Ralph Goldsmith is giving wagon-drawn tours in Independence again
After asking the newly boarded guests if they were going to the “gold land in California or the free land in Oregon” and wondering aloud if these horseless carriages will catch on, Ralph Goldsmith wheels his mule-pulled wagon around to the parking lot.
Across the street from the 1859 Jail and Marshal's Home Museum on the Independence Square, he begins to tell the significance of the jail that at one point housed Frank James, among others. A passerby who clearly knows Goldsmith stops by and asks, “Back in the saddle again?”
The man gets a simple, affirmative response, but also a smile from Goldsmith.
Happy to be “back in saddle” – or back in the wagon driver's seat, to be precise, for Pioneer Trails Adventures.
He resumed taking the reins for wagon tours about the time calendar flipped from July to August – several pounds later and minus the mustache but recovered from a debilitating illness that for a time was a mystery.
“God is good,” Goldsmith said of his recovery, as he waited in front of the Truman Historic Site Visitor Center one early August day for the next batch of riders, and he also was greatly blessed with family support. “The doctor just cleared me last week.”
“It really feels good to be back; it's a miracle,” he said later. “On Facebook, I had 37,000 people praying for me. It was amazing the, the outpour of support. I had no idea I touched that many people.”
One of his daughters, Janell Buxton, and veteran helpers Keith Prince and Dave Eichman continued arranging and driving some tours. Buxton has handled the business end of Pioneer Trails Adventures – booking reservations, taking phone calls and invoicing.
“He's an asset to independence tourism,” Steve Schreiber, president of the Bingham-Waggoner Historical Society, who's regularly witnessed wagon tours going by the group's mansion. “He's pared that with a folksy personality and presentations that people just love.”
“His business is very unique to Independence, and to other cities.”
Goldsmith had driven the wagon to give narrated tours past historical sites in and around the Square for 20 years through 2019. But the pandemic wiped out the 2020 regular tour season. Then, a debilitating infection that he developed in the fall sidelined him into 2021 and ultimately hospitalized him, including several days in intensive care.
Numerous doctor visits and persistent questions – more than 20 doctors, Goldsmith said – before one ultimately diagnosed it as mastoiditis, an infection in the skull behind the ear. Though there’s no way to know for sure, he believes the infection might have sprung from a simple sinus procedure in the fall.
“He said he'd only ever had three people with that,” Goldsmith said of the diagnosis, “and two have died.
“I went septic. If it had gone into the brain, I'd have been a goner.”
Even after he had surgery to remove a portion of bone behind one ear, which alleviated the pain, Goldsmith still had some paralysis in his face, and he lost hearing in one ear.
When Buxton arranged for a family photo in front of the Bingham-Waggoner house, Schreiber said he could see the toll the illness had taken. Still, “He said he would be back in a month, and by golly, he was right.”
As the tour winds through blocks of central Independence, a couple from San Diego enjoys Goldsmith's renditions of the stories of the early pioneer settlers, Frank and Jesse James, George Caleb Bingham, Quantrill’s Raiders and Civil War skirmishes, Wild Bill Hickok and Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers and of course Harry and Bess Truman.
Earlier, he said one has to talk about Truman with any Independence tour, or else, “They'd revoke my license,” he said. “They'd run me out of town, and rightly so.”
It's all part of Goldsmith's style, which locals know well from his historical tours, sometimes involving groups of school children, or the ghost tours around Halloween, or even the occasional Christmas-time event where he fixes up the wagon to resemble a sleigh.
“To a New York person or New Jersey person, he gives that folksy Missouri twang,” Schreiber said, “and it captivates them.”
“It just feels good to do what God created me to do,” Goldsmith said. “I love the animals, and I feel blessed to do it. It's a part of me.”