On January 14, 1916, Ezra Meeker's (1830-1928) famous and faithful oxen, Dave and Dandy, arrive at the Washington State Historical Museum in Tacoma for permanent display. In life, the oxen were widely photographed and famous world-wide for pulling Meeker's covered wagon during his 1906-1908 and 1910-1912 cross-country expeditions to mark, map, and preserve the Oregon Trail. After being slaughtered, their bodies were preserved via taxidermy.
An Ox-Team Trail
Meeker described his reason for choosing to drive oxen across the trail in Ox Team Days, Or The Old Oregon Trail, written by Meeker in 1906, revised and reissued by him periodically, and revised and edited by Howard Droker in 1932:
"The ox team was chosen as a typical reminder of pioneer days. The Oregon Trail, it must be remembered, is essentially an ox-team trail. No more effective instrument, therefore, could have been chosen to attract attention, arouse enthusiasm, and secure aid in forwarding the work, than this living symbol of the old days" (p. 215).
By 1905, when Meeker was preparing for his first expedition, oxen, once the ubiquitous haulers of freight and wagons, had become far less common. After some difficulty, Meeker located a brace of oxen but found that only one ox was suitable for the journey. This ox, Twist, was paired with Dave, an unbroken four-year-old Montana range steer Meeker purchased in the Tacoma stockyards. William Mardon, hired on as a driver, joined the company at The Dalles.
Twist died on August 9, 1906, at Brady Island, Nebraska, Meeker's 120th camp on his 1906-1908 Trail marking expedition. He was buried where he fell. Meeker described the death in his trail diary:
"Yesterday morning Twist ate his grain as usual and showed no sign of sickness until we were on the road two or three miles when he began to put his tongue out and his breathing became heavy ... I finally unyoked, gave him a quart of lard, a gill of vinegar, and a handful of sugar but all to no purpose for he soon fell down and in two hours he was dead. This was the death of a noble animal ... he was the best ox I ever saw" (Webber, p. 59).
Meeker attributed Twist's death to the possible consumption of some toxic plant along the trail.
He borrowed a pair of horses from a farmer and, with Dave trailing behind the wagon, limped the 13 miles to Gothenburg, Nebraska. There he hired another team to pull the wagon 25 miles to Lexington, Nebraska, where he bought a cow to pull the wagon with Dave. Meeker had seen some wagons pulled by cows during his own 1852 emigration to Oregon Territory. The cow proved a poor substitute, however, and Meeker finally located a satisfactory teammate for Dave in an Omaha, Nebraska, stockyard. The four-year-old steer had never been yoked.
Meeker named him Dandy and spent the drive to Indianapolis, Indiana, slowly breaking him in. The name was a nod to Meeker's 1852 emigration across the trail pulled by two oxen named Buck and Dandy. After wintering over in Indianapolis, the team continued on with Meeker, the wagon, and driver William Mardon to upstate New York, through New York City, and to Washington D.C., where Dave and Dandy were tethered in front of the White House and examined by President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919).
Meeker described the public's reaction to Dave and Dandy in Ox Team Days:
"They had never before seen such large oxen as Dave and Dandy, and for that matter I never had myself. Dandy was of unusual size, and Dave was probably the largest trained ox in the United States then; he was sixteen hands high and eight feet in girth" (p. 268).
Here for the Long Haul
Destined for immortality, along with Meeker and the prairie schooner wagon, as icons of the pioneer experience, Dave and Dandy were photographed and written about in publications worldwide. During the first half of the twentieth century perhaps only the mythical Paul Bunyan's blue ox Babe was as widely known by name. And the photograph of Twist, although he made only part of Meeker's original trail-marking journey, appeared on many of the photographic postcards Meeker sold from 1906 until the end of his life in 1928.
Dave and Dandy were on display at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, pulled Meeker and the wagon in the 1910 Rose Bowl parade, and made countless other public appearances as Meeker continued to promote the preservation of the Oregon Trail. They traversed the Oregon Trail again in 1910-1912 as Meeker painstakingly mapped the route, later even veering down into Texas and camping in front of the Alamo in San Antonio.
Sometimes Meeker shipped the team and wagon by rail or boat if doing so better suited his near-frenetic travels to promote the trail. By the time they returned to Puyallup on August 26, 1912, as Meeker wrote in Ox Team Days, he was "determined to give them an honorable shrine, where they might do their part in the perpetuating of history" (p. 278).
On November 12, 1912, Ezra Meeker sold the team and wagon to the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma for one dollar. For about a year the oxen grazed peacefully on display in a large pasture at Point Defiance Park. On May 13, 1913, Meeker asked the Park District to erect a shelter for the team and wagon, by then known as the Pioneer Trail Exhibit.
By March 1914, Meeker was planning his participation in the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. In a letter to a friend he remarked, "It is unsettled yet as to how I will go to the exposition, probably though on the state staff to care for the exhibit of the outfit; think the oxen will be mounted and exhibited inside the state building" (March 14, 1914, Meeker Letterbook 22).
Meeker approached the Tacoma Park District for permission to borrow the wagon and oxen and to take them to San Francisco, undertaking a publicity campaign as they traveled to convince people in Oregon and Washington that the Oregon Trail would be the best route for a national highway. The Park District agreed, and evidently reached an agreement with Meeker that when the oxen died they would be preserved and mounted for permanent display. The Park District informed Meeker that he must ship the hides to Tacoma for mounting if the oxen died while under his care. Their pastoral retirement at Point Defiance Park abruptly ended, Dave and Dandy once more took up the yoke and started off for San Francisco with Meeker at the reins.
The Dandy Ox
For Dandy, however, Portland was Trail's End. While in that city on June 16, 1914, Meeker wrote to the Park District Board informing them, "The Dandy ox is unfit to drive further and I will tomorrow have him slaughtered. I have employed a taxidermist to assist in taking off the hide and put it in shape for preservation for which service I have paid $5.00. The best and only offer I have as yet received is 3 1/2 cts a pound live weight ... . The market men here say the meat will be tough, hence offer only about half the price of choice beef" (Meeker Letterbook 22).
On June 14 he wrote again, this time informing them that he had shipped them the salted hide, feet, and a photograph of Dandy taken just before slaughter. The bones, he wrote on July 2, had been shipped to them straight from the meat market.
The Tacoma Metropolitan Park District monitored Dandy's preservation by Tacoma taxidermist C. W. Du Bois, who was mounting the ox for display. This six-week process proved more difficult than Du Bois anticipated due (at least according to DuBois) to the inaccuracy of measurements taken before Dandy's slaughter, the manner in which he was skinned, and the poor condition of his carcass, which was found upon delivery from Pac Cold Storage Company in Tacoma to be infested with maggots and which had begun to rot. Because no plaster face cast had been made of Dandy while he was alive, the taxidermist was forced to guess when creating his permanent expression using only his final photograph.
When Meeker, who had proceeded on to California with Dave and the wagon and was living in an Oakland hotel, received the news that DuBois was having trouble with Dandy's taxidermy, and why, he responded that this turn of events was "to say the least disquieting and I might better say the word frankly to me is exasperating," attributing DuBois's complaints about Dandy's condition upon arrival to "craft pride or jealousy" of the Portland taxidermist who prepared the hide for shipment, and asking for permission to "have the whole work done here" when Dave was slaughtered (August 27, 1914, Meeker Letterbook 23). He also made a written overture to Washington State Historical Society secretary W. P. Bonney (1856-1945) regarding formal transfer of the oxen and wagon to the Society, despite the fact that he had sold them to the Park District.
Dave's time, too, had come. On November 5, 1914, Meeker informed Tacoma Park Board president Frederick Heath, "I had the Dave ox slaughtered today. Mr. Hall, the taxidermist, took careful measurements, supervised preparation of the hide, head, etc. Upon his advise I left the hide spread out and thoroughly salted and will not ship it until next week, at which time I will send the drawing made by Mr. Hall and the photographs. The net weight is 1345 pounds" (Meeker Letterbook 23).
Meeker considered having all of Dave's taxidermy work handled in California, but decided against this. On November 13, 1914, he informed Heath that he had sold Dave’s meat for $110. He packed the hide, head, bones, and hooves at the stockyard and shipped them to Heath in Tacoma via Wells Fargo. He had had Dave photographed and a plaster cast made of his head, and these were shipped thereafter.
On November 16, 1914, Tacoma Metropolitan Park District secretary George Lewis Gower (1846-1930) wrote to Meeker acknowledging receipt of Dave's hide and $94.50 to cover his expenses at the hands of a taxidermist. D. C. Bryant preserved Dave at 2132 Westlake in Seattle under C. W. Du Bois's oversight.
The average life expectancy for domestic cattle, including oxen is 20 years. Dave and Dandy, who had pulled the 1,430-pound wagon across the country more than once, were about 13 when Meeker decided they had reached the end of the trail. His intense commitment to their permanent preservation as a memorial to the western pioneer experience would almost certainly have been thwarted had Dave or Dandy died unexpectedly without a skilled taxidermist at hand.
Meeker saw both preserved oxen for the first time during a December 1914 visit to Puget Sound. In a letter to the Hon. J.H. Morehead, Meeker wrote, "My oxen that I drove to Washington City ha[v]e been dedicated for the perpetuation of the history of the pioneer, ha[v]e been mounted and with the wagon will be installed in the Washington state building at the Panama exposition" (January 8, 1915, Meeker Letterbook 24).
Meeker shipped Dave and Dandy, each mounted on a pedestal with heavy castors to facilitate rolling, to San Francisco, where they made an eye-catching display in the Washington State Building at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. Meeker lectured at the Fair and showed film footage of his trail-marking trips.
Meeker wanted the Tacoma Park District to construct a large glass case in which Dave, Dandy, and the wagon could be displayed in Point Defiance Park following the conclusion of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. He also required that a map of the Oregon Trail be painted onto the glass and planned to affix photographs of the many commemorative markers he had erected during his 1906-1908 trail-marking journey at appropriate spots along the painted route.
The Tacoma architectural firm Heath and Gove of drew up plans for this case and mailed them to Meeker in San Francisco on July 14, 1915, but on the same date W. P. Bonney wrote Meeker that he had been approached by a Park Department board member asking if the oxen and wagon might winter over inside the Historical Society's museum due to anticipated problems completing the glass case and another building to house it in time to receive the rig at the end of the Panama-Pacific Exposition.
At first Meeker was upset that the Park District had not contacted him directly, but Bonney and Seattle historian Clarence Bagley (1843-1932) eventually pacified him. Bagley visited the museum on Meeker's behalf and concurred with Bonney's plan to house the display in a 30-by-60-foot room in the Grand South Hall, well away from the furnace room, since even with taxidermy heat would hasten the oxen's decay. Museum officials planned to have the oxen sprayed with gasoline from time to time in order to discourage moths, a common practice with their other mounted animals.
The question of whether this display would be temporary, with an eventual move to Point Defiance Park, or permanent was still to be settled. After touchy negotiations with Meeker in which Bonney served as go-between, the Park District graciously renounced their claim on the display while still agreeing to bear the expense of constructing a glass case to Meeker's specifications inside the Museum.
Back to Washington State
The oxen and wagon were shipped by rail from San Francisco, and arrived at the Washington State Historical Museum on Friday, January 14, 1916. Dandy had lost a hoof in transit but it was located and reattached. The Park District at first refused to pay for the glass case, but reconsidered after being reminded of their August 7, 1915, written agreement to do so.
On January 2, 1916 the Tacoma Metropolitan Park District formally relinquished their claim and returned the oxen and wagon to Meeker's ownership. Meeker finally signed a formal Deed of Gift transferring ownership of the exhibit to the Historical Society on January 21, 1919. His long letter of transfer included the information that the wagon, now under glass, held letters, unpublished manuscripts, film footage of him with the oxen taken on his 1910-1912 trip, and photographs.
Meeker did not want the letters made public in his lifetime and specified October 1, 1952, as their release date, noting that this would mark the centennial of his arrival in the future state of Washington. The case, a floor-to-near-ceiling construction of non-safety glass and boards that was completed in early 1917, was not opened until February 1963. "50,000 Meeker Documents Revealed After 47 Years," reported Lucille McDonald in The Seattle Times (February 10, 1963).
Dave, Dandy, and the wagon were displayed in at the Washington State History Museum located at 315 N Stadium Way in Tacoma. Dave's informational marker read:
"DAVE" DURHAM OX. Age -- Five years when broken in to work.
Height -- 16 Hands. Weight -- 2375 pounds. Vicious -- Kicked -- Hooked. Fought to a finish. A shark.
Dandy's informational marker read:
"DANDY" DURHAM OX. Raised on the range in Wyoming. Age -- Five years when broken in to work. Height -- 16 Hands. Weight -- 1875 pounds. Patient -- Kind -- Willing. A Noble Ox" (Meeker Manuscript Collection).
The protective glass case was permanently disassembled in 1987-1988 and the oxen and wagon taken off display until 1991 when they were installed in an exhibit space on the museum's third floor. In 1995 the Stadium Way facility closed, reopening in 1996 to house the Washington State Historical Society's research center. Dave and Dandy, along with a facsimile of the wagon and a male driver mannequin, took their place in the new Museum facility at 1911 Pacific Avenue in Tacoma. Meeker's wagon had become too fragile for public display.
As of 2009 the oxen remain on display at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.