The Deutsch Donkey Derby of 1960
May 15, 2012
Fifty-two years ago retired cowboy, miner, prospector, Army/Navy serviceman and Alaskan bush pilot Don Craig took part in something that few modern men have ever tried before: he rode a donkey, bareback, for 860 miles.
It all started one morning in May of 1960 after he’d shown up for work as a grader operator outside of Lake City, Colo. There, he was approached by local rancher Purvis Vickers (the brother of his boss) who said, “Don, have I got a deal for you!” Turned out that Purvis, a member of the local Chamber of Commerce, had volunteered him for a publicity stunt that was being promoted by a group of Dallas, Texas businessmen. Unaware that there was another Lake City up north, they’d already broken ground on a new, 2500-space housing unit called “Lake City USA.” Their real estate developer, George Deutsch, then came up with a unique way to promote it. He wanted four contestants to participate in an ultimate endurance race from one place to the other and, as Vickers added, “you’re gonna represent Lake City since you’re a native!”
The four men who were eventually chosen included Craig, Slim Bloxham (a local transit who was living in Lake City), Bill Sunderlin of Iola, Colo., and Ed Emery of Los Angeles, Calif. Prize money of $1,000 was offered for the first place winner; $500 for the second; and $250 for the third which was a good incentive for Slim, who needed a new pair of teeth. (As the oldest contestant at 50, he ended up dropping out early because the rugged travel was just too hard on him.) As for the modes of transportation, “They weren’t exactly donkeys,” Mr. Craig told me, “make that miner’s sized burros. And in order to eliminate excess weight, we couldn’t use saddles.”
The group was scheduled to head out on June 11 and the due date to reach the finish line in Texas was July 4 in order for them all to attend a two-day celebration of the event (which was expected to draw 50,000 people). This meant that they had barely three weeks in which to cover the distance and needed to average at least 35 miles a day. “The heat was horrible!” he continued. “It would get up to 120 degrees coming off the pavement.” The men also endured a sleet storm for part of the journey and had to push through 12-foot snow drifts while passing through the Continental Divide. They even crossed paths with rattlesnakes. “There were never any days off, either. The donkeys went a bit faster in the morning so we always started out early and kept going until after dark. When the weather was nice, we cooked and slept outside … but if it was really nasty, and there was something close by, we’d stay in a hotel and put the animals up in a local sale barn.”
Don was determined to finish the course, even after getting a really bad scare outside of Amarillo, Texas. “A semi and trailer passed too close,” he explained, “and the burro actually jumped INTO the truck, which knocked us both into a ditch.” All three men continued southward despite the tedium, their own soreness, and at times the outright frustration with their mounts. “It wasn’t exactly a race,” Don said, shaking his head. “Whichever donkey was ahead would turn around and trot back toward the others, so it took all of us working together to get there. They’d bite, kick, lie down, try to roll on you, balk – ANYTHING to get us off. At first, we didn’t have any special equipment besides halters, bareback pads and battery-operated red tail lights, which didn’t stay on for long.”
Emery’s burro ended up causing the most trouble, as it tended to stop at bridges and had to be pushed across each one by passing cars. (Tourists often gave the cowboys coffee, post cards, and cheery waves as they went by. The event was well-covered on TV and radio thanks to Joe Murray, a Dallas publicity agent.) The men ended up sending their wrangler, who was following in a truck, to fetch some shock prods. “Those helped,” he chuckled. “You’d just reach back and touch one with it and they’d step out for quite a while.” The riders often got off and walked, also, racking up blisters on their feet as well as other places from “those bony jackasses.” Trudging along behind their balky mounts with 20-foot ropes, the men would simply flip the donkeys in their rumps every now and then … “which was much more effective than trying to lead or drag them.”
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The wrangler, Vernon Flowers of Montrose, Colo., took good care of everyone and “we couldn’t have done it without him,” Don acknowledged. Flowers not only gathered the burros for the contest but he doctored, fed, dewormed and even shod them. (The critters needed new shoes every four to six days because of the endless pavement.) He looked after the guys, too, fetching them anything that they wanted along the ride from new boots to fresh jeans and shirts. He also went to town and brought back real food sometimes. “The race wouldn’t have lasted beyond day two, less than 40 miles south of Creed, if it hadn’t been for Vernon,” Don admitted. “He even got us a plane ride back home after it was over. Originally, we were supposed to take a bus.”
Don, who was in the lead heading towards the finish line, ended up getting tangled up in barbed wire with barely a mile to go and “practically had to carry his burro the rest of the way.” Still, all of them made it and they ended up amicably splitting the price money three ways. “Did you ever want to ride again after that?” I couldn’t help but ask. After all, 860 miles is a long haul no matter how you’re travelling.
“NO!” he responded adamantly, adding with a grin, “At least, not on a jackass.”