Holy Cow! History: The amazing Abernathy boys

Hard as it is to believe in this age of helicopter parents hovering protectively over their child’s every waking moment, there once was a time when youngsters enjoyed far more personal freedom than they experience today. Yet the story you’re about to read was extraordinary, even for that era of parental permissiveness.

You’ve heard of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” They had nothing on the transcontinental treks two brothers made without any adult supervision — and before they were old enough to shave, to boot.

It all started with their colorful father. John “Catch-’Em-Alive-Jack” Abernathy was a real-life cowboy. At age 11, he was among the hired hands who moved a large herd on a 500-mile cattle drive from Texas to Kansas. He helped his struggling family make ends meet by trapping wild wolves and selling them to zoos, circuses and traveling Wild West shows.

Along the way, he became acquainted with a young rancher from New York named Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy invited Abernathy on a hunting trip, and they became good friends.

Fast-forward to 1906. Abernathy, now 28, gave up wolf hunting when his buddy, now President Roosevelt, appointed him U.S. marshal in Oklahoma Territory. So he packed up his young family and headed out.

Abernathy’s wife, Jesse Pearl, died the following year, leaving him to look after five young children while performing a tough, demanding job.

Louie and little brother Temple Abernathy were adventurous from the time they could walk. Reared on their dad’s tales of his boyhood exploits, they set out to emulate him in the early days of the 20th century.

In 1909, at ages 9 and 5, they rode on horseback — alone — from Oklahoma to Sante Fe, N.M., and back. Their solo odyssey was actually “Catch-’Em-Alive-Jack’s” idea. He thought the trip would toughen up the boys.

Flush with that success, the siblings outdid themselves the next year. After leaving the White House, Teddy Roosevelt went on a long African safari. His adventures and plans for his impending return home were widely reported in the press. The boys decided to be there when he arrived in New York City.

So, they saddled up once more. Now ages 10 and 6 — and again with no adult supervision — they rode all 1,578 miles to the Big Apple. “Catch-’Em-Alive-Jack” was awaiting for them there. Roosevelt was so delighted to see his friend and so impressed by the boys’ journey that he insisted they ride their horses directly behind his automobile in a gigantic ticker-tape parade. It must have been the thrill of a lifetime for two kids from a place that had only become a state three years earlier.

Making things all the more amazing, the boys shipped their horses home by train and — at ages 10 and 6, remember — bought Brush Motor Car’s small Runabout model and drove it back to Oklahoma. Alone.

News of their exploits made them national celebrities. Newspapers and magazines carried gushing stories about their incredible feats. They were so popular, in fact, a 1910 silent movie called “The Abernathy Boys to the Rescue” was even produced.

But the amazing children weren’t done with adventure.

In 1911, they were challenged to see if they could ride horseback from New York to San Francisco in 60 days or less without sleeping or eating indoors. A $10,000 prize (nearly $325,000 today) would be theirs if they could pull it off.

They took the dare and planned the trip with meticulous attention to detail. When Louie and Temple finally rode into the City by the Bay, 62 days had passed.

Though they missed out on the prize, they at least had the consolation of having set a record for transcontinental horse travel.

But horses were falling out of favor by then and for their grand finale, the brothers got with the times. In 1913, they bought an Indian Motorcycle and, accompanied by their stepbrother Anton, drove it from Oklahoma to New York. With paved roads still a distant dream, it was a remarkable accomplishment, made all the more so by the fact that Louie was still only 14 and Temple was 10.

And then the Abernathy Boys’ 15 minutes of fame was over as suddenly as it had begun. They were quickly forgotten as America rushed into the pell-mell frenzy of the Roaring Twenties.

That suited them just fine. Louie became a lawyer and settled in Wichita Falls, Texas, where he passed away at age 79 in 1979. Temple worked in the oil and natural gas fields and was 82 when he died in 1986.

Yet their legacy lives on. Two brothers who crossed America multiple times in an age long before interstate highways — and at an age where they couldn’t legally drive yet, too.

Holy Cow! History is written by novelist, former TV journalist and diehard history buff J. Mark Powell. Have a historic mystery that needs solving? A forgotten moment worth remembering? Please send it to [email protected].