LIMA — Nearly nine decades after he packed his family in it for the arduous journey from western Pennsylvania to the wide spot in the wilderness that was Allen County in 1835, James McCullough’s Conestoga wagon was again on the move.
“A covered wagon, drawn by an ox team, attracted great attention as it trekked over the rough streets of Lima Saturday,” the Lima Daily News wrote Nov. 4, 1923. “It was a balahoo calling attention to the spectacular picture of ‘The Covered Wagon,’ which will exhibit at the Faurot four days beginning Sunday matinee.”
To pull off the publicity stunt the manager of the Faurot had to find a team of oxen, which, even in 1923, was scarce. He found them in Sycamore. As for McCullough’s wagon, the News wrote, it “is known to be over 80 years old, perhaps 100 would be more correct, a complete replica of the vehicle of ’49.”
The promotion prompted the News reporter to launch into a reflection on transportation progress since the days of the covered wagon. “We laugh at this crude means of transit, when ten miles a day was considered good going,” the reporter wrote, “and we marvel at the evolution of transportation, from the ox-wagon, the pony express, the stage coach, to the marvelous flying machines, which but recently made the distance of 2,650 miles from Long Island in New York to San Diego, Cal., in 26 hours and 40 minutes, and to the performance of the lieutenant in the U.S. Navy flying at the astounding rate of 250 miles an hour.”
At its heart, though, the trip through the streets of Lima was about “The Wagon Train,” the most popular movie of 1923, a year when airplanes could reach 250 miles per hour, but movies couldn’t talk. The movie itself, based on a novel by Emerson Hough, was about a group of pioneers who departed Kansas City for Oregon in 1849. Theater ads promised “Love — Thrills — Adventures — Romance of ‘49” as well as “Indian surprises and massacres.”
The 66-year-old Hough, according to an Oct. 28, 1923, story in the News, “died on April 30, 1923, just as his life-long, burning passion for nature, for the hardy virtues of our pioneer forebearers and for this heroic phase of American history was attaining its chief recognition in the popular success of ‘The Wagon Train.’”
Even before its release, the movie was generating coverage with rumors of romance on set. “Whether a star can be off the screen several years and come back with no great diminution of popularity will be proven when ‘The Covered Wagon’ is released,” an entertainment reporter wrote in an article which appeared in the Feb. 1, 1923, edition of the News. “J. Warren Kerrigan, one of the great idols of the movie fans, will be the hero of this story. Lois Wilson is leading lady in that film. Several persons connected with that producing unit tell me that Kerrigan and Miss Wilson are now engaged. Their romance on the screen should be the real thing.” A columnist named Gertrude Gillman on April 9, 1923, also touted the return of the popular heartthrob Kerrigan with his “melting eyes, curly hair, dimples and lean shanks …”
After its release “The Covered Wagon” gained an early and ardent fan in the president of the United States. The News reported on April 29, 1923, that “the big east room of the White House was outfitted last week as a projection room and President and Mrs. Harding and a list of privileged guests were treated to the first showing of ‘The Covered Wagon,’ a historic film dealing with the opening of the great West.”
Lima would have to wait to see “The Covered Wagon,” although residents could whet their appetites with a film titled “Pioneer Trails,” which was billed as a “sequel to Covered Wagon” when it was shown at the Lyric Theatre in mid-October 1923, more than two weeks before “The Covered Wagon” opened at the Faurot.
Finally, on Oct. 28, 1923, the News announced that “The Covered Wagon” would be at the Faurot from Nov. 4-7, which was good news for the fans of Kerrigan’s “dimples and lean shanks,” but bad news for the Keith vaudeville act, a regular at the Faurot.
“The usual Keith vaudeville will begin three days engagement at Faurot, starting Thursday afternoon and ending Saturday night,” the newspaper reported Oct. 30, 1923. “For the reason that the most prominent picture of these days, ‘The Covered Wagon,’ will begin a four-day engagement Sunday matinee, the vaudeville was necessarily limited to three days where ordinarily it would have held over Sunday.”
On Nov. 1, 1923, the News reported that “a symphony orchestra of 20 musicians” would be at every performance of “The Covered Wagon” at the Faurot. “The musical score was arranged by Hugo Risenfeld, who is general conductor for the Criterion-Rialto-Rivoli houses in New York. Dr. Risenfeld wrote an original march for the great scene of the towing horses and oxen swimming the Platte, and he contributed his melody, ‘My Heart Is There,’ for the love theme of Molly Wingate (Wilson) and Will Banion (Kerrigan).”
Two days later, the News helped fuel the anticipation, declaring that “once in a term of years the moving picture world is stirred by a picture that predominates all those which have gone before. Such a picture is “The Covered Wagon,’” adding, “It is a reminder of past generations of Americans; of the beginning of the famous Oregon Trail, a vivid history in moving pictures of the pioneers of ’49; a theme intensely interesting.”
All the promotion paid off. “The Covered Wagon” played to full houses during its four-day run at the Faurot.
Meanwhile, McCullough’s covered wagon, which brought the family to a farm near the current Allen County Fairgrounds some 14 years before the events depicted in the movie it was used to promote, can be viewed these days at the Allen County Museum.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.