Staged Dreams, Wild Mustangs and An Undaunted Spirit
Fall 2020 Written by Cyd Hoefle Photography by Stu Hoefle and Contributed by Elisa Strain
The temperature topped 80 degrees when the hot, weary and dust-covered band of travelers hit Miles City in late June. But the smiles on their faces wiped out any thought that they weren’t having fun. Ephraim Strain led the small parade sitting high atop the bright red-and-yellow stagecoach, his brother, Yoseph rode shotgun. He drove 6 Up, meaning three teams of horses, as they crossed the Yellowstone River bridge and headed into town.
Taking a wide swing, Ephraim turned on Main Street. Locals stopped on the street and gave a welcoming wave and drivers did a double take as the stagecoach made its way through town. By the time they turned into the fairgrounds to rest for the night, the group was ready to call it a day. Two days later, they would reach the North Dakota border without public fanfare but filled with a sense of personal accomplishment.
Ephraim and four of his seven brothers hatched the plan. The family owns Zion Stage Line in Corvallis and the boys spent much of their youth dreaming of one day driving a horse-drawn stagecoach from state line to state line across Montana. The years of dreaming, the months of planning and the weeks of preparation finally came to fruition. They fulfilled the adventure of traveling from Idaho to North Dakota by stage — a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in over 100 years!
“We started thinking about a trip like this when we were kids,” Ephraim Strain, 23, said. “‘We should do it sometime,’ we said over the years. Hoping, but not really knowing if we’d ever get it done. In December, we figured it was time and really started planning it.”
“We,” included Ephraim and his wife, Elisa, and 15-month-old daughter, Elisheva, Ephraim’s brothers, Zack, Yishai, Yoseph and Ezekiel, and his mother, Heidi Strain. Elisa’s twin brother and sister, John and Shanae Plocher, were part of the team, along with a couple of friends that joined them over the course of the trip. By the time the crew left Corvallis on June 8, it would include 12 horses, two pickups pulling horse trailers, a feed truck stacked with enough hay for 10 days, a shop truck, flagging truck, the stagecoach and all the gear, harnesses, bridles and equipment, and up to 12 people, depending on the leg of the journey.
Covering 80 miles per day on average, the Strain brothers and John Plocher took turns driving the team, using only two horses most of the time, adding more when they pulled through a pass or came into town.
“We stopped every five miles to switch teams,” Elisa said. “We rested them as much as we could.” During that time, they also gave rides to people who stopped to see what it was all about.
“We loved doing that,” she continued. “We had families join us for a few miles and we let a few of them sit up top and ride along.”
“Pavement is hard on them,” Ephraim added, explaining the stress of traveling on blacktop. “We switched teams often and only ran them at a trot because it’s easier on their joints. But the pavement wears on their shoes pretty harshly and we had to shoe most of them during the trip.”
Enduring weather conditions that were hot and cold, wet and windy, and dry and dusty, the band of travelers would break camp by 3 a.m. and hit the road before 6. The guys worked together like a well-oiled machine as they harnessed the team(s) to the stagecoach, making sure reins were straight, harnesses in place and all the gear in order as they started each day. They stopped midday to rest both the horses and people and continued till evening.
So why did they journey across Montana, pushing slowly across the state, stopping for the night when they could find a place to camp, sleeping in the trucks, or under the stars, eating out of a cooler, showering only twice in 10 long days?
“Just for the adventure,” Ephraim said with a grin, drawing laughs from his brothers. “Crazy as it seems, we learned some things about each other and ourselves. You always do when you venture out.”
Back in December when the planning started, the young men, who range in age from 17 to 31, started gathering horses. Of the 12 horses used to drive the stage, seven were BLM mustangs. Barely broke when they got them, in several months’ time the crew had them were ready enough to ride and drive. By the time they hit Miles City, coming into town with six horses pulling the stage, the horses had learned to work together and pulled expertly.
Ephraim and his wife train horses outside of Augusta. Their expertise was imperative on the trip and the two of them led the planning and implementation of the project.
As the owners of the stagecoach company, the family rents their coach for rides, weddings, parades, photo shoots and family reunions. They also do reenactments of historical events. The company started when the brothers bought the stagecoach after it had been refurbished from being used in the 2007 movie “3:10 to Yuma.”
“It was used as a prison coach in the movie and they burned it,” Ephraim said. “The axles were too wide too, so that had to be redone. We bought it after it had been rebuilt.” Part of the journey across Montana was intended as a way to market their company, but it was also a chance for the brothers to enjoy an epic adventure unheard of these days.
“It gets harder and harder for us to be together,” Ephraim said. “We all have jobs outside of the stage line and Elisa and I live four hours away in Augusta.” With a family already started, they knew the timing was not going to get easier.
As Ephraim talked, his barefoot daughter toddled toward the horses. Her mother quickly moved toward her, shielding her from harm. It was obvious the child had no fear of being around the horses.
The 10-day journey, which started in Corvallis, just north of Hamilton, led the team up to Helena before they headed east to Miles City, on to Baker and then to the North Dakota state line, just 12 miles farther east. The trip covered almost 800 miles and exposed them to all Montana has to offer: hills, tree lined mountain passes, flat-land prairie, beautiful sunrises and sunsets and always-changing perspectives.
Highlights of the trip including being guests on the Kleffner Ranch outside of Helena where they were treated to warm beds, food and a place for the horses to rest for the day.
“The shower was luxurious,” Elisa said with a laugh. “I only had two the entire trip, but I think some of the guys didn’t even have one.”
The group traveled mostly on Highway 12, a secondary two-lane that starts between Drummond and Deer Lodge, heads north through Helena and then down to Townsend before it makes a straight shot east, ending at the North Dakota state line. On the lesser-traveled road, the horses adapted to the sound of traffic quickly and soon didn’t even flinch as cars eased around them.
One of the most memorable moments was a hold-up somewhere between White Sulphur Springs and Martinsdale. The “hold-up” was a couple of ranch kids’ attempt to re-enact a very real possibility of what happened during stage runs over 100 years ago. Only this time, the rifles were empty, and the stop was to offer coffee to the travelers. The Strains were so entertained that they plotted with the young men for a reenactment of the hold up a few minutes later and this time, it was for the empty coffee cups and was videoed. It made for a laugh by all involved.
The team traveled through Harlowton, Roundup and Ingomar before they headed into their last few days of travel from Miles City to Baker and on to the state line.
As they neared North Dakota, Elisa decided to go live on Facebook. She filmed the last 10 miles of the trip and shared it on social media, a stark contrast to the period clothes and authenticity of the coach and all the gear. Little Ellie joined her parents for the last few miles. As the final stretch came into view, the horses were urged into a gentle lope, moving easily down the pavement splitting the grass-filled prairie of eastern Montana up to the sign announcing North Dakota. Followed by hundreds of Facebook fans, the family promised more footage and photos when time would allow.
“It really was an amazing trip and an incredible adventure,” Elisa said. “Any opportunity for us to be with family is worth the effort.”