Miss Annie Wilkins From Maine
A Note from the Long Riders’ Guild - Historically the world
of equestrian travel has contained an exciting mixture of unique men and
women. Some are adventurers seeking danger from the back of their horses.
Others are travelers discovering the beauties of the countryside they slowly
ride through. A few are searching for inner truths while cantering across
desolate parts of the planet. Then there is Messanie Wilkins. She was acting
on orders from the Lord!
In 1954, at the age of 63, Wilkins had plenty to worry about. A destitute spinster in ill health, Wilkins had been told she had less than two years left to live, provided she spent them quietly. With no family ties, no money, and no future in her native Maine, Wilkins decided to take a daring step. Using the money she had made from selling homemade pickles, Wilkins bought a tired summer camp horse and made preparations to ride from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific Ocean. Yet before leaving she flipped a coin, asking God to direct her to go or not. When the coin came up heads several times in a row, one of America’s most unlikely equestrian heroines set off.
What followed was one of the twentieth century's most remarkable equestrian journeys. Accompanied by her faithful horse, Tarzan, Wilkins suffered through a host of obstacles including blistering deserts and freezing snow storms, yet never lost faith that she would complete her 7,000 mile odyssey.
The following Oral History interview was conducted by academics in Pennsylvania, who interviewed eyewitnesses that met the amazing Messanie.
One of the first interviews in the Oral History Project turned up the fascinating story of Miss Annie Wilkins from Maine. Chairperson Sara Lee Beard Houston interviewed Eleanor Flaherty who owned the Chadds Ford Hotel (Now the Chadds Ford Inn) in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Eleanor Flaherty told this story which took place in 1956 when Miss Wilkins was 64 years old. Eleanor Flaherty was out in front of the Hotel on the porch one afternoon when she heard a commotion going on down at the corner. Miss Wilkins had gone past the Hotel on horseback with her dog trotting along with them. She had come from Maine. Eleanor Flaherty says,
It was late in the afternoon and I did not want her to go up the highway because it was all hills to Kennett Square. I asked this little girl to go down there to “George’s” [now “Hank’s Place”] and tell the lady with the horse to come back here to the hotel. She came back. I said I think you better stay here with us tonight because it is too dangerous for you to go up the hills. Where she was going was to go to the police station and stay. They took in a lot of people that were on the road. They would let them sleep in there. Somebody took the horse up to the barn and they bedded it down.
She came in. I said, ‘You need to rest.’ She was quite a character. She lived on a farm in Maine all her life, never got very far away from it. She lived with her uncle and her father who were brothers. They had a pig farm. That’s all she ever knew. When the men died, she, at the age of 64, decided to sell everything she had and take a trip. She said the only thing she had to go on was her horse. That’s how she arrived at our place.
She started off the next day but she didn’t have the cinch tight enough and a truck came along and skittered the horse and she slipped and there she was. My husband had gone up there and he came back and he said, ‘She’s not going to be able to get organized up there because she has to get up on a platform to get onto the horse.’ I don’t know how she made out other places. I said bring her back because she was shook up. I was afraid that she might be hurt in some way. They brought her back and put the horse in the barn and she stayed again. The first night she was there Andy and Betsy [Wyeth] came and they bought her dinner. She didn’t know who she was talking to. She was telling Andy all. Up in Maine there were a lot of artists come there in the summer time. She had no idea who she was talking to.
He [Andy] got a big kick out of her. She could drink. He asked her if she wanted a drink and she said, ‘Oh, I would like one’ and tossed it down like a sailor. I thought, well more power to her, she needs it. It was really something. She stayed overnight. The next day we got her together again and she went on her way. In the meantime, the two nights she was here there were people here from different newspapers. News travels, really, really travels. They had come to take pictures and talk. She talked to them. She was a rough outdoorsey woodswoman. She never knew anything but a pig farm and her life in Maine.
This interview was originally published by, and appears courtesy of, the Chadds Ford Historical Society. To learn more about their important historical work, please visit www.chaddsfordhistory.org
To learn more about Messanie’s remarkable journey across the United States, please review her exciting book, Last of the Saddle Tramps, which may be viewed on this page of the Horse Travel Books Collection.
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