Keeping the wagon tours going
For 20 years, through 2019, Ralph Goldsmith drove hundreds upon hundreds of visiting tourists, curious citizens and school children past various historical sites in and around the Independence Square.
Along the way, as mule teams pulled the covered wagons, he would spin the yarns of local history stories – the early pioneer settlers, Frank and Jesse James, Quantrill’s Raiders and Civil War generals, Wild Bill Hickok and Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers and Harry and Bess Truman. With Pioneer Trails Adventures, Goldsmith became a beloved figure in the community with repeat riders and those who work or volunteer at the various historical sites in the central Independence.
For some winter events, he outfitted a wagon to look like a sleigh as a festive addition.
The wagon tours resumed this spring as public health restrictions eased and places started to reopen, but Goldsmith hasn’t driven a team for tourists in about 18 months. Goldsmith’s daughter Janell Buxton and two other veteran helpers of Goldsmith’s, Keith Prince and Dave Eichman, have all tried to pick up the slack as much as their schedules allow.
First, the pandemic wiped out Goldsmith’s regular 2020 tour season. Then, in the fall he developed an infection – eventually diagnosed as mastoiditis, an infection in the skull behind the ear – that caused debilitating pain.
“He got sick around September or October,” Buxton said. “He went ahead and finished the year out, but he got so bad.”
“It’s killing him,” she said, referring to being unable to drive. “He loves to work and he wants to be there, but physically he just can’t do it.”
Goldsmith has spent several weeks this year in the hospital, and while the pain has subsided after surgery to remove a portion of bone behind one ear, Buxton said her father’s nervous system and sense of balance are still off, and he’s developed some paralysis on a portion of his face and lost a good deal of hearing because of the infection.
Needless to say, he’s not likely sitting in the wagon driver’s seat in the immediate future.
Buxton has handled the business end of Pioneer Trails Adventures – booking reservations, taking phone calls and invoicing. She’s also comfortable driving a wagon for tours, but leaves most of the driving to Prince and Eichman. And they can only give tours when available, which is not every day, even if Buxton receives calls every day.
“Right now, we’re working on when we have one of the other guys available,” Buxton said. “I’m very comfortable driving, but not comfortable hitching then up.”
“It’s not easy to hitch up the animals, plus being able to tell the history.”
Buxton said she’s familiar with the history tales her father has told, as she’s helped with the business since her high school years in Grain Valley, but telling them in the same manner is hard to replicate.
“It’s really not easy to be him,” she said, though Prince is a “fantastic storyteller” who gets into the spirit of the tours.
“I’ve been doing it since the beginning. Before that I was a barrel racer, so I’ve been around animals a lot.”
Buxton said her father appreciates their attempts to keep the business going, and Goldsmith’s desire to return to the driver’s seat and grab the reins helps to drive recovery, she said.
“That’s what is keeping him going,” she said. “He just makes it so much fun with his personality, and you can tell that he loves it.”