30 years later, Benson Pony Express continues Butterfield Days tradition
BENSON – This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the Benson Butterfield Stage Days celebration, an event that got its start on Oct. 11, 1986.
Every year, the celebration kicks off with a parade down Fifth Street followed by activities in Lions Park and – more recently – a two-day pro rodeo at the Arena Bar, which is now in its 16th year. Another piece of the celebration includes a commemorative mail delivery by the Benson Pony Express, where a group of horseback riders carry mail from Benson to Dragoon.
Butterfield Stage Days is celebrated to commemorate the Overland Mail Company and its two stage stations in the Benson area – Dragoon Springs and San Pedro River Station. The two served as stopping points for the Celerity wagons that carried both passengers and mail on the Butterfield Overland Trail from 1858 to 1861. The Butterfield was a 2,800-mile stretch that connected St. Louis to San Francisco, with a section of the route passing through the area.
While the Pony Express never delivered mail in Benson, using horseback riders to recreate the Overland Mail Company’s historic presence in the area is more “doable” than using a stagecoach or wagon for the 20-mile trip from Benson to Dragoon, explained Cindy Allen, who is the Benson Pony Express ride manager.
The original group
The first Benson Pony Express riders – Linda Stacy, Susan Crask, Charlene White and now-deceased John Christensen – were part of the town’s Butterfield inaugural celebration in 1986. Through the years, different riders have participated in the commemorative mail delivery, with today’s route representing a 20-mile stretch. With the exception of a brief three-year hiatus – from 2003-2005- because of a “lack of experienced riders,” the Pony Express has been part the annual Butterfield celebration from the time it started.
As one of the original four riders to be sworn-in by a U.S. Postmaster on that October day 30 years ago in Lions Park, Linda Stacy describes the first ride as well as the person who worked behind the scenes to make the event happen. The four would be carrying a saddlebag full of mail from Benson to the original Dragoon Springs Stage Station, riding alone in six-mile stretches as they tackled the 24-mile route.
“The four of us rode together often and were good friends,” Stacy said. “John Christensen was very involved with the founding of the San Pedro Valley Arts and Historic Society, which was just getting started at that time, and one day he came to us with their idea of putting together a Butterfield Days and Pony Express Ride.”
The three women liked the idea and wanted to participate.
And so, the Benson Pony Express was launched.
“John spent a lot of hours that summer working out the route we would be taking from Lions Park to the Dragoon Post Office, then onto the site of the original stage station at Dragoon Springs,” she said. While the route the Pony Express riders currently travel is slightly different from the one Christensen laid-out, it still starts at Lions Park and ends in Dragoon. Christensen had to get permission to cut through private property at different points along the way, including a ranch. After working out all the details, the route was established.
“Once he worked out the route, we did some practice rides, so we knew exactly where we were going,” Stacy said. “John organized everything. This whole ride would not have happened without him.”
The first ride
“The first Butterfield event started with a parade, followed by a big celebration at Lions Park,” Stacy recalls. “We four riders were officially sworn-in by the Benson Postmaster. We carried a mail pouch containing ‘real mail’ with the official event stamp collected at a special booth for that purpose, set up at the park.”
“On that first ride, the four of us rode separately, as did the original Pony Express riders,” said Stacy. “Now that I look back, it probably would have been wiser to ride in pairs, like the group does now. But there were only four of us, so we rode alone.”
Stacy rode the first leg of the route on her Thoroughbred, “Leaf,” in an English saddle. “I rode out of the park, through backstreets of Benson, across the San Pedro River and up onto the I-10 Frontage Road, eventually crossing under the Interstate at Adams Peak Wash,” she said, as she described her route. “We all rode at a fairly brisk pace.”
Once at the wash, Stacy transferred the mailbag to Crask, who rode cross-country for a number of miles before transferring the bag to Christensen, who continued the cross-country trek to Dragoon Road, across from the current Post Office.
“Charlene took the pouch from there and carried it to the old Butterfield Station, where the Dragoon Postmistress met us and received the mail,” Stacy said. “By that time, Susan, John and I loaded up our horses and hauled them to the Butterfield Station to meet Charlene to a small crowd of bystanders who were there to greet us.”
While Stacy, Crask, Christensen and White repeated the ride the following year, they stopped after that.
“I really don’t remember why we did not continue after that second year,” said Stacy. “John was pretty old by that time, and may have decided he wasn’t up to it. I am delighted to see that this tradition lives on.”
Christensen later moved back to his Iowa roots and passed away two years ago at the age of 98, Stacy said. “He was still riding at the age of 90. He was an amazing man and an inspiration to us all.”
In honor of her role as one of the original riders 30 years ago, Stacy has been asked to conduct the swearing-in ceremony on Saturday.
Benson Pony Express info for Saturday’s ride:
Five riders will be sworn-in at noon at Lions Park, with the first rider leaving immediately after the swearing-in ceremony.
Expected arrival time in Dragoon – at the Dragoon Women’s Club – is 3:30 p.m.
There will be a welcome reception for the riders, open to the public.
Commemorative stamps, stationery and envelopes can be purchased for $1.50 each, or $4 for all four items at the Pony Express post office in the northeast corner of Lions Park at 10 a.m.
For information, contact Cindy Allen at (520) 631-5507.
Pony Express riders and routes on Saturday for the commemorative mail delivery from Benson to Dragoon:
Allen Hill on Skip will travel the first leg from Lions Park east to the end of Fourth Street, about 4.3 miles;
Doralee Hill on Pal and Lorilei Redmond on Dixie will ride together on the second leg, from the east end of Fourth Street to Sybil Road, about 3.6 miles;
Roosevelt Blackshear on Muchacho and Cindy Allen on George will ride the final leg, from Sybil Road to the Dragoon Women’s Club, about 10.3 miles.