusetts she was treated to a full Thanksgiving meal. And just outside of Springfield she was directed to a small inn that announced, “Washington Slept Here” and where Tarzan got his own private box stall. A snowstorm briefly halted their departure. When they did leave, a sign was posted over the stable, “Tarzan Sept Here.”

While riding through New Jersey, Annie recorded in her road diary, “I’m beginning to think we’d been adopted by truck drivers,” who frequently stopped to advise what she could expect “up ahead.”
Annie entered Pennsylvania with a cough and a severe back ache. Fortunately, she was invited to stay as long as she wished at the plush Chadds Ford Inn where rest and good food helped her make a full recovery. Annie reported that she and Tarzan were feeling “fitter” than when they’d started out in Maine.

“When I went out to saddle Tarzan, I found that he had company. A man was sitting there on a box making a drawing of my horse. I looked over his shoulder as he worked, and I liked what I saw. 

‘You’re pretty good,’ I told him. “He thanked me and said his name was Andrew. He finished the drawing; Annie saddled Tarzan and left. It was years before Annie realized she had been talking to the famous artist Andrew Wyeth, who lived in Maine and wintered in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
Over the following months, Annie would experience the heat of deserts, the blinding snow and cold of the western mountains and the dangers of unfamiliar terrain. In Arkansas, she barely escaped the fangs of a coiled cottonmouth snake; in Colorado, she was nearly trampled by a herd of cattle, and in Wyoming, awoke one morning under water as a flash flood overtook their camp site. The rushing water spooked Tarzan and her pack horse; they ran 30 miles back in the direction they had come. 

Ultimately, delays and distractions stretched their journey past Annie’s 64th birthday.

In one unusual incident, an overnight stay at a farm in western Wyoming resulted in a marriage proposal from an elderly goat herder. Annie told him, “I have to think about it.” Later that day she moved on, and in her words, “…never looked back.”

And yes, following 18 states, 17 months, 7 thousand miles and eight diaries, Annie, Tarzan and Depeche Toi dipped their feet in the Pacific Ocean. She even appeared on the popular Art Linkletter’s House Party television program. Said Annie, “From his introduction, you would have thought our trip was more important than the one Columbus had made.”

All of America had embraced the portly, friendly-faced woman from Maine. She had the courage and determination to realize her dream before the admiring eyes of millions across the country.

Mesannie Wilkins remained in the West for a long time; she eventually returned to Maine and settled in a town near Minot. A doctor’s diagnosis that she would die before reaching retirement age proved to be unfounded. She passed away in 1980 at the age of 89.

According to Annie, “Doctors, they don’t know everything. Most things in life are foreordained.”  <

Next time, A Matter of Historical Record returns with a salute to Maine’s bicentennial. What was Windham’s vote on statehood? You may be surprised.

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