Memo to Hollywood:
Have I got a movie idea for you. In a wrap: The father of eight children gets sick, loses his job and goes broke, so he packs up his family and their belongings and heads 1,350 miles west across the plains to Utah — in horse-drawn covered wagons. Along the way, well, you'll have to read on. This is only the trailer.
Oh, yeah, did we mention this happened in 1962. Not 1862 — NINETEEN SIXTY-TWO.
And best of all, it's a true story.
Later this summer, the Gulbranson family of Vanderhoof, British Columbia, formerly of Utah, will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their modern-day pioneer adventure. "Looking back, I wonder if I would have the courage and faith that my dad did to do something like that," says Mel Gulbranson, the oldest of the family's eight children who was 15 at the time of adventure. "It was quite an amazing thing."
In the winter of 1961, Orin Gulbranson, a salesman in St. Cloud, Minn., was bed-ridden with an illness for several months and couldn't work. The Gulbransons lost their house, their land and their automobile. The only things of value that they retained were 13 horses and four wagons — leftovers from the riding stables the family operated as a side business.
Orin decided to start over by moving the family to Utah to be near members of their faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was set to sell the family's horses to raise money to buy a car, but his children protested. "My dad said, 'I guess we'll have to ride the horses to Utah,' " says Mel. "We weren't sure if he was serious."
In late June, the Gulbransons, with $5 in cash, set out for Utah in wooden wagons pulled by teams of horses. The wagons were filled with food — including barrels of wheat from their food supply and 13 live chickens — as well as eight children ranging in age from infancy to 15 years old. They traveled the back roads of the Midwest before taking I-80 west through Nebraska and Wyoming. There were a few misadventures on the road — once the horses were spooked by a passing car and on another occasion a team of horses ran away. But mostly it was a quiet journey with a family of 10 on the road, talking among themselves and seeing the country from a view and at a pace few of us ever experience.
The media picked up their story early; hardly a day went by that a newspaper or TV reporter wasn't tagging along. "There was a lot of publicity," recalls Mel. "We did not want that or seek that." But there were benefits from the attention. Almost daily they received offers of food or a place to stay for the night.
"It was a bit of a hardship," says Mel, "but people were kind and helped us along the way. The reporters would ask us what we needed. People would come from miles around to give us things. Farmers brought grain for the horses and people gave donations and a place to sleep. We learned to appreciate the goodness of people."
Little America Hotel put them up for a night and fed them. One senator invited them to spend a night at his ranch. "Then one of my sisters got some matches and burned his barn down," recalls Mel. In Nebraska, a local rodeo persuaded them to stay for a few days as a drawing card for the rodeo and paid them $5,000, which Orin used to buy another team of horses and supplies.
But mostly they were on their own, camping out each night, sometimes in the yards of a local farmer. They traveled every day except Sunday, when they rested and attended whatever LDS Church they could find. For 21/2 months they were on the road, day after day grinding out the miles in the hot sun.
"It was not a pleasure trip, but it solidified our family forever," Mel says. "We depended on one another and spent 100 percent of our time that summer together."
Mel is loath to compare the family's travels to that undertaken by Mormon pioneers, and yet they experienced some of the same challenges. Three of the wagons had wood wheels, which meant they had to be greased daily just as the pioneers did. During the hot days of travel through Wyoming, the steel band around the wheels would loosen and had to be removed and soaked in a river so the wood would swell tight against the steel again. Almost daily they had to shoe a horse because of the wear of the hard pavement.
"We talked about the pioneers, but we never would compare ourselves to them — we certainly didn't have the same hardships," says Mel. "But when you go by Chimney Rock and some of those places and cross the same rivers they crossed — except now there's a bridge — you think about the pioneers. The media called us modern pioneers, but we didn't. It was much easier for us, that's for sure."
They arrived in Salt Lake Valley in the middle of September and moved in with friends. Orin sold life insurance and the family opened Covered Wagon Riding Stables in Sandy, owning as many as 100 horses. But four years later, still struggling financially, they moved again. After seeing a newspaper ad for cheap land in British Columbia, they sold most of their horses and moved north, taking with them the horses that had pulled them across the plains. But this time they traveled by truck. In Canada, they raised crops and cows for a while, but wound up taking jobs in the local sawmills and logging businesses. Eventually, they bought their own logging business — Gulbranson Logging Limited — and made a good living. The company has about 70 employees and several real estate holdings.
"We've been really blessed," says Mel.
Orin passed away many years ago, but his wife, Mabel celebrated her 91st birthday in May. The children and their own children continue to own horses.
His sister Lily Gwilliam, who will soon begin serving a mission for her church with her husband, John, says the family will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their trek later this summer. They'll ride in horse-drawn wagons again on the back roads of the family ranch in Canada and tell their stories and remember the journey they took across much of America.
Looking back again, Mel says, "It was quite an amazing thing that was done out of desperation. It was not a pleasure trip, but it became an adventure that was quite remarkable."