Maybe more than any other story in Oklahoma history, the Tale Of The Abernathy Boys seems, quite literally, unbelievable.
A century ago, in the years between statehood and the beginning of World War I, 9-year-old Louis “Bud” Abernathy and his 5-year-old brother, Temple, hankered for adventure.
Their dreams were not unusual. What was out of the ordinary was that their father said yes.
After the boys asked to ride their horses by themselves from Oklahoma to Santa Fe to see the new mansion of the governor, Jack Abernathy seriously considered their request. Their mother had died, and they were growing up fast. With every confidence in their horsemanship, he laid down some guidelines, opened a checking account for each with $100 apiece and encouraged them to saddle up.
They set out in June 1909 from Oklahoma to Santa Fe and back in a journey that was covered by not only local newspapers, but The New York Times: “Anxious to emulate the strenuous life and carry out their father’s instructions to ‘toughen up,’ Temple and Louis Abernathy, aged 5 and 8 [sic], respectively, sons of United States Marshal John Abernathy, left late today for a 1,300-mile horseback trip.”
It would be the first of six treks over four years covering more than 10,000 miles that would include meetings with mayors and governors and presidents, an offer to fly with the Wright Brothers and crowds ripping at their clothes to get a piece of them.
The brothers would become two of the best-known children in the world, inspiring an Ohio newspaper to note, “The Abernathy boys are beating all records for juvenile fame. They couldn’t have become better known if they had got themselves kidnapped and ransomed.”
Even among the rough-and-tumble characters of the Wild West, Jack Abernathy stood out. He worked as a saloon pianist in Sweetwater, Texas, at the age of 6, surviving a gun battle that left bullet holes in the piano; was a full-time range rider on the A-K-X ranch at age 9, patrolling the still-fenceless prairie with a .38 pistol because a .45 was too heavy; and, at 15, won a job as a top bronc buster and “first saddle” on the J-A Ranch. At 18, he fell in love with gray-eyed music teacher Jessie Pearl Jordan and devised an elaborate escape plan to elope on March 10, 1894, brandishing his pistol at porters trying to block their path, one step ahead of her angry family.
What would bring him fame, however, was his ability to jump from horseback and wrestle with wild wolves and coyotes, sticking his hand in their jaws to immobilize them, then wiring their muzzles shut and binding their legs. The skill bestowed a nickname that would follow him the rest of his life: Jack “Catch ‘Em Alive” Abernathy.
Stories of his unusual talent made their way to Pres. Teddy Roosevelt, who trekked to Frederick in 1905 to meet the 29-year-old wolf catcher, described as “not more than 5 foot 2 [inches], but he is built like an ox, and his muscles are like steel.” Abernathy’s skill so impressed the president over five days hunting in Oklahoma Territory’s Big Pasture that Roosevelt declared, “This beats anything I have seen in my life, and I have seen a good deal!”
The Birth of Jack Abernathy
John R. “Jack” Abernathy was born Jan. 28, 1876, in Bosque County, Texas, to Martin Van Buren Abernathy – a veteran of the Confederate Army’s Waco Rifles who fought through the Vicksburg and Atlanta campaigns before being injured and taken prisoner of war – and his wife, Kittie Williams Thompson Abernathy, widow of a Confederate soldier. In addition to caring for the four sons and two daughters from Kittie’s first marriage, the couple had five additional children; Jack was the baby.
His eldest son, Louis “Bud” Van Abernathy, named for his grandfather, was born in Bosque County on Dec. 17, 1899. Temple Reeves Abernathy, named in honor of Sam Houston’s youngest son, was born March 25, 1904, in Tipton, Oklahoma Territory.
The next year, Roosevelt appointed him U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Oklahoma. The plum job made Abernathy the top federal law enforcement official in the state, granted a salary of $5,000 plus expenses and made him the youngest U.S. Marshal in history.
As their father’s star rose, the Abernathy boys continued with elementary school and dreamt of their next big adventure.
Despite the hoopla surrounding their first trek, the Santa Fe trip had been riddled with near-disasters. Bud’s horse Sam Bass, borrowed from his father, and the Shetland pony mix named Geronimo were sure-footed. But Temple contracted diarrhea by drinking gypsum water and sprained both ankles trying to dismount. Bud was forced to lie awake one night, firing his shotgun into the darkness toward a pack of wolves that circled while his brother slept. The boys ran out of both food and water between stops, and were saved by the kindness of strangers.
The most chilling episode was a note scribbled by the point of a lead-tipped bullet on a brown paper sack, addressed to “The Marshal of Oklahoma” and delivered to the Abernathy home. “I don’t like one hair on your head, but I do like the stuff that is in these kids. We shadowed them through the worst part of New Mexico to see that they were not harmed by sheepherders, mean men, or animals.” It was signed A.Z.Y., the initials of a rustler whose friend had been killed in a shootout with Abernathy.
Jack was tickled by the note: “It just goes to show you there’s good in all men. He’d have killed me at the drop of a hat, but he was honorable to protect my innocent boys.”
As school was about to shut down for summer, the boys asked if they could go to New York City to witness the reception for Roosevelt, which was planned to welcome his return from 15 months abroad on safari in Africa and speaking in the capitals of Europe.
Jack asked how they planned to pay for their train ticket. Temple said it was all settled: Their round-trip tickets were “out in the barn eatin’ hay.” The brothers argued that a trip east, though longer, would likely have better roads and more amenities. Jack agreed and planning was under way.
Almost famous after their Santa Fe trip, by the time they set out for New York in 1910, the Abernathy Boys approached celebrity status. Easterners were fascinated by the brothers’ pluck and by the growing legend of their father. Red carpets were unrolled, bands were assembled, speeches were made. An account noted: “Kids envied them. Women adored them. Grown men pulled hair from their horses’ tails to keep as souvenirs.”
But the boys still had long, lonely stretches by themselves. The pony Geronimo foundered in Hominy, Oklahoma, and Temple was forced to leave him behind and buy a new horse: a red-and-white pinto he named Wylie Haynes. Temple’s Navajo saddle blanket was stolen at a livery in Chicago. Unimpressed kids challenged them to fight. They pressed ahead in driving rain and muddy roads, guided only by directions from one stable to the next. Bud nearly crushed his leg in a fall. Temple suffered a bronchial infection, and a doctor in New Jersey measured his temperature at 103 and ordered him to rest.
Even so, they drove a train in St. Louis, slept in a firehouse in Cincinnati, were made deputies for the day in Dayton and were guests of honor at a Halley’s Comet viewing party in West Virginia. In Washington, the House of Representatives stopped its proceedings so members could hear of their adventures. In New Jersey, they were followed by “local armies of small boys” riding stick horses. In describing the mob scene at the boys’ hotel in Manhattan, New York Times headlines blared:
ABERNATHY BOYS PUT BAN ON KISSING
Fearless Youngsters, Who Have Ridden Here From Oklahoma, Mobbed by Women. Surrounded by Mounted Police, They Have a Triumphal March to Their Broadway Hotel.
The brothers – now joined by Jack, who had arrived by train – were among the VIPs allowed on one of the cutters sent out in a flotilla to greet Roosevelt. Bud and Temple rode Sam Bass and Wylie Haynes just behind his carriage and in front of the Rough Riders in the five-mile parade up Broadway and onto Fifth Avenue and 59th Street.
At the end of the route, Roosevelt jumped out of his carriage and strode toward the boys with an oversized teddy bear he’d been given, draped in the flags of the world, and created a perfect ending to a perfect day: “Here, Temple, this is for you.”
Jack shipped the boys’ horses back to Oklahoma and, after a few more days of sightseeing, planned to follow by train. But Bud and Temple had a better idea: Why not buy a horseless carriage?
Jack was skeptical, but told the boys he would consider the request if they could find a small, simple automobile that they could handle themselves. He gave them one day to search.
At their last stop in Manhattan’s new auto showrooms, they discovered a small, red Brush Runabout. It featured a single cylinder, a chain drive, a fuel pump that would help with climbing hills and a price tag of $485. The salesman promised if it broke down on the way, he would pay the freight back and refund their money. Bud spent an afternoon on driving lessons, and Jack was inspired to buy a sturdier Maxwell touring car, and hire a chauffeur to drive him back home.
The boys – mostly Bud, but sometimes Temple – drove themselves. Clad in goggles and dusters, they made good time and stopped along the way to visit Niagara Falls and the Brush factory in Detroit. Their dad’s car caught fire along the way, burning the boys’ souvenirs, including the teddy bear from Roosevelt. The car was salvageable, and they motored into Oklahoma City on July 30, guests of honor at a reception at the fairgrounds sponsored by the new Oklahoma Auto Club. The trip took 23 days to travel 2,512 miles.
Promoters soon realized there was money to be made off the Abernathys’ fame.
The boys starred as themselves in a 1910 silent movie, Abernathy Kids to the Rescue, “a story of the real wild and woolly western type which will arouse your enthusiasm, which will bubble with excitement and interest.”
They were hired as spokesmen for the Brush Company for the 1911 auto show in New York, paid to sit in a booth and talk about their adventures.
Fred Thompson and Skip Dundy, who built the Hippodrome Theater and owned Luna Park on Coney Island, paid Bud and Temple to sit astride their horses on the boardwalk and talk of their adventures.
To keep the boys in the public eye, Thompson and Dundy arranged an elephant-and-donkey race from New York to Washington, ostensibly to predict the winner of the upcoming presidential race. Accompanied by animal trainers, Bud rode the 7,000-pound elephant, and Temple settled for the donkey. The race was called off in Philadelphia when the elephant was too exhausted to continue.
Not to be thwarted, promoters cooked up an even grander scheme: a $10,000 challenge for the boys to travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific on horseback in 60 days. Bud, now 11, and 7-year-old Temple, would be allowed to rest on Sundays and to sit out bad weather without counting toward the 60-day total. They would be allowed one change of horses. And finally, in an odd and cruel twist, the boys would not be allowed to eat or sleep under a roof for the duration of the journey.
So it was that on the stroke of midnight Aug. 11, 1911, the boys on their horses emerged from knee-deep water in the Atlantic Ocean, carrying a flask of sea water to dump in the Pacific at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Thousands of vacationers cheered their departure.
The boys did not dawdle for receptions and parades. They slept on the ground in bedrolls and, as summer turned into fall, would burrow into haystacks for the warmth at night. Some sympathetic towns would have a table laden with food and drink set up outside, so the boys could keep their word and never have a meal indoors. Others had never heard of them, nor cared to, and chased them off their property when they tried to set up camp.
They traveled through the Rockies, over the Continental Divide and into the Great Salt Lake Desert, where they woke one morning to find their horses had disappeared. The boys spent three days searching the shadeless desert.
“I think we both suddenly realized that we could die there in the heat,” Temple would say later. “We had little food and almost no water left. Without the horses, survival would be almost impossible.”
But at last they found one of the horses, and caught up with the other in Kelton, Utah, where he had wandered in search of water. Bolstered with food, drink and fresh supplies, they followed the railroad tracks out of town. Soon, a westbound train screeched to a stop. The men aboard offered a ride to the boys and their horses, which would spare them three more days of desert riding.
Bud did not hesitate: “No sir, we can’t do that. It would be breaking our contract.”
“We’ll never tell,” said one of the crew. Another agreed: “That’s right. No one will ever know.”
“We’d know,” Bud said.
The exhausted boys pressed on, making it through Nevada to California, then San Francisco and into Golden Gate Park to dump their flask of Atlantic water into the Pacific. They had covered 3,619 miles in 62 days of traveling, missing the goal by two days but setting a record for crossing the continent on horseback, breaking the old mark of 182 days. Their expenses were $2,800; their payout was zero.
Reports noted that neither seemed disheartened at missing out on the prize. The taciturn Bud had few words to share: “It was too hard. We averaged nearly 60 miles a day when we rode, and it was too far.” Temple said: “Gee, but it’s great to get here. I liked the trip all right, but sometimes it got cold, and then I didn’t like it so well. I want the deepest feather bed I can get in this town.”
The boys’ final ride came in 1913, when the maker of Indian Motocycles (spelled at the time without the r) offered a custom-made, two-seat, twin-engine machine if the boys would travel on it from Oklahoma to New York City. Temple had just turned 9, and Bud was 13. The company sent along a second bike, for a mechanic to ride along.
After teaching themselves to drive the 500-pound cycle, they headed out in June, stopping along the way to give demonstrations and visit dealerships. Roads had improved so much that they were able to hit speeds of up to 70 miles per hour on some paved stretches.
In the book Bud and Me, authored by his wife, Alta Abernathy, Temple talked of their arrival in New York: “We were salesmen now, not celebrities as before, and we didn’t have to deal with reporters and crowds. I missed the excitement, but all in all I liked it better, because we were free to do as we pleased. … Although we didn’t realize it at the time, our cross-country travels as the ‘Abernathy boys’ were at an end.”
A statue commemorating the Abernathy boys was dedicated on the lawn of the Tillman County courthouse on April 22, 2006 – a month after what would have been Temple’s 102nd birthday.
Their bronze figures oversee the town of Frederick’s annual Abernathy Day celebration, held the first Saturday in June. Although instilled with cowboy swagger, the likeness of 9-year-old Bud and 5-year-old Temple appear to be even smaller than their ages would suggest.
After their celebrity childhood wound down with the coming of World War I, the boys enrolled in military school in San Antonio. Jack became a wildcatter, and relocated to Wichita Falls, Texas. Temple joined his father in the oil and gas business. Bud would go on to graduate from University of Oklahoma Law School, becoming a lawyer and, eventually, a judge.
Near the end of his life, Temple Abernathy said: “We’d been royally entertained by some folks, and coldly turned away by others, and we’d always faced the question of whether it was worthwhile to go on. I’m glad we always pressed ahead. That is where the future is.”
The Death of Jessie Pearl Abernathy
Thirty-year-old Jessie Pearl Abernathy died in Guthrie on May 7, 1907, three months after giving birth to a sixth child. She left behind four daughters (Pearlie Mae, Kittie Joe, Vera Golda and Johnnie “Jack” Martin) and the two boys.
Abernathy’s father and sister stepped in to help raise the children. Jack remarried the next July, eloping with Almira Pervaine, the teenaged daughter of a wealthy farmer near Guthrie. The union would last less than two years, as Abernathy filed for divorce in April 1910, weeks after the arrival of the daughter they named for Roosevelt: Theodora Lucile.
In June 1909, The New York Times quoted Jack – whom they called “the cowboy Sheriff of Oklahoma” – saying of his sons: “They got all their good points from their mother, who died about three years ago.” The newspaper noted, “There was a touch of sadness in his voice.”
Editor’s note: This installment is part of author M.J. Alexander’s “77 Counties” series, chronicling her travels across Oklahoma. The full series is available at sliceok.com/travel/