June 14, 2023 at 6:06 p.m.
Heritage Ride covered wagon passes through Sauk Centre
Sometimes, to make the journey a little extra special, one needs to take it the old-fashioned way.
Tom Christe Nass, Carlos Ford and James Campbell are reenacting a ride from 90 years ago, driving a mule-drawn covered wagon through Iowa and Minnesota, passing through Sauk Centre as they go to a birthday reunion for the birthday of Nass’ mother. This Heritage Ride not only recreates a piece of history, but it also gives the travelers new experiences from long-range wagon driving to the people and land itself.
“I’ve never been north before,” Ford said. “This is my first time.”
The origins of this journey date back to 1933, when Nass’ grandparents left Lamont, Iowa; they took their three children, the oldest of whom was 3-year-old Ann Strand, Nass’ future mother. The family traded their 1927 Ford for a covered wagon, a mule team, a wet sow and $66, and over the course of five weeks, they traveled over 450 miles from Lamont, Iowa, to Bagley, Minnesota, where the land was cheap, and they homesteaded there.
Strand, who still lives in Bagley, will be 93 years old July 7, and so her cousins are holding a family reunion. Nass thought it would be a great way to commemorate the journey from her childhood by repeating it on the way to the celebration.
Nass, Ford and Campbell are all from Pineville, Missouri, living within two miles of each other. In August 2022, Nass talked to Ford about his idea to drive a covered wagon from Lamont to Bagley; Ford, a mule skinner – otherwise known as a mule driver – provided the mules, wagon and harnesses. As for Campbell, he had always wanted to be involved with mules after his time in the military; he met Ford after a mule of his died from a lightning storm, and he liked the Pineville area so well that he sold his farm, bought a mule from Ford and moved to the area. When he heard about Nass’ idea, he volunteered to help.
On New Year’s Day, Nass announced to his relatives his plan via social media.
“My kids thought I’d lost it,” Nass said. “My boy in North Dakota said, ‘Dad, you’re not thinking straight.’”
For the next few months, Ford continued training the mules while everybody planned ahead.
“It takes more than just us three,” Nass said. “We’ve got my cousin who drove from Florida, we’ve got a friend back home who owns a feed store and put all the maps on a Garmin. People have to go ahead and find camp spots, and two of us have to be in the wagon all the time … Purina jumped right in, and they supply all our feed.”
With everything assembled, the Heritage Ride set off May 15 from Lamont, Iowa, and the team has been documenting their journey on Facebook.
Nass serves as the wagon master while Ford is the mule driver. Campbell is the scout, driving ahead with the truck and trailer that carries the spare mule. They cannot simply drive the wagon up Highway 71; they need to be on backroads, so Campbell ensures the paths are clear by pre-driving the route from campsite to campsite, keeping an eye out for broken bridges or road construction. He also carries the food and cooking equipment because he is the camp cook.
Their dog, Notch, also travels with them.
“If you watch our videos, we ask (Notch) every day if he can talk,” Nass said. “We have jokes; Carlos comes up with a joke about every time we set around a bend.”
The system has been working well for the team so far. When they reached Sauk Centre, they estimated they were at least two weeks ahead of schedule with about 140 miles to go.
“A lot of days, we’ll do 30 miles where we only scheduled it for 20 miles,” Nass said. “The mules are doing really well. We feed them every night, and we rest them every three days.”
The Heritage Ride reached Sauk Centre in time for a rest day. They arrived June 7, staying at a farm north of town until the morning of June 9.
Ford would not be surprised if the mules could even do 40 miles in a day.
“The day before yesterday, they trotted almost 30 miles, 6.2 miles per hour,” Ford said. “We held them back.”
Nass also likes getting his grandchildren to come with them for legs of the journey. For the week of June 4-10, his grandchildren Calisse and Dia Nowak accompanied them.
“All my brothers and sisters live in Minnesota,” Nass said. “Two of my kids live in Minnesota, so people start coming in and out. Yesterday, we had a house full.”
So far, the Heritage Ride has only had one farmer who would not allow them to camp.
“I think they were fencing and didn’t want to be bothered,” Nass said. “We just went up to the section line and camped across the road to this other farmer who collected International tractors. They couldn’t do enough for us.”
During their stops, the team will visit with their hosts and often be provided with dinner, showers and laundry services; they once even had a piece of their wagon repaired in Iowa. They will play guitars around a campfire, singing and talking.
“It restores your faith in humanity, meeting all these people on the way,” Campbell said.
Nass, Ford and Campbell all enjoy hearing the stories of the people they meet along the way, and Nass will post videos with them to social media as well.
“The people who talk to us, they’re involved, they’re part of the journey,” Nass said.
When entering a new county, the Heritage Ride calls the local sheriff’s department to let them know they will be passing through. The sheriffs have also treated them well; one sheriff rode with them for about four hours.
The slow pace of the journey has given everyone a chance to see and enjoy the scenery – even Campbell, who is usually driving about 35 mph.
“I get to be able to look at the homesteads and the country without everything just flying by,” Campbell said. “No trash; Iowa and Minnesota have been the two cleanest states I’ve seen … people respect their property, the land.”
As they close in on Bagley, the team is grateful to have had so many people helping them before and during the ride.
“It’s the people we’ve met and the people behind the scenes who make it successful,” Nass said. “Now, we’re one phone call away if we need help.”