From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.
The recent story in The Times covering the history of the freighting firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell revived memories at Winchester of those celebrated pioneers of transportation across the plains in the middle of the last century.
Winchester knew quite a bit of history of the freighters, gained first hand from one who had an active part in carrying forward their adventurous enterprise. The man who related operations of the great wagon trains was Frank Asbury, one of the firm's noted "bullwackers."
Asbury was a native of Missouri, the place of his birth never being definitely disclosed. On this point he never was more specific than that he "came from back yonder," emphasizing the point with a wave of his crooked hand.
That crooked hand, he frequently asserted, was the result of a wound inflicted by a Cheyenne Indian arrow "somewhere west of Bitter creek." None ever doubted Asbury was relating one of the many adventurous episodes of his life.
Asbury was among the first to join the Russell, Majors and Waddell outfit. He drove bull teams on the Salt Lake and Santa Fe trails as long as the firm continued business. When the railroads came and the bull teams and their colorful drivers departed, Asbury went to Winchester to make his home with "Uncle Bill" Coppinger, among the first settlers in that community. Is seems Asbury had known "Uncle Bill" as a young man "back yonder." In the home of "Uncle Bill" and later with "Young Billy" Coppinger a son, he was and honored guest until the day of his death.
Asbury, sometimes in his goings and comings, had taken time to learn the plasterer's trade and at this he busied himself as his services were demanded in the town of Winchester and surrounding community. No one ever knew him to do any other kind of labor.
In the expansion of barracks and quarters at Fort Leavenworth, Asbury came to Leavenworth and for a long time was employed as a plasterer at the garrison. Some of his work probably is preserved in the older buildings.
Keeping his own saddle horse, Asbury was a frequent visitor at Winchester. On these occasions the former "bullwhacker" was pretty much a privileged character. Drinks generally were to be had in those days without a great deal of formality and Asbury, when the notion struck him, might properly have been called a drinking man.
On these occasions it didn't take a great amount of liquor to set the old man with flowing beard to going at a great rate. It was on these occasions that he related much of the life of a "bullwhacker," as he recalled it. He told of nights on the trail . . . of sudden appearances of the redskins and the sudden grouping of the train to withstand attack . . . Of the fording of swollen streams and the battling of blizzards on the high plains. Asbury never lack an audience.
Sometimes Asbury would grow rather frolicsome and on these occasions it was his favorite pastime to ride his horse up and down the wooden sidewalks, giving an Indian war whoop and making a great clatter. Once he rode his horse into a restaurant and up to the counter where he ordered a glass of cider. The man behind the counter was somewhat astounded, but he drew the cider from a keg and passed it to Asbury.
"I reckon I'll go out to Billy Coppingers now," he announced as he rode out through the door.
As age dame upon the former "bullwhacker," he recognized the fact he would some day have to die; but his spirit was unbroken.
Discussing this approaching event he always declared, "I'll die with my boot on . . . just like I've always expected."
So on a day of a winter long ago Asbury was beyond getting out of bed to pull on his boots in his customary way. The doctor came and looked the old man over and said he "didn't think Asbury had much of a chance to pull through."
Gradually the strength that had carried Frank Asbury across the plains and back, the strength that had defied hostile Indians, the heat of summer and the blasts of winter, ebbed. Often he looked at his boots standing near the foot of his bed.
The time came when it required watchers at his bedside through the night, and so George Riley and Jim Keaton, young men of Winchester who had listened to the old man's tales, went out to the Coppinger home to "sit up" with the sick man.
It was almost dawn one morning when the watchers said that Asbury was gathering himself for his trip over undiscovered trails. Quickly Riley and Keaton gathered up the old man's boots and slipped them on his feet.
"Thank's boys," murmured the dying plainsman, "I feel all right now."
An so Frank Asbury, "bullwhacker extraordinary" for Russell, Majors and Waddell, died with his boots on, just like he always said he would.
They buried him in Wise cemetery among the pioneers of which there was none more colorful.
One day Jim Miller, foreman of a bridge crew building a cement culvert near the cemetery, acting on a suggestion by Harry Riley, moulded a concrete headstone and Riley erected it over Asbury's grave.