A publicity stunt, like no other, occurred March 1, 1939 in Nocona, Texas. Miss Enid Justin, founder and owner of the Nocona Boot Company organized a re-enactment of the Pony Express which traveled from Nocona to the World’s Fair in San Francisco. The route followed the old Overland Mail Trail established in 1839. The original trail entered Texas at Colbert’s Ferry in Oklahoma and stretched west through Gainesville on to El Paso, Tucson, Phoenix, Yuma and Los Angeles and then up the Pacific Coast to San Francisco. The trip, from start to finish, was approximately 2000 miles. Nocona was fast becoming known as the Leather Capitol of the Southwest and this event made Nocona and Miss Enid household names across the nation.
Miss Enid Justin. Photo courtesy of Tales N Trails Museum
The rules were relatively simple. Each rider would have two horses, that were exchanged after relays of no less than twenty-five miles. A teammate followed with truck and trailer to make the switch along the route. And the participants must finish with the same horses with which he started the race. Each rider was to carry U.S. regulation mail pouches, picking up mail along the route. Specialty envelopes and Pony Express stamps were produced. Upon reaching the World’s Fair the mail was postmarked and sent to the addressee. Each rider was allowed to keep a percentage of the sales of these envelopes to help defray the cost of participating in the world’s longest horse race.
Pony Express envelope. Photo courtesy of Tales N Trails Museum
Forty-two individuals from twenty-six states originally signed up to participate. Even Ruth Roach Salmon, famed female rodeo bronc rider, was planning on making the journey. But come race day, only seventeen individuals were mounted on their trusted steeds at the starting line. Sixteen cowpokes from some of the biggest ranches in Texas and one young lady rounded out the group. This daring young lass, Vennie Greenwood, was crowned Miss Nocona. The Houston Press described Miss Greenwood, “Vennie is a girl. 16 years old, with flaming red hair”. Even though most of the newspaper accounts focused mainly on her appearance, the veteran cowpokes viewed her as serious competition.
Vennie Greenwood, Miss Nocona. Photo courtesy of Tales N Trails Museum
The contestants were: Vennie Greenwood and Chris Uselton, both from Nocona; Lige Reid and Tex Frazier, both of Electra; Taylor Tuck from Saint Jo; Bob Moyer from Crowell; Hudie Helms from Dumas; Jack Clifton from McClain; Shorty Hudson from Knox City; King Kerley from Quanah; Marvin “Slim” Mathis from Dalhart; V H Henderson from San Antonio; Shannon Davidson from Matador; L E Speers, George Cates, R L Scott all from Crowell and T J Sykes from Duval, Oklahoma.
The send off for the race was a huge celebration. It was estimated that up to 10,000 people attended the start of the race. Speeches were made, bands played and Miss Enid cut the starting line ribbon.
Miss Enid cutting the starting line ribbon. Photo courtesy of Tales N Trails Museum
Amon G Carter, a native Montague County boy, gave the starting shot and the race was on. All seventeen racers headed west out of town toward the first stop, 45 miles on down the road in Wichita Falls, Texas. The stock trucks rumbled along behind the galloping mustangs.
Amon G Carter and Miss Enid at the kick off celebration. Photo courtesy of Tales N Trails Museum
The first rider to reach Wichita Falls was Shorty Hudson, the cowboy from Knox City. It took him six hours to complete the first leg of the race at an average of eight miles per hour. The last to reach the pit stop was Miss Nocona, Vennie Greenwood after a grueling seven and a half hours in the saddle. The riders bedded down in make shift camp sites near Olney to catch a few hours sleep before starting the second day. During the second day of traveling, Miss Greenwood was disqualified by race judges for riding in her stock truck for a portion of the second leg. She did continue with the race by vehicle as the mascot.
Large numbers of well wishers met the racers in each town, often accompanied by marching bands and other forms of entertainment. Some towns handed out cash prizes to the first rider to reach their spot on the map. The riders picked up more mail at each town. T J Sykes who had taken a large lead on days two and three was only three miles ahead of Shannon Davidson and Chris Uselton by the time they reached their fourth stop in Abilene.
Stock handlers Lee Crenshaw, Jack Crenshaw and Andy Jennings. Photo courtesy of Tom Uselton
All of the contestants encountered hardships above and beyond the physical demands on their saddle weary bodies. Taylor Tuck, the rider from Saint Jo, fell unconscious from his horse, suffering from flu-like symptoms. Jack Clifton had to drop from the race due to a sick horse. Bob Moyer was stranded for over a day near Odessa when his stock truck had mechanical difficulties. Another great obstacle they met along the route was nasty weather. They battled their way through blinding sand storms, rain and cold temperatures, each determined to be the first to reach the Golden Gate destination.
Nurse Claudie Brown says goodbye to Taylor Tuck as he is sent back to Saint Jo by ambulance. Friend E N Dunbar looks on. Newspaper clipping courtesy of Tales N Trails Museum
Once T J Sykes took the lead on day two he pushed himself harder and harder to maintain the distance between himself and the other riders. His strategy was to cover more miles per day than the others. His longest non-stop stretch was 125 miles in length. But even this was not enough to hold back his strongest competition, Shannon Davidson and Chris Uselton. By the time they had reached Midland, Texas on the eighth day of the race, Davidson had a seven mile lead on Sykes with Uselton close on his tail. Even those further back in the pack were still in it to win it. In a letter home to his parents, Lige Reid mentions a telegram his stock handler sent home stating “We are riding in the rear without any fear.” He went on to tell his parents that he felt the other riders were working their mounts too hard and that the excellent care his horses were receiving was going to pay off in the end. All of the riders were pushing hard to reach El Paso which would mark the first third of the race. Some even rigged tail lights on their saddles in order to ride safely late into the night.
Shorty Hudson and his stock men taking a quick rest in Quanah
Shannon Davidson arrived in El Paso eleven miles ahead of T J Sykes. Chris Uselton was twenty miles further back. The next stop would be in Deming, New Mexico. Davidson rode several legs of the race bareback to spare his horses the extra strain and wear of a saddle.
Bob Moyer and Shorty Hudson. Newspaper article courtesy of Tales N Trails Museum
Pushing toward Deming, New Mexico, Sykes, Davidson and Uselton are all contenders for the lead. Sykes reached the rest stop first, but was forced to drop out of the race as one of his horses was too ill to continue. As the bone crunching adventure continued, Davidson led with Uselton close on his heels. About sixty to seventy miles back, practically out of the running, but determined to finish were V H Henderson, Shorty Hudson, Lige Reid, Bob Moyers and Hudie Helms.
George Cates. Newspaper clipping courtesy of Tales N Trails Museum
Even further back in the pack was George Cates. He relentlessly plodded along, determined to finish the race. For Cates it was more than just the prize at the end, it was a personal tribute to his father, I M Cates. The senior Mr Cates had delivered mail on Pony Express in 1878. He eventually had to drop out of the race when his horse became lame.
Shannon Davidson managed to create a sixty mile buffer between him and Chris Uselton by they time they reached Tuscon, Arizona. He maintained this lead as he entered Phoenix, the half way mark, sixteen days into the race. Upon arriving in Phoenix, Davidson was met by Arizona Governor, Bob Jones who gave the weary rider an honorary escort through the city. Trying to keep his lead, Davidson did not tarry long before striking out again.
Shannon Davidson cinches up his spare mount outside Los Angeles, CA. From left to right, Wood Byrd, Davidson, Bill Meyer. Newspaper clipping courtesy of Tales N Trails Museum
When Davidson reached Santa Barbara, California, he was still in the lead, but Uselton was making a run at closing the gap. Uselton had made camp in Los Angeles for the night and was planning on shortening the distance between first and second the next day. His hopes were dashed, when he and his horse were struck by a vehicle in Ventura, California. His horse suffered a broken leg which made it impossible to continue the race. Just 340 miles from the finish line, the Nocona home town boy had to call it quits, leaving King Kerley in second place.
The longest horse race the world had ever seen was coming to a close. On March 20th, Miss Enid Justin left the boot making at the Nocona Boot Company to her trusted employees and traveled to San Francisco to be on hand as the rider crossed the finish line.
Map showing the route taken by the riders. Newspaper clipping courtesy of Tales N Trails Museum
Shannon Davidson had about a 100 mile lead with only 196 more miles to go when he reached King City, California.
Shannon Davidson crossing the finish line. Newspaper clipping courtesy of Tales N Trails Museum
He rode day and night for the remaining journey to ensure he would arrive first. Twenty four long, hard days after the start, Shannon Davidson crossed the finish line. The twenty-two year old cowpoke from Matador, Texas won the race with the help of his faithful ponies, Ranger and Rocket. Davidson’s friends and family traveled the long distance to California to celebrate his victory. Miss Enid Justin was on there to hand deliver Davidson the 750 silver dollar prize money.
Winner Shannon Davidson with his cash prize. Newspaper clipping courtesy of Tales N Trails Museum
King Kerley came in second place, 100 miles behind. The few remaining riders left in the race straggled in over the next two days. The hoopla of the race was over and the remaining cowboys had a difficult time navigating through San Francisco without a greeting party.
Shannon Davidson returned home a hero. He landed a few bit parts in western movies of the day as a result of his new-found fame. Shannon Davidson died in a tragic farm accident a few years later.
San Leandro city manager, Ray Billings, Miss Enid Justin and race winner Shannon Davidson shortly after crossing the finish line. Newspaper article courtesy of Tales N Trails Museum.