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Ultimate free-range kids: Two boys, 6 and 10, rode horses to New York — from Oklahoma

In 1910, the Abernathy brothers set out on their own to meet Teddy Roosevelt. The whole country followed their journey.

John "Jack" Abernathy holds his sons, Louis, left, and Temple, circa 1910. (Library of Congress)
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When Louis and Temple Abernathy set out on horseback for New York from a ranch in Tillman County, Okla., they were 10 and 6 years old. The trek wasn’t even the boys’ first long-distance ride; they had traveled to Santa Fe, N.M., the previous year.

The children of a U.S. marshal nicknamed “Catch-Em-Alive Jack” Abernathy, famous for catching wolves by hand, the boys were used to life outdoors. They set out on the two-month quest to meet their father’s friend, former president Theodore Roosevelt, on his return from Africa and Europe.

Their ride, covered by national newspapers and followed by countless Americans, became a symbol of the independent-minded West and an endorsement of Roosevelt’s brand of horsemanship, toughness, and bully outdoorsiness. The young cowboys personified the rough-and-tumble, independent West that Roosevelt adored.

Louis (whom his brother called “Bud”) and Temple left Oklahoma early in April. Louis rode his father’s horse, Sam Bass, and Temple rode a pony named Geronimo. Temple was so small that he had to climb on a stump to mount, and often slid down the pony’s leg rather than drop to the ground. They rode without maps, watching the sun and asking directions as they went. Behind their saddles they carried bedrolls and bacon, and oats for their horses, and they paid food and hotel bills by check. They wore broad-brimmed hats, long pants and spurs, and stayed in touch with their father through telegrams and occasional phone calls.

The boys traveled through wind, rain and snow. As they moved east and their celebrity grew, more reporters greeted them at each town. People gave dinners for them, took them into their homes and welcomed them as honored guests. They drove a train in Indiana and toured the zoo in Cincinnati. Wilbur Wright showed the brothers around his Dayton airplane factory. In Wheeling, W.Va., a hotel manager roused the boys in the middle of the night so they could see Halley’s comet blaze overhead.

People understood the risks the children faced on their rides. “Many followers of our exploits complained that we were too young to be making such dangerous trips,” Temple Abernathy said in “Bud and Me,” a book written by his wife, Alta Abernathy. “Some folks were aghast that two boys were allowed to ride anywhere near that far alone, but our dad had confidence in us. Our mother was dead. Dad was the United States Marshal of the Western District of Oklahoma, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt himself, and Dad’s travels took him on many adventures.”

Difficulties did occur. The boys faced a blizzard. Geronimo foundered and had to be replaced with a horse that was named Wylie Haines after an Oklahoma deputy. Temple came down with a fever, and he was once almost swept away crossing a river.

When Louis and Temple arrived in Washington in May, they rode along Pennsylvania Avenue looking in vain for a western-style “wagon yard” for the horses. They ended up in a hotel, and the horses at a livery stable. Temple fell asleep while Louis chatted with reporters.

At the U.S. Capitol, the boys met Speaker of the House Joseph Gurney Cannon (R-Ill.). Louis later called him “Uncle Joe” and said the three had play-fought.

“Some reporters from The Washington Post took us to their office,” Temple said in “Bud and Me.” “Fascinated by the teletype machine, I watched it type out baseball scores and thought it was as magical as pink rabbits out of a hat in Arcadia, Oklahoma.”

At the White House, the boys wore high boots and cowboy hats; Temple wore a badge that the chief of police in Dayton had given him. Did they want to meet President William Howard Taft right away?

The nation’s fattest president loved steaks for breakfast. Then he went on a diet.

“Let some of those senators and other fellows have their chance,” Louis said. They liked Taft, but he did not quite measure up to their hero. “When we go to see 'Teddy,’ ” Louis said, “he sits down on the floor and plays with us, but Mr. Taft didn’t do that. I think Mr. Taft is great, but you know how it is.”

In Philadelphia, Sam Bass threw a shoe, and an SCPA representative inspected the horses. In Trenton, the boys were reunited with their father. He left for New York by car, and the children rode through New Brunswick and Newark before meeting him at the ferry at Jersey City.

In New York, crowds thronged the boys, shouting their names and grabbing at their hair. Someone took a flower from Temple’s coat. In Mayor William Gaynor’s office, Temple was too little to be seen, and the mayor asked Louis why he hadn’t brought his brother before realizing he was on the other side of his desk. They talked about boots, and Gaynor asked Temple why they didn’t ride the same horse.

The boys also met the police commissioner. Would Temple like to be a mounted police officer? No, Temple said. He would rather be a hotel clerk. “Temp Admires Hotel Clerks,” ran a headline in the Los Angeles Times. He was a first-name celebrity.

On June 18, Roosevelt was to arrive on a ship and be honored with a parade, so Sam Bass and Wylie Haines waited on shore while the brothers, along with their father, boarded a revenue cutter to watch him come in. Once on land, Roosevelt gave a speech, and then he spotted the Abernathys. Roosevelt grasped Jack’s hand, saying, “’Jack, old friend, how are you?” reported the New York Times.

“I guess the high point of the whole trip was the smile he [Roosevelt] gave us at that moment,” Temple said. “ ’You made a long ride to come see me,’ he said to Bud and me. ‘Bless you.’ ”

The boys rode in the parade with the Spanish War veterans near Roosevelt, and people cheered as they went by. They were filmed, and their photo illustrated the Times coverage. The route was from the Battery to Broadway, then across Washington Square, and up Fifth to 59th Street. Toy stores on the parade route piled Teddy bears in their windows, and a fan lowered a life-size Teddy bear from a ninth-story building. The boys wore khaki suits, and their horses had silver-trimmed saddles.

Louis and Temple had succeeded, two grade-schoolers on horseback from Oklahoma to Manhattan. “We really can’t approach this by current standards and fully understand it,” said Joe Wynn of Oklahoma City, who served on the Tillman County Historical Society board and led tours at the local museum. “This time, out on the frontier, it was a hard place to live. People lived in dugouts, and supposedly Jack Abernathy’s first residence was a piano box. It was a hard, hard life. It was a life that by its nature was full of adventure.”

The game Abernathys undertook other journeys. A promoter drafted them to ride an elephant and a donkey from New York to Washington in a pre-election stunt. In 1911, they rode across the entire country, trying to win $10,000 if they could make the trip in 60 days. They finished the trip but got to California two days too late for the prize. And in 1913, they rode a motorcycle from Oklahoma to New York City, and came home by train. As adults, both lived in Texas. Temple worked in the oil industry, and Louis became a lawyer.

A statue of Louis and Temple stands in Frederick, Okla. The town hosts Abernathy days, and the Pioneer Townsite Museum has an exhibit featuring them and Roosevelt, whom Wynn calls “the greatest adventurer of the time. We were the only state admitted to the Union during his presidency [in 1907]. The history of Oklahoma is very much tied to Roosevelt and the Abernathys.”

In 1910, once Louis and Temple had met their hero, they enjoyed New York for a few more weeks. After a farewell lunch at Manhattan’s Astor hotel, the boys made the 2,152 mile-trip back to Oklahoma not on horseback, but in a 1910 Brush runabout car. The 10-year-old was behind the wheel.

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