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John Waelti: History discovered on roads less traveled
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At long last, I finally found time to hit the road to the southwest. Longtime pal Tom, from St. Paul, would accompany me this time around. On a sunny day I tossed some gear into my GMC, made the familiar junket to old St. Paul, and picked up Tom. A few hours later, we arrived at Tom's mother's home in Worthington in the southwest corner of Minnesota.

Next morning, we head west on I-90 through that high-powered corn land in the region where Tom grew up before going to the University of Minnesota and a career in electrical engineering. The crops look terrific in that corner of the Gopher State.

We cross into South Dakota, following I-90 to Mitchell, its claim to fame being its Corn Palace. I had visited it years ago, and we pass it up. Instead, we leave I-90 and head south on SD Route 37. Southeast South Dakota is still Corn Belt, and the corn and alfalfa look good. Then it's west on SD 46, with crop land alternating with green, hilly range country. We cross the Missouri River near the Nebraska border where transition from Corn Belt to ranch country is dramatic.

We soon turn south, crossing the Nebraska border. This is truly cattle country. Only local traffic, no tourists and the eyesores that go with it - billboards, ketchup palaces, used car lots; none of that nonsense. Just rolling hills with contentedly grazing cattle.

We hit U.S. 12, known as the "Outlaw Trail," and head west toward Valentine. Jesse James ostensibly traveled this route, at least once anyway. Nebraska heralds its beef, and we saw plenty of it on this route, and would see more during the day.

As we roll along, I suggest that we pause at Naper, population 84, just off Route 12, and catch a mom-and-pop-type place for a sandwich. Sure enough, basking in the 95 degree mid-afternoon sun is a mom-and-pop cafe on the deserted street. Maybe it's closed. Nope, it's open, with a few local folks having mid-afternoon coffee and conversation.

Tom and I go in and grab a table. The friendly waitress, Dazee - she makes sure I can spell it right - takes our order. More to make conversation than anything else, I ask Dazee what tourists do around here. A friendly gentleman from the adjoining table overhears me and saunters over.

"Have you heard of the White Horse Ranch?"

"No, I can't recall," I confess.

He proceeds to tell me of Cal Thompson and his twin brother who had purchased a white stallion back in 1917, an albino, but with normal (not pink) eyes. They later purchased a ranch and developed a new breed of horses and formed a traveling horse show.

"In fact," he tells us, "there's a museum right up the block. If you're interested in visiting it, here is a lady at the table who would like to give you a guided tour."

It is an offer we can't refuse. After a sandwich and coffee, the lady, Mable Sattler, leads us up the street to the museum.

Over a thousand items are archived, including newspaper articles and advertisements of the traveling troupe that put on the horse shows. The troupe was formed in 1938 and performed for some 25 years.

The shows featured 14 accomplished female riders performing amazing feats, including jumping over cars, exclusively Fords, and riding horses while standing up. The performers were housed in dormitories on the White Horse Ranch while training and when not on actual tours.

The albino horses with the normal eyes were used exclusively on the tours. The breed stems from the original horse, "Old King," purchased by Cal Thompson and his brother back in 1917. He kept track of the progeny. In six generations, the Thompson brothers had a strain of albino horses without pink eyes. In 1936, they purchased a 2,400-acre ranch, dubbing it "The White Horse Ranch." In that same year, the American Albino Association was formed.

This type of White Horse was famous as The Lone Ranger's horse. The White Horse Ranch provided 10 of them over the years for Lone Ranger films and parades. The Mustang emblem used by the Ford Motor company was inspired by the White Horse Ranch.

Mable reviewed a tragic historical incident of the area. In August 1944, an Army C-47 loaded with 26 newly trained pilots, a flight surgeon, and crew chief were enroute to Pierre, South Dakota, where the pilots would complete their training before being shipped overseas. While traveling across the area, the plane was believed to be struck by lightning, causing it to crash on the Con Sattler ranch where Mable was a young girl at the time.

During those war-time years, the local people were sworn to secrecy. A wooden cross was erected on the site in 1946. It was replaced with a metal cross in 2001 to honor the men who perished. In 2004, the Naper Historical Society raised funds for a permanent memorial for the "Naper 28." Nearly 400 people, including family members and friends of the pilots attended the dedication. A granite stone engraved with the names of the lost airmen is in the local cemetery.

It was a fascinating afternoon in that sun-scorched small Nebraska town, all stemming from a yen for a sandwich and coffee in a mom-and-pop restaurant, and an innocent question.

We Midwesterners get a bit chagrined when East- and West Coasters dismiss the Midwest as "flyover country." Along the same lines, I have little patience for the notion that traveling across the Great Plains is "boring."

Nonsense, the region is rich with history. All one has to do is pause, look around, and ask a couple of questions. You will be surprised at the interesting history you will discover.

- John Waelti of Monroe can be reached at His column appears Fridays in The Monroe Times.