Behind the Scenes: Planning the Pony Express Family Festival
By Erin Blasco, Public Programs Coordinator
A herd of horse puppets has gathered on my intern’s desk. She spends hours watching clips of old western movies on YouTube. She has diverged from office-appropriate language and started speaking in the western slang you’d expect to find in a dime novel or comic book, referring to her “hoss” or “cayuses.”
Surprisingly, these aren’t signs that Emily is off task. As the creative mind behind the Pony Express Family Festival which takes place on Saturday, April 3rd, she is fulfilling the requirements of her internship project here at the Postal Museum.
Developing a family program that will be both educational and fun is a tall task, especially as April 3rd is the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express. Each of the hands-on activities Emily creates must meet lofty educational goals, be appropriate for the target audience, accurately convey the historical message, stay within budget, and delight our museum visitors. The overall goal of the program is to spark visitors’ thinking about the romance and the reality of the Pony Express—and have fun doing it.
One of the most exaggerated aspects of the Pony Express story is the dangers riders faced on the trail. Though Hollywood would make you believe that conflicts with American Indians were rife, the biggest danger facing most riders was mundane—the weather. To help convey this message, Emily is creating a puppet show in which kids act out a Pony Express adventure story. The “bad guys” in this story are rain, snow, lightning, and dark nights.
In another activity, families will design merchandise that Buffalo Bill would sell today if he were still on the road spreading excitement (along with a few historical inaccuracies) about the Pony Express with his popular Wild West show. Since most kids have Dora the Explorer sneakers or footwear dedicated to favorite sports stars, the activity will encourage them to design a pair of Buffalo Bill sneakers or boots. (Certainly the enterprising and ever popular Buffalo Bill would have also created an iPhone app dedicated to himself if he were around today—or even a reality TV show.) The activity provokes thinking about how fiction, celebrity, and commercialism have kept the allure of the Pony Express alive long beyond its 18 months in existence while distorting many of the facts.
At another activity table, visitors are challenged to banish thoughts of text messaging and e-mail and make some tough choices letter writers faced in 1860. Is it worth $5 to speed a love letter across the west by Pony Express? Are you willing to wait nearly a month while an important business letter crawls along by stagecoach or ship at a far cheaper rate? This activity not only illustrates what type of mail was most likely carried by Pony Express (only the most urgent of correspondence, usually related to business) but also how exciting the service was considering the other slower methods of transportation.
This month, Emily’s plans and ideas for the family festival will start coming to life. A few generous Girl Scouts will be spending their spring break earning service hours by cutting out hundreds of paper pony puppets and building a stage out of foam core. Curators will be consulted with last-minute historical questions. The museum’s PR officer will mail 2,000 postcards to Washington, DC, families inviting them to the event. The web team will transform the museum’s Facebook page to a hub of Pony Express activity. Finishing touches will be added to the Romance & Reality exhibition scheduled to open on the day of the festival. As the kickoff to 18 months of Pony Express programming and events draws near, we can’t help but feel a little of the excitement the crowds must have felt as they gathered in St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California to see the first riders gallop off on their journey.
Emily’s family festival is just one of many Pony Express anniversary events taking place around the country this year. We are especially excited about the Buffalo Bill Look-Alike Contest taking place at Pony Express National Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri, and the activities of the National Pony Express Association, which include a 1,966 mile re-ride. We hope that, just like Emily, you get the opportunity to catch Pony Express fever. So saddle up for a ride through history on April 3rd! We’ll see you on the trail!