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Letting the good times roll: Harness Club reenacts the past at Bonanzaville

On a July afternoon circa 1900, a fourmule chuck wagon trundled down the dirt road toward Mark Radtke's farmhouse near Glyndon, Minn. The wagon's wheels creaked plaintively, the iron pots stowed in the back clanged, and dust rose along the wagon'...

Chuck wagon ride

On a July afternoon circa 1900, a fourmule chuck wagon trundled down the dirt road toward Mark Radtke's farmhouse near Glyndon, Minn.

The wagon's wheels creaked plaintively, the iron pots stowed in the back clanged, and dust rose along the wagon's trail. At the reins sat a plucky lady and a gallant gent, both clad in jeans and cowboy hats.

But when the wagon reached the house, strange things started happening. The duo halted their team in the front yard - not far from some shiny four-wheel-drive trucks, the power of many horses lurking in their engines. Then, a bizarre noise came from the pocket the plucky lady's jeans, and she stepped aside to get a cell phone call.

OK, it wasn't really 1900 -though that's a time the wagon riders Polly Thorsness and Radtke's father, Eugene, love to revisit on nostalgia trips. The pair are members of the Red River Harness Club, an area group of wagon, cart and buggy enthusiasts who recently celebrated their club's 20th anniversary.

Not letting the trappings of modern civilization butt into their Old West re-creations is one challenge club members contend with. But even harder is luring young recruits away from those trappings.


They hope to spur interest in their activities at Bonanzaville's Horse and Buggy Fest on Saturday. There they'll offer free wagon rides, buggy driving lessons and a taste of the olden days.

Keeping it real

Harness Club members jump at any opportunity to hitch their teams to their oldfashioned vehicles and gallop into the early settler experience. Besides their annual Sleigh and Cutter Festival in Moorhead, they often crash small-town parades or head out on improvised camping trips.

When they camp, they make a point of keeping things as authentic as possible. Over open fires, they cook hearty staples of settler fare, such as chickenfried steak or beans and bacon stew.

"There was no dieting, no lettuce," says Thorsness, a Barnesville resident wearing a shirt with a pattern of horses prancing against a pomegranate sunset. In the back of her wagon, reproduced with original 1920s wheels and a toolbox by Hansen Wheel and Wagon in Letcher, S.D., is the "kitchen, a board that folds out to serve as a counter/table and shelves of spices, supplies and cookbooks.

Around the campfire, members speculate about how settlers might have dealt with their era's emergencies, such as a wagon wheel coming off in the middle of nowhere. They gush about the courage and hardiness of those men and women.

Occasionally, contemporary realities sneak in. Thorsness and Radtke confess to transporting perishables in a decidedly post-Wild West cooler. They once teamed up to use the long skinny saw suspended on hooks on the side of the wagon to cut branches for the fire. Turns out, when you don't have the right moves, the saw twists and bends like a captured lizard.

And, occasionally, when members develop what was meant to be the perfect photo of a wagon on a deserted country road, they spot with horror power lines snaking across the top of the frame.


The Young West

At 45, Radtke is the youngest of the club's 50 or so members. Many are closer to his father's age of 74, and nurse what Thorsness dubs "terminal horse fever."

"I grew up on horses," Eugene Radtke says of the condition. "It brings back a lot of memories."

Those memories include tending his family's Mahnomen, Minn., farm and daredevil horse-riding stunts before dawn on dewy mornings.

But the great majority of area youths have no such memories to keep them hooked on horse-drawn wagons, and the club - along with the transportation traditions of the Old West - is threatened with extinction.

"So many of the new kids aren't interested," Mark Radtke says. "They've grown up with Xbox."

Radtke and Thorsness have persistently tried to turn their teenage children on to the hobby, and they've resigned themselves to failure. Unlike kicking back with a video game, hitching a wagon for a ride often involves breaking a sweat. It can take three people more than a half-hour of hard work to put the heavy leather harnesses on the mules and get the wagon ready.

"The members are going to be gone, and there won't be an Old West anymore," Thorsness says.


So how do you recruit new members, especially young people?

The club will unleash its best strategies at Bonanzaville: Let people get close to the animals, touch and learn. By the end of the day, visitors will have figured out how to tell mules and horses apart, sampled the delicacies of chuck wagon cooking and seen the world from the perch of a wagon.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

Chuck wagon ride

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