Rick Hamby, 63, on Sunday will lead his seasoned crew on its 12th trail expedition featuring the same authentic stagecoach he first rode as a 5-year-old when it was an attraction at Silver Dollar City.
The upcoming six-day trip, as always, features American history and the same stagecoach, built in the 1880s in Concord, New Hampshire.
It once served on the Overland Stage Lines, delivering mail and passengers, and was officially retired in 1905. In a remarkable coincidence, Hamby at age 39 stumbled upon the stagecoach he had long remembered as a child and wasted no time buying.
Over time, Hamby has become “Cowboy Rick” and the stagecoach he loves has become “Journey.”
The trip starts 4 p.m. Sunday at Longrun Baptist Church. Longrun is a small unincorporated area in western Ozark County. It ends on Friday, May 27, about a hundred miles later, at the Ozark Historium, which is a 1920s house on the downtown square that serves as a repository of Ozark County history.
For Hamby and his wife — “Arkansas” Bev Hamby — and the several friends and relatives on the crew, their first stagecoach trip in 2001 was on a grander scale.
It lasted 10 weeks and went from downtown Springfield, where the Butterfield Overland Stage Line was once located in General Smith’s Tavern — on the east side of Boonville, where the History Museum on the Square is today — to Tombstone, Arizona.
That’s 1,400 hard, bumpy and dusty miles at an average stagecoach velocity of roughly 4 mph.
It was hard then, Hamby says, and that was 21 years ago.
The trips typically traverse historical stagecoach routes; they aren’t what you’d call glamping.
“They are the hardest thing I have ever done in my life,” he tells me. “These things try your patience, your fortitude and your toughness in every way. It is a grueling thing.”
Hamby delivers mail, just like the original stagecoaches. His mail goes mostly to elementary schools.
He and his crew have fostered pen-pal relationships between children of different states. The letters are carried on Journey in special old-time mail sacks.
The stagecoach rolls up — on time, every time, he says — and not only is the mail delivered but the children get a history lesson on the American West, starting with Exhibit A: this here authentic stagecoach.
That first ride at Silver Dollar City in 1964
We can trace the roots of “Cowboy Rick” to 1964. He was with his mother and father and aunt and uncle at a Silver Dollar City, then in its infancy.
“I think the roads were dirt and sawdust,” he says of the attraction’s internal streets.
Hamby and his brother Rod and a cousin took a ride through Silver Dollar City, created to resemble an 1880s mining town. Silver Dollar City opened in 1960.
After that first stagecoach ride the arc of his life shifted.
“What an impact,” Hamby says.
He grew up on a dairy farm some 12 miles outside West Plains. He was infatuated with American history, particularly the history of the West.
In the meantime, the Silver Dollar City stagecoach was retired in the 1970s because the line to ride it grew to several hours long.
The coach was placed in storage on the property and then disappeared, Hamby says.
Hamby tells me he has discussed the mysterious disappearance with Silver Dollar City co-founders Pete and Jack Herschend.
Their hypothesis, Hamby says, is that an employee mistakenly placed a sales tag on the stagecoach during Silver Dollar City’s annual sale of surplus property.
The Herschend family had bought the stagecoach — as well as the steam train that takes families around the park and into the woods — from Adventure Town in Upstate New York.
That purchase occurred around the time Silver Dollar City opened.
Prior to Adventure Town, Hamby says, the stagecoach was in a barn on a farm in New York.
Fast forward 34 years and Hamby has an interest in old buggies and wagons and makes some money finding props for Westerns, as in Hollywood movies. He had last seen the stagecoach when he was a boy.
This led him to a small shop “six miles down a dirt road” in Clarkridge, in Baxter County, Arkansas.
The proprietor stepped out; he looked like an 1880s blacksmith.
“He was not pretending,” Hamby says. “He was the real deal.”
As was his custom, Hamby says, he scoped out the property looking for other items, perhaps not for sale that he might want to buy.
“The first thing my eyes fell on was that stagecoach — that beautiful old stagecoach. On both doors were those wonderful words: ‘Silver Dollar City.’
“I hid my excitement and I asked if he had a price on that old coach. He said he did. My life has never been the same since.”
Only once has stagecoach toppled
Hamby and family refurbished the stagecoach, although much of it remains how it was when put together in the 1880s.
“During the time we were doing this, I was kind of like a dog chasing a car: If I caught it, I would not know what to do with it. What do we do with this wonderful piece of American history?”
Well, as I said, they decided to take it on long, hard and wonderful trips.
Only once, Hamby says, did the old coach break down.
“One of the horses got spooked. It broke one of the wheel chains,” he says.
The coach tipped onto its side. Hamby and crew — five members travel on horseback and the others on the stagecoach — righted it manually with the use of 16-foot ranch gates from a nearby rancher.
One rule on these trips, Hamby says, is that Journey rolls every inch under the power of horses. It can never be towed or placed on a flatbed.
But two horses have had to be replaced. It happened on different outings.
Neither suffered life-threatening injuries, he says.
They were replaced by horses obtained along the trail; it is impractical to take along extra horses, Hamby says.
Enough advance work and scouting is done so the crew knows where it will camp each night. Ranchers and farmers are willing to host the crew and historic stagecoach.
On the trail, no one calls Grubhub or makes a run to McDonald’s, Hamby says. They make their own meals.
“We eat pretty slim sometimes, I tell you,” he adds. “We go on a wing and a prayer.”
Hamby still farms and during winter is a hunting guide. He has a radio show on the “Ozark Radio Network,” KKDY 102.5 FM, based in West Plains.
His website is stagecoachjourney.com.
The stagecoach can be viewed at Silver Dollar City at the end of each season there, but not this year. The public no longer can ride in it.
This is Pokin Around column No. 40.