THE QUEST FOR THE COACHES

by Luther Olson

graphic courtesy Roseau, MN, Community site//the coach appears to be one of Andrew's

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Just why is it that we Olson men seem to have such an obvious fascination with the old stage coaches? Dad has often told me how both his father, Clarence, and Uncle Scoop had often wondered what had become of them. One would certainly feel that their curiosity was only natural in that their childhood games of "cops and robbers" and "cowboys and Indians" must have been played on or around these real stage coaches. I suspect that for us, however, this is more like a matter of searching for family heirlooms, or maybe even for some long-lost family members. After all, these coaches have names and are identifiable. They had a life of their own with many exciting adventures and now are resting in retirement. For a brief time in their later years, however, they were a part of our Olson family.

While they may have been curious, we aren't aware that either Grandpa or Scoop ever made any real attempts to gain much information, other than to gather a few newspaper clippings. To Dad's great surprise, shortly after Scoop's death he received an envelope from Scoop's wife, Stella, which contained a number of clippings from the local newspapers about the line. Also enclosed were a few photos of Andrew, Mary and the coaches, which together with the clippings give some insights into their lives and their coach line.

I suspect that at that point Dad and Mom never began to imagine the amount of time and effort they would expend, and the miles they would travel, in their search for any remnants of the enterprise. Although Scoop's materials were interesting, and to a certain extent informative, there was little detail that would help one to know how or where to proceed.

While my folks remember few details of the beginnings of their search, a breakthrough came when they were informed of an Osborne Klavestad who owned a museum, STAGE COACH INC., in Shakopee, Minnesota., a town near Minneapolis. In 1971 they traveled to Shakopee and were able to locate both the museum and its proprietor. Klavestad not only knew of Andrew's line, he actually had one of the stage coaches and one livery carriage there in his museum. In addition, he loaned Dad a book which provided even more information for the search, The Medora-Deadwood Stage Line by Lewis F. Crawford published by The Normanden, Grand Forks, North Dakota, no date given. It is at this point, with Crawford's material, that I will digress a bit and trace the travels of our coaches around the West before they were purchased by Andrew.

During the period of westward expansion, The Gilmer and Salisbury Stage Co. was a large and prosperous company with lines that covered much of the northwest region. A seemingly minor incident, however, caused the demise of this company when an employee was bitten by a horse that turned out to have a disease called glander. The man died, the widow sued, and was awarded a sum so large that the company was forced out of business. All the coaches and equipment were sent to Helena, Montana, which at the time was a center of the large stage business.

Shortly before this unfortunate event, an adventurous young nobleman from France, the Marquis de Mores, had been instrumental in founding the town of Medora, N. Dakota, in April, 1883. Only a year earlier he had married the daughter of a wealthy New York banker, Medora Von Hoffman. The Marquis was intent on becoming a successful businessman; and this location on the N. Dakota-Montana line, in the middle of cattle country, seemed an ideal spot for a meat packing plant. He opened the new venture in the fall of 1883.

Scarcely had the plant begun operation, however, when his attention shifted to the business opportunities presented by the gold rush taking place down in the Black Hills. Passengers, luggage, freight and mail into this remote region required vastly expanded transportation, which he decided to provide by establishing the MEDORA & BLACK HILLS STAGE & FORWARDING CO.

A good portion of the summer of '84 was required to build the new buildings and purchase the necessary equipment. He decided to purchase four of the used coaches which had belonged to the defunct Gilmer and Salisbury Stage Co. They were shipped from Helena to Medora, where they were repainted black and lettered in gold gilt. They were inscribed with the words U. S. Mail, on the presumption that he would receive a contract from the Postal Service (which he never did) and they were appropriately named MEDORA, DAKOTA, DEADWOOD and KITTIE. One could guess that KITTIE was perhaps Medora's nick-name, or possibly the name of their first child.

These were all Concord coaches of the same style and size as those generally in use throughout the West at that time. While a new coach would have cost around $1,500, Mores was able to purchase all four for only $1,200. They were strong and durable vehicles which had leather "compensating" springs, described as producing a motion like a swell of the ocean. The coach was able to carry up to two tons of freight and as many as twelve passengers, though not all in seated comfort. One passenger usually sat beside the driver up in the front boot, and those who could not squeeze inside rode on top and hung on as best they could.

A coach line of this size required about 150 horses, each costing $90 to $125. The Concords usually required two teams, but hilly terrain or bad road conditions meant hooking up a third. Each station along the route had a tender, who had fresh teams harnessed and ready to depart with only a ten minute delay.

Within a year, however, the new line began to have serious financial problems. Those who approached the Black Hills from the east came in via Pierre, S. Dakota, while those who came down from the north usually came through Dickinson, a larger city with much smoother terrain. Not only was Medora a little further out of the way to the west, but it had the added disadvantage of lying on the banks of the Little Missouri River. The line had to parallel the river for quite a distance, which meant a hilly road with many gulches that had to be bridged. Expenses were cut, men were laid off, and no oats were purchased for the horses. Fed on hay alone, the animals soon lost their strength and were unable to do the work.

Had the Marquis not overextended himself with the coach line, it is likely that the packing plant might have survived, but the collapse of the line in '85 or early '86 was followed immediately by the closing of the plant the same year. The Marquis left Medora, and it was learned later that his life ended when he was murdered by one of his native guides while on an exploring expedition in Africa.

It is at this point where the lives of a wealthy French marquis and a young immigrant from Sweden intersect through the sale of those Concord coaches. Again, the information here comes from the Crawford book, the materials from Uncle Scoop, my parents' efforts to actually find the coaches, and some conjecture as I read between all the lines.

Crawford states that one coach was sent to Miles City, Montana, about 100 miles west of Medora. Dad has visited the museum there and found that they did have a number of coaches, though none could be identified.

It is my opinion that if one of them was a Mores coach, it was the DAKOTA, and that it has always stayed in Miles City. It would have been unusual for a coach to go from Medora to Miles City, to Minnesota, and then back again to Miles City. Besides, from the information that we have, there is no reason to believe that it was ever in Minnesota.

Crawford also says that two coaches went to Karlstad, MN., a small community on the rail line between Pelen and Stephen. Undoubtedly, these coaches were sent to Andrew or his predecessor. The newspaper article "Parade of the Past" contains a photo taken in 1898 which clearly shows the name, MEDORA. The other coach that went to Andrew, KITTIE, can be seen in a photo taken in front of the post office (in what I believe is Stephen). The lettering is not quite so clear, but parts of the letters can be made out.

There are slight differences in the construction of these two vehicles. Interestingly, the U. S. Mail lettering is still clearly visible on the coaches. It turned out that by doing that lettering, the Marquis did Andrew a favor, for although he never received the postal contract that he wanted, hauling the mail was an important part of Andrew's Stephen-Roseau Line.

As to the present whereabouts of the MEDORA and KITTIE, we do know a little. After the breakup of the line, at least one of the two coaches and at least one, though perhaps more, of the livery carriages were left sitting for a period of time on the railroad siding in Karlstad. It would appear that Klavestad then purchased the KITTIE and one of the livery carriages for his museum in Shakopee. Dad and Mom have been there and have photographed both vehicles. The KITTIE is identifiable because it was the only one of the four in which the window sill line is bowed up at each end. The sills of the others are perfectly straight. The KITTIE, with name clearly displayed, is also seen on the right side of the museum post card.

We don't know if the museum is still in existence. There is no telephone listing, and more than likely, Klavestad is long gone. The folks visited him perhaps twenty-five years ago. Regardless, it would seem that the KITTIE is no longer there. In a subsequent visit to the State Historical Museum in Bismarck, North Dakota, Dad was informed that they thought that the MEDORA was now somewhere in Texas and that the KITTIE had been sold and is now in some location in the state of Illinois.

It is the forth coach, DEADWOOD, that presents somewhat of a puzzle. According to Crawford, the fourth went east to Mandan, N. Dakota, a small town in the center of the state. I believe that this vehicle was also in Minnesota for a period of time. There is just enough lettering visible in the newspaper photo of the coach along with the inset of the new owner, George Roberts, to believe that this is the DEADWOOD. In the first place, it would make sense that if Andrew had originally purchased only two coaches, he would soon realize a real need for a third. Apparently, a coach left each end of the line every other day, with an overnight stay in Pelen, the mid-point.

He must have had numerous breakdowns, since these were old vehicles when he purchased them. He was at least the third owner. Secondly, the articles written about the line in the latter years lead one to believe that by this time there was only one coach running, a logical situation with a failing line and three badly worn old coaches. Finally and most importantly, Tom Hegre, a driver for the last three years, tells that this last coach was shipped back to Medora.

Dad has visited the CHATEAU DE MORES HISTORICAL SITE in Medora and has seen the DEADWOOD, in its rightful and appropriate home. There seems to me to be much irony in that the DEADWOOD, named after the town that caused the demise of the line is now in Medora, and that the MEDORA is now a continent away from the museum in that city, and that the DAKOTA now resides in the state of Montana

With all that, I would like to close with the thought that if in some future year there is an Olson lad who suddenly decides that his summer vacation just has to be in N. Dakota...or Illinois...or even Texas, not to worry. After all, a true quest for something as important as a family stage coach is worth any effort. I'm sure his wife will understand.

By the way, we do have in our family some more normal types of heirlooms from the old line. My brother, Monte, and I both have chairs from the dining room of the old stage house in Pelen. It is now my desk chair, and I sit upon it as I write this account.

Luther Olson

January 21, 1992

Rev. Jan.19, 1995

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