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Two teamsters to make wagon trek of a lifetime

Teamsters Earl Speckman, left, with Rufus, and Joe Dahlby, with Rowdy, prepare for a 340-mile wagon trek to raise funds for hospice programs. Molly Miron | Special to the Pioneer

BEMIDJI – Rufus and Rowdy are finally trained and harnessed and a date for take-off is set.

Teamsters Joe Dahlby and Earl Speckman will hitch up those mules to a covered wagon and head for Joice, Iowa – by way of Granada, Minn.

Dahlby said he has been planning the trip for several years, spurred by a three-pronged passion. Joice, population 221, is his hometown. His father homesteaded in 1910 near Watford City, N.D., with a team of mules. And, most importantly, the trek will raise funds for local Hospice and Palliative Care Programs.

“I’ve been planning on it since I got the mules,” Dahlby said. “They weren’t ready last year.”

He said in his former position as vice president for nursing at North Country Regional Hospital in Bemidji, he helped initiate area hospice services. “It’s been a passion for me,” he said. “It’s such a high calling to care for people at the end of life. Give them a good death.”

Dahlby, along with Speckman, his friend and fellow teamster, will pick up Rufus and Rowdy’s reins April 22, tentatively starting out at the Sanford Bemidji Medical Center parking lot. Speckman, who will turn 80 along the road May 16, said he was glad to join Dahlby for the 340-mile trip. While the destination is Joice, they will pass through Granada, population 301, Speckman’s hometown.

“It’s just something I thought would be fun to do, and Joe needed a partner, so I volunteered,” Speckman said.

Dahlby said he planned to bring a Hostess Twinkie along as a stand-in for Speckman’s birthday cake.

Speckman said they took part in the Minnesota Sesquicentennial wagon drive from Cannon Falls to the state capital in 2009, but they had a support crew meeting them each night with a trailer.

“Now, we’ve got to sleep under the stars,” he said.

They will picket the horses every night, pitch a tent and cook on a camp stove. Dahlby pointed out the rubber tub full of staple foods and the 35-gallon water tank.

“The big thing is going to be feed for the mules,” he said.

They will use complete feed, which will eliminate the need to haul hay along with them.

Rufus and Rowdy are 4- and 5-years-old, respectively, and 17 hands (5-feet, 8-inches) tall at the withers (shoulders.) Dahlby bought them when they were weanlings. They are john mules, meaning gelded males. (Female mules are mollies, although all mules are sterile hybrids.)

“I started them from scratch. It was an adventure,” Dahlby said.

He said he has trained many horses successfully and is a member of the Go and Whoa Harness Club, but training mules requires almost opposite techniques from breaking in horses, he said.

“They’re very smart. They reason,” he said. “They’re unforgiving.”

He said he actually had the mules dangerously run away with him a few times before he got training problems solved. Two of his strategies were to put brakes on the wagon and weight it with a concrete slab.

In spite of training difficulties, Dahlby said mules have their attractions. “They’re just lovely animals. I really like them,” he said.

Although the trek will be without a support crew, Dahlby said he and Speckman would bow to some modern amenities, such as cell phones, a generator and a heater for the tent. They haven’t mapped the total route yet, but they will take back roads and trails as much as possible to avoid vehicle traffic. They are asking for pledges, tax-deductible donations, to support hospice. Donations payable to hospice can be sent to Joe Dahlby, 6740 Grange Road NW, Bemidji, MN 56601. They will also attach a sign to the wagon explaining their mission and collect pledges and donations along the trail.

Passengers and outriders are also welcome to join with Dahlby and Speckman. To make arrangements, call Dahlby at 368-7676. And those interested can track their progress on their blog at