By Elaine Warner
Special to The Sun
A hundred years ago there probably wasn’t a person in Oklahoma who didn’t recognize the name “Abernathy.” It took a trip to Frederick’s Pioneer Heritage Townsite Museum to acquaint me with not just one but three of Oklahoma’s most unusual residents, Jack Abernathy and his sons Louis and Temple.
Jack Abernathy was born in Texas. Like many pioneer children, he worked alongside the grown-ups. As a kid he worked cattle before his voice changed and by 11 he was riding with the cowboys on the Goodnight Ranch.
While working one day, his two dogs jumped a wolf. The wolf made quick work of one of the dogs and was attacking the other. Jack jumped off his horse and went after the wolf, shoving his arm into the side of the animal’s mouth. Although the wolf couldn’t bite, it was clawing and scratching and leaving Jack battered before the 15-year-old’s brother arrived, helped him tie the animal up and take it back to camp to show off.
He got so good at it that he later took up catching the wolves to sell to zoos and circuses. He became known as “Jack, Catch Em Alive, Abernathy.” His fame spread across country, bringing President Theodore Roosevelt to Frederick where the Abernathys — Jack, his wife Jessie Pearl and their children lived.
The president was so impressed with Abernathy that he appointed him a U.S, Marshall for the Oklahoma Territory. The family moved to Guthrie when Jack took the position but kept their ranch home in Frederick. Jessie Pearl died in 1907, leaving Jack, her sister Annie and Big Pa, the children’s grandfather to raise the children. I’m willing to bet that if Jessie hadn’t died, this story would end here.
In his capacity as Marshal, Jack did a lot of traveling. After one trip to New Mexico, he described seeing irrigated orchards and trees hanging heavy with fresh fruit. That sounded awfully good to Louis and Temple, the two youngest boys; the only fruit they’d ever had was canned.
The boys pored over Jack’s maps and plotted and planned before approaching their dad with their great idea — they’d ride their horses to Santa Fe to see these wondrous sights for themselves.
Temple was only 5 and Louis, 9, and at first Jack balked. But the boys used the argument that he wanted them to be self-reliant and they were both good riders and they wore their dad down.
It was 1909 and the trip was about 800 miles one way and took them about two months there and back. In Santa Fe they spent a week with the governor. While they were there, their father came out by train to see them. Word of their trip had spread through the southwest and, on the way back, a group of women threatened to drag him off the train and hang him for letting his children do such a dangerous thing.
And that was just the beginning of the Abernathy boys’ adventures. The next year, they rode their horses eastward. Their dad had headed to New York City to see his friend Teddy Roosevelt, who was now out of office as president, and the boys decided to join the party.
By this time they were celebrities and were made welcome all along the way. Their somewhat circuitous route took them first to Washington, D.C. where they met President Taft then on to New York where they participated in a ticker-tape parade for the ex-president.
While in New York, they persuaded their father to buy them a car — a Brush Runabout Wildcat — and to let them drive back to Oklahoma alone. Roads, especially paved ones, were extremely limited and gas stations were few and far between. Nevertheless, the boys made the 2,500 mile trip back to Oklahoma in 16 days.
Their next adventure involved riding an elephant and a donkey from Coney Island to Washington, D.C. The trek was cut short when the elephant’s feet got sore and the ASPCA stopped the parade in Philadelphia.
The same promoters who dreamed up the animal scheme came up with a new challenge for the boys: if they could ride all the way across the United States in 60 days, they would win a $10,000 prize. The veteran travelers were then 7 and 11; the trip was 3,619 miles long. They faced many challenges; one of the worst being the death of Sam Bass, Louis’ horse. The replacement mount couldn’t match old Sam in speed and stamina. The boys made the trip in 62 days, forfeiting the money.
Their last journey was a trip from Oklahoma to New York City by motorcycle. After that, their lives took a much more conventional path. Louis grew up to be a lawyer and Temple went into the oil business.
Today, few people remember these remarkable boys. But the people in Frederick remember. Visit the southwestern Oklahoma town to see a statue of the twosome in the courthouse square. And be sure and visit the Pioneer Heritage Townsite Museum to see memorabilia and newspaper articles about these two intrepid travelers.
ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond-based travel writer.