Bud and Me
The True Adventures of the Abernathy Boys
Alta Abernathy 1998 162 pages
This is an amazing story for any time but particularly in the time of “helicopter parents,” arranged “playdates,” and news stories about Child Protective Services being called on the parents of children at the playground alone. This was the old days.
When Louis “Bud” Abernathy and his brother, Temple, were nine and five years old respectively, they went across country in 1909. That was just their first trip without parent or chaperone.
“Catch ‘em-Alive” Jack Abernathy was a U.S. Marshal in Oklahoma appointed by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906. His wife had died in 1907 leaving him with six kids. Jack got his nickname because he could catch wolves alive and that made him famous enough to meet Teddy Roosevelt. He was a big believer in self-reliance and taught that to his children. When Bud and Temple were nine and five years old they told their father they were going to ride from Oklahoma to Santa Fe. They’d heard lots of stories about the west and decided they wanted to see it for themselves. After some thought and a short trial trip their father agreed.
The boys dealt with scorpions, heat, gyp water (causes diarrhea), a wolf, quicksand, a hail storm, a mad jackass, a sandstorm, and rustlers. The trip took two weeks.
That was for practice. Next they wanted to go to New York to meet Teddy Roosevelt on his return from foreign lands. That was 1910 and the boys had reached the ages of ten and six. New York was, and still is, 2,000 miles away from Oklahoma.
At first look letting a nine and a five years old, or a ten and a six year old a year later, go off by themselves seems irresponsible, but their father was well-known and “all of his interesting friends” looked after the boys in towns and gave them places to stay and eat. Out in the wilderness there was no one to look after them except themselves, and for a few days, a cattle rustler and his gang. There were incidents. The cattle rustler story is a good one. The boys had come across his gang’s cabin and stayed the night not knowing what he was or who he was. The rustler and his gang followed the boys from an unseen distance for a couple of days and then sent “Catch ‘em-Alive” a note. The rustler and Jack had once had a shoot-out over illegal activities but apparently some code of the west let that go when the boys showed up at the cabin.
The further east the boys got the more attention they drew from the public and newspapers. They got to visit a zoo, drive a train, visit a firehouse and go on a fire call, drive a car, get fingerprinted at a police station, visit the Wright Brothers’ aeroplane factory, see Hally’s Comet, visit with President Taft, and visit Washington D.C. and climb the Washington Monument.
Then they were off to New York and “people lined the streets to cheer… We were apparently celebrities.”
In New York they were in the 5th Avenue parade for Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders and they met Teddy Roosevelt.
The horses were shipped back to Oklahoma and then the boys convinced their father to buy an automobile, a Brush, which was small. Bud got driving lessons, Jack bought a car too and hired a chauffer. Off they went back to Oklahoma.
Their celebrity brought the boys more opportunities and adventure including movie making. The celebrity also brought a challenge. Could the boys ride from New York to California in sixty days? There could be no riding on Sundays and they could not sleep or eat under a roof during the trip. If they could, they’d get $10,000. The challenge was accepted in 1911. The boys were eleven and seven years old. They started on August 11, 1911. The journey was much like the one to New York from Oklahoma with the addition of deserts and mountains. That brings us to where we would be concerned.
In Reno they were asked if they were going over the Sierra and Donner Pass and of course they said yes. It was then they learned of the Donners. Their version follows.
Back before the Gold Rush George Donner was leading a big group of people. “A huge snowstorm came up, and they were stuck. All but a few people died,… some starved, some froze… They found buggies, wagons and horses scattered all over the side of the mountain. Some had fallen over cliffs and into gorges. Some got caught in snowslides and rock slides. And even a few survivors would have starved if they hadn’t… If they hadn’t become cannibals!” Here the story had been told to the boys by a young girl with dramatic effect, and it’s based on the memory of Temple, seventy-plus years later. So the errors in fact can be forgiven.
To get to California from Reno one must cross the Sierra and the boys took the Donner Pass route, “riding through mist and occasional sleet, we climbed a twisting wagon trail up the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas. Before long, the air got cold, the road was slick, and Wylie and Big Black had a hard time keeping their footing.
“We stopped at Donner Pass, even though it made me extremely nervous to imagine the gruesome events that had taken place on that spot. Fearing that we too, might get caught in a snowstorm, we hurried on. After all, it was now mid-October, almost the exact time of year the Donner Party met their fate in another blizzard.
“At one point we came to a dark hole in the mountainside, a railroad tunnel. Living dangerously, we galloped through at top speed, hoping a train wouldn’t come…
“The summit was a disappointment – flat like a tabletop instead of rounded into a peak. It had several houses, the homes of rangers I guess, but we didn’t see anyone, and we rode right on.”
The boys arrived in San Francisco and met their father.
The book is short and simple. It was told by Temple’s wife from the first person point of view of her husband, seventy-seven years after the extraordinary journeys in a style that is without much detail and with simple vocabulary and construction. That would make it seem to be a kids’ book especially given the subject, but the lack of detail, the lack of fleshing out the stories and providing some drama or conflict, makes it less than what it could have been. One example of the lack of detail is the end. These boys were interesting and one would like to know what became of them. Bud became a lawyer, district attorney and judge. There is nothing about his family and there is nothing about Temple, the narrator. Since all of the dialogue was made up, it could have been infused with more detail and a bit of drama – such as fleshing out some of the incidents. Perhaps the biggest example of lack of detail is just how long did it take the boys to go from New York to California? By how much did they miss the sixty days? The book doesn’t say but The San Francisco Chronicle on October 31, 1911 said, “The actual time occupied in riding has been sixty-two days, so the boys have lost the prize of $10,000 which they were to receive by a narrow margin of two days. Abernathy says that the boys lost because of delays in Wyoming and Iowa by floods.”*
The San Francisco Chronicle on November 23, 1911 carried a notice that the boys would be giving a talk at the YMCA and would recount “the most daring features of the ride and the rescue of the boys from the Hudson river [sic] by the United States revenue cutter Manhattan.” That would be illustrated with 6,000 feet of “moving pictures.” That rescue in the Hudson River sounds interesting. It’s not mentioned in the book.
Following their trip and not earning the $10,000 the boys went on to the Vaudeville circuit as noted by the Danville Kentucky Advocate Messenger on November 1, 1968 The boys traveled the vaudeville circuit recounting their exploits and then their father put them in military school.
The Oakland Tribune carried a number of advertisements for the boys' vaudeville performances in notices of presentation at the Broadway theater in Oakland. The Abernathy Boys would tell their story and present “their own exclusive motion pictures on western life…. The Abernathy Roundup, the Abernathy Kids’ Rescue, Marshall Abernathy’s Wolf Hunt, The Abernathy Kids’ Western Trip, the Bank Robbery, and the Abernathy Kids’ Eastern Trip.” This would be the “most lengthy and interesting bill yet presented at Oakland’s popular photoplay theater, ‘The Broadway.’” Oakland Tribune December 12, 1911
The Danville Kentucky Advocate Messenger continued with the boys' later life: Jack became a secret agent for Mexico and then a successful wildcatter. He died in 1941 age 65. Temple “followed his father into the oil business and worked as a driller in fields throughout Texas.” Bud became a lawyer and practiced in Wichita Falls. The Brush Motor Car Co. went out of business in 1912.
Then for a final follow-up The Des Moines Register (June 2, 1995 ) and several other newspapers reported about Hart and Starr Moss, brothers, who rode across the country in 1995 for charity and who were inspired by the Abernathy kids. They had an adult with them all the time and took longer. Hart was an eighth grader (13) and Starr a second grader (8). They didn’t go over Donner Summit though.