Homesick man took oxen team from Canada to Belleville for city's centennial

News-DemocratJune 14, 2014 

Ranch hand Charles Wasem, right, on Feb. 24, 1914, shook the mayor's hand as he set out on his 2,000-mile journey by ox-drawn wagon back to his hometown of Belleville, Ill., for the city's centennial. Wasem made it on Sept. 14, 1914.

PROVIDED/BND

"Chas. Wasem is to get $500 for making his trip from Saskatchewan to Belleville with a team of oxen," reported the Belleville Daily Advocate on June 8, 1914.

Actually the newspaper was reprinting a story from the Galesville, Wis. News which reported that Wasem made an impressive appearance in its town.

"Thursday morning there was a commotion on the streets, and it was all due to the arrival of an ox team hitched to a prairie schooner," reported the Wisconsin newspaper. "The yoke of oxen was in itself a novelty, but the covered wagon, on the side of which was emblazoned, 'SASKATCHEWAN TO BELLEVILLE, ILL., CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION' at once attracted a crowd."

"The driver asked to be directed to a blacksmith shop, and the curious crowd followed him."

Wasem told the paper he had covered 1,200 miles and had another 800 to go.

"Once upon a time he was a barefoot boy in Belleville, Ill., now a bustling city of 20,000 about twenty miles from St. Louis, just over the border of Kentucky," the paper noted, incorrectly. (Apparently no one at the paper had a map. Also, no one mentions his age.)

"Wasem drifted to Canada and became a herder on a ranch, and a ranchman he has been for many years.

"One day last February Wasem received a paper from his old home town which informed him that on the 12th day of September this year, Belleville would celebrate its 100th anniversary.

"Wasem immediately was homesick for Belleville, far, far, away. But 2,000 miles stretched between him and the old swimmin' hole and Wasem had enjoyed life from day to day and had never banked much on rainy days. As he read the announcement of the celebration a happy thought struck him. What a stunt it would be to drive an ox team to Belleville and join in the parade when the great day came. It was a mere fantasy but his fellow ranchmen grabbed the idea and grew enthusiastic.

"Before the idea grew cold they proposed equipping Wasem with an outfit and guaranteed him a purse of $500 if he would make the journey and reach his old home in time for the parade."

The prescribed route included the cities of St. Paul, Minneapolis, La Crosse and Madison, Wis., Milwuakee and Chicago.

Wasem departed on Feb. 24, 1914 and arrived in Galesville on May 28, 1914. He estimated he had more than 100 days remaining in his trip. He normally traveled from 10 to 12 miles per day.

"His oxen were in better condition that when he left, for all the snow, ice, sleet, mud and dust, he passed through," the paper noted. "Incidentally he declares that he wouldn't repeat the trip for $5,000."

Wasem then disappeared from print until Aug. 28, 1914, when the Daily Advocate noted that Mayor Duvall of Belleville and city dignitaries were going to Alton to welcome Wasem who was expected in Alton on Saturday evening.

In the Sept. 14, 1914 Daily Advocate, a short story noted, "With a team of foot sore and weary oxen hitched to an old fashioned prairie schooner, Charles Wasem arrived in Belleville Monday morning after having traveled over 2,000 miles from Saskatchewan, Canada in order to be here for the Centennial celebration.

"Wasem made his way through all sorts of weather and over all kinds of roads, earning money by the sale of post cards of himself and outfit.

"He spent Sunday night at the home of a relative about 8 miles north of town and started out on the last stage of his journey. He was met at the Southern railway crossing on North Illinois street by Mayor Duvall and a reception committee of the Centennial headed by J. Nick Perrin.

"The Centennial cadets and a band were also present and accompanied the party to the market square where Mayor Duvall and J. Nick Perrin made speeches of welcome to the traveler. After the formal ceremony was over Wasem took his team into a tent where the outfit may be seen for a small consideration."

Wasem apparently explained his slow progress southward on the last part of the journey.

"One of the oxen went lame a few days ago as a result of a stone bruise and the trip from Collinsville to this city was slow as a result," the paper wrote.

The Centennial actually opened on Sunday but Wasem technically wasn't late because there were four parades during the event and he actually arrived before any of them was held.

There was no word on whatever happened to him.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a series of occasional columns that will appear on Belleville's history in conjunction with the city's bicentennial celebration.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 618-239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com.

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