Last rider from centennial re-ride to be grand marshal
Bob Plank hasn’t swung his leg over a horse in two years.
Until about a year ago, he’s always had at least a couple of steeds around the family farm north of town where he lives with wife Marge.
“Horses have always been a big part of my life,” Bob said.Re-enacting the journey of the Pony Express on the back of a horse through the Gothenburg area has also been an important piece.
The 84-year-old carried commemorative mail in the first official reride over the length of the original route in July of 1960.
After the first reride, none happened over the entirety of the Pony Express trail until the National Pony Express Association (NPEA) was organized by a group of dedicated California trail enthusiasts in 1977.
Bob participated in subsequent rerides in the Gothenburg area until declining health forced him to quit in 2000.
“It was also time for younger riders to take over,” he said.
Because of his participation, Bob will be honored as the grand marshal of the 96th Harvest Festival celebration.
When the reride passed through the city this past July, participants and others celebrated the 150th anniversary of the short-lived mail service.
From April 1860 to October 1861, young men on horseback—preferably orphans who had no family—carried letters from St. Joseph, MO, to Sacramento, CA, until the service was replaced by the telegraph.
Bob remembers fellow farmer, rancher and horse lover Paul Jenkins instigating the first reride in the area and that Ray Stickelman asked him to join.
“He said it would be fun,” Bob said.
Other local riders on July 21, 1960, which turned out to be a sizzler, were Chas Burson, Ray Stickelman, Raymond Sitorius and Alvin Bringelson.
“We had to be easy on the horses because they were wringing with sweat,” Bob recalled. “We walked and trotted a lot of the time instead of galloping.”
Because they were carrying government mail, riders were followed by two men in a jeep with loaded guns.
“They followed us every inch until a guy jumped a ditch in a pasture and they couldn’t keep up,” Bob said with a laugh.
One year, he picked up the mail at Willow Island and took it to the Pony Express Station in Ehmen Park where his hired man carried it to the Lincoln County line.
No rider was waiting for the exchange so Bob and the hired man took turns riding and driving the truck that pulled a trailer with the other horse.
“We stood around when we got to Maxwell but no one came. The horses were really getting tired,” he said.
Fresh riders finally showed up in North Platte.
Bob said he’s enjoyed the rerides because they were fun and he’s interested in the Pony Express.
“Sometimes we rode in terrible rainstorms and on dark nights,” he said. “One night was so dark we had a pickup ahead of us so we could follow the tail lights.”
Perhaps the most memorable ride for Bob was in 1996 when riders took turns carrying the Olympic torch from Julesburg, CO, to St. Joseph on its way to the host city which was Atlanta, GA.
What made the ride even more special was handing his torch to grandson Zach Fecht, he said.
According to their website, NPEA members were the only group who carried the torch by horseback and was one of the few groups to carry the flame nonstop, both day and night.
The year before, both Zach and his brother Jake were riders.
During the centennial celebration reride of the Pony Express in 1960, Bob was the 87th rider headed west.
“Then we rode five miles at a time. Now it’s one to two miles,” he said, noting that riders now also have better horses and equipment.”
Women are also allowed to ride these days which they weren’t in 1960 and several years after that, he said.
Bob and the other riders also carried New Testament Bibles to replicate what the original riders did.
But they were small compared to the regular-sized, complete Bibles that the early riders took with them.
For several years, Bob directed the reride from Cozad to Brady and also led a local 4-H Club called the “Vaqueros” in the 1970s and 1980s.
When local Chamber of Commerce officials told him he’d been selected as grand marshal, Bob said he “was never so surprised in my life.”
“It’s quite an honor and is the last thing I’d have ever thought of—that someone nominated me,” he said.
Although he’d like to ride a horse in Saturday’s parade, Bob and Marge will instead glide down Lake Avenue in a convertible.
Bob said Marge is deserving of the honor because of the many times she drove pickups and hauled horse trailers on the annual rerides.
The Planks have five daughters who grew up riding horses.
They include: Kendra Fecht, Kay Streeter and Karla Ricely of Gothenburg, Kim Aurich of North Platte and Kelli Swaller of Lincoln.
The couple also has 13 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren.