While Omaha's days as a frontier-era stopover for weary Western migrants are long over, a throwback from the period will be rolling into town Sunday, courtesy of a company that was around when chapters of the history books happened.
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co., operator of 45 bank branches in Nebraska, is bringing one of its horse-and-stagecoach teams to Omaha on Sunday for its Holiday Lights Family Festival, a series of events from noon to 5 p.m. at the Omaha Police Mounted Patrol horse stables and other downtown sites.
While the festival events at the stables will offer face-painting and Santa's reindeer, a sure draw will be the Wells Fargo 1860s-era stagecoach, complete with horse team and driver, which will offer free rides around a short downtown loop for interested passengers.
The horses and coach are not a contrivance; horses are still serious business at Wells Fargo, the nation's fourth-largest bank. In the 1860s, it was a freight company, the Western operator of the Pony Express, carrier of mail and documents from the populated East to the burgeoning territories on the Pacific.
Now, more than 150 years after its founding, Wells Fargo remains an employer of coach drivers and horse handlers. The difference is that now the drivers and horses are there to put on a show, as opposed to carry the dough.
The company pays for the maintenance and operation of 14 stagecoach drivers and their horse teams around the country — full replicas of Old West carriages. Supporting them are a series of ranches and trucks to move the animals, gear and people across the country, where they appear at charity events, parades and Old West revivals.
Behind the teams and ranches is a full corporate department with Wells Fargo employees who administer and coordinate what a former company chief executive called “a visual representation of our values.”
“It is embedded in who we are,” said Lovester Law, the company's vice president of the stagecoach appearance program. “The horses and coaches represent a reflection of America. It is really who we are and where we came from.”
Mike Miller, who will appear with his horses and coach Sunday in Omaha, is a typical Wells Fargo coach driver. He lives on a farm north of Minneapolis and has been around horses almost as long as he has people.
Miller owns 20 horses on his Minnesota farm. An outside contractor of Wells Fargo's, like all the drivers, Miller makes about 50 appearances a year in his historic stagecoach, at parades, fairs, festivals and pretty much anywhere Wells Fargo wants to get out the word.
“You stir a lot of hearts with this,” he said.
The arrangement works like this: Wells Fargo owns the trucks and trailers that transport the horses, and the stagecoach, and pays the drivers and their travel expenses. The drivers use their own horses; the Miller team is appearing in Omaha after a similar gig today in Lawrence, Kan.
The Wells Fargo coach teams make as many as 1,000 appearances a year. High-profile appearances include the Rose Bowl Parade and the Kentucky Derby. Years ago, a coach appeared in the inauguration parade for President Richard Nixon.
When Wells Fargo was founded, the horses and coaches weren't an outreach program. They were how the job was done: transporting people, cash, securities and business correspondence across a growing, pre-industrial nation. In time, Wells Fargo came to operate the largest empire of coaches, horses and way stations.
“It was the only way to do business back then,” Miller said. “That is what makes this so real.”
Wells Fargo doesn't mention it these days, but frontier travel back then wasn't trouble-free. The stagecoach's second man often was armed with a double-barreled 10-gauge, dubbed a “coach gun” in parlance of the day, a term still used by some for a short-barreled, easily maneuverable shotgun. As for the term “riding shotgun,” many sources claim it came into use only in the 20th century, when filmmakers started making movies about the Old West.
The coaches themselves are splendid wooden vehicles with a leather-strap suspension that eased the way over rough roads. The proper name is “Concord coach,” as the type was first manufactured in Concord, N.H. Wells Fargo uses a master craftsman in South Dakota to make new coaches and fix older ones. A new one takes almost a year to build.
Miller, 50, said he can operate his team with just one other person on the road, but two make it easier. He said his wife and son are usually deputized for the task. Four or six horses make up a stage team, he said, and no matter where their travels take them, daily bathing, trailer cleaning, feeding, watering and coat brushing take up a good portion of the day.
He said the horses that people will see at the festival are typical of what was used by Wells Fargo stages historically — big, heavy-boned cross-breeds of draft- and quarter-horse stock, about 1,500 pounds apiece.
Miller said the complete picture — him in period clothes, the gleaming coach, the magnificent horses — makes something click.
“It has something to do with the American spirit,” he said. “This way of life that persisted in many places through the 1890s and beyond. It is kind of like an anchor that people can touch and see.”
Includes a special appearance by one of Wells Fargo's traveling 1860s horse and stagecoach teams with free rides around downtown.
Where: Omaha Police Mounted Patrol horse stable, 615 Leavenworth St.
When: Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
What: Stable tour; photos with Santa's reindeer and horses; horse-riding demonstrations; free hot cocoa; cowboy hat decorating; face-painting
Also: Festival events will be held at other downtown sites, too, including Wells Fargo Bank, the Omaha Children's Museum, W. Dale Clark Library and the Durham Museum.
Also read: A humongous list of area holiday events