"This isn't about me; it's about my grandfather," repeated Barry Prichard time and again during a recent interview. Prichard's enthusiasm for his story - the triumph of Mike Dowling over unbelievable odds - is palpable.
"It's really kind of a miracle that I'm here today because, if my grandfather hadn't survived that terrible blizzard back in December of 1880 I for sure wouldn't be here," Prichard said.
Mike Dowling was caught in the blizzard because he wanted to make sure that his horse and two head of cattle would be safe while he went back home to Chicago after spending the summer months in Minnesota. Those were the days before weather forecasts and getting stuck in a blizzard or heavy snow storm was a common occurrence. A young teen, Dowling had hitched a ride on the back farmer's wagon and before they realized it, they rode into the storm, or rather the blizzard of 1880. Night had fallen and the men did not know that Dowling had fallen off the back of the wagon when they hit a rut in the road. He was in an open field with nowhere to hide. He eventually found a place to wait out the storm - a hay stack. After the storm broke, Dowling stumbled on his frozen legs to a cabin that he could not see the night before. The family took him in and defrosted his legs and arms, but soon it was apparent that his limbs would need to be amputated because gangrene had set in. A young teen with his life ahead of him was suddenly without legs and a way to support himself.
Prichard, a retired U.S. Navy captain, lives with his wife, Joan, in Poposky and has written two books about his grandfather Michael J. Dowling. "We Blazed the Trail," the saga of a motoring expedition to Yellowstone in his 1913 Oakland, and "Bolos, Bandits, and Bamboo Schools," a series of letters written from an ambassadorial assignment in 1900 to Manila, Philippines, for President William McKinley.
All of this sounds reasonably commonplace except that Dowling almost died in the great Minnesota blizzard and, as a result, lost both of his legs, one hand and all the fingers from his other hand.
Dowling was said to have often repeated, "Thank God I'm not a cripple."
This mindset drove Dowling in his ambitions and interest in the world at large, local politics, banking, newspaper publishing and crusading for a highway system that started with his historic trip to Yellowstone, marking the route as the Yellowstone Trail.
The book, "We Blazed the Trail" was written by Pritchard from stories told to him by his mother Dorothy Dowling Prichard. Dorothy traveled with her parents and two sisters and took a pictorial history of the adventure with her Kodak Brownie camera. The entries are short and one is drawn into the "drama" of the adventure early on as one of the cars couldn't make it up a hill so the driver drove backwards up the hill, without his passengers, of course.
The book, published in 2008, is currently the subject of a review in "Antique Automobile," a bi-monthly publication of the Antique Automobile Club of America. In addition, a book club in St. Paul has ordered copies of the book for the club members' next read.
The car that Dowling drove, a GM 1913 Oakland 6-60, is the forerunner of Pontiac. Prichard was able to ride in a similar model car when he visited a collector in Florida a few years ago. Ross Walkup, the owner, took Prichard on a 300-mile drive and even allowed him to drive the car for a while on an unpaved gravel road to give him a taste of what the Yellowstone trip would have felt like to his grandparents.
The other cars in the expedition were a smaller 1912 Ford driven by Mr. and Mrs. James Empey and six members of the William Windhorst family in a 1911 Buick.
The adventure started early on a Sunday morning, July 6, 1913. After breakfast at the Dowling home, the "Yellowstone Bunch" rolled out of town with neighbors and friends waving good-bye. The caravan left from DePue Avenue in Olivia, Minnesota and returned from Yellowstone having fulfilled the dream of family travel by automobile and being part of the emerging movement in America to build good roads.
Michael Dowling's story will continue in follow-up stories in future issues of Prime Time.