How "Jackass Annie" Ran Away From Home And Saved Her Own Life
The touching and true story of a woman, a horse and a little doggie who made a 7000 mile journey of a lifetime and lived to tell the tale.
Mesannie Wilkins (Annie) was 63 when her doctor told her she had 2 years to live. She’d just recovered from pneumonia when they found a spot on her lung. The doctor wasn’t sure if it was cancer or tuberculosis, but either way the prognosis wasn’t good.
Couple of years if she took it easy, he said.
He knew Annie was dirt poor, so he offered to get her into a state funded retirement home. Annie didn’t like to be rude to anyone offering help, so she politely told the doctor she’d think about it.
Then Annie and the doctor got in his big fancy Packard and he drove her back to her farm to get her affairs in order. As she got out of his car, he gently told her she’d worked real hard. Maybe it’s time to rest.
Funny how fast everything can change…
When the doctor pulled away, the boys from the neighboring farm brought her little doggie back. Depeche Toi, a silly nickname the boys came up with and it stuck. French for “hurry up,” it suited the little brown and black bundle of energy
Annie kissed his little head with tears in her eyes. Two years. She opened the door of her house and stood there, looking around.
It wasn’t even a house. A shack, really. The farm house her granddaddy built had burned down years ago. Her house was an old outbuilding for storage back in her grandfather’s day. Wind blowing through the cracks and heated by a little pot belly stove. She didn’t have electricity and pumped water from a well.
Funny how fast everything can change. Couple months ago, everything had been looking up. As winter blew in, she was already excited for the coming spring. 1952 had been a great year with a bountiful harvest that allowed her and Uncle Waldo to invest in some heifers, piglets and a bunch of hens.
Next spring and summer, there’d be cattle, pigs and eggs to sell on top of the grain. All they had to do was make it through the harsh Maine winter.
Uncle Waldo couldn’t help much, he was 85 and mostly blind. So Annie broke the ice, hauled the grain, fed the animals and worked sunup to sundown to keep everyone fed even as she felt herself getting sick.
Breathing got harder. Felt like ice shards when she inhaled. She struggled to walk. Falling in the snow. Dragging herself back to the house.
Then the blizzard hit.
After the blizzard, the neighbor boys hurried over on snowshoes to check on Annie and Waldo. One look and one of the brothers headed to the main road a mile away to get an ambulance while the other fed the animals that were waiting, hungry. Annie had pneumonia.
They had to sell everything to pay for medical care. The cattle, the pigs, the hens. If that wasn’t bad enough, Uncle Waldo didn’t make it. He quietly slipped away while Annie was battling pneumonia.
She was entirely alone in the world. With 2 years to live.
She’d never really been conventional
Working herself to death had never been her goal in life. She’d only gone to school until sixth grade. Then she had to quit school to help run the farm, working sunup to sundown alongside her parents.
Tiny little farm in Maine, a mile off the main road. It was her grandfather’s farm and then her parents’. She grew up watching her family work sunrise to sunset, year after year. Clawing out a living from the land.
That wasn’t the life she wanted so she ran away from home the minute she got old enough. Joined the circus as a bareback rider. But then the letter found her. Her mother was sick. So she went home.
Uncle Waldo wasn’t really her uncle. He’d come to the farm as a hired hand to work alongside her father. Put his back and heart into that old farm. After her dad died, Waldo and her mom eventually became a couple.
For a while, the farm was doing so poorly Annie and her mother got jobs in a shoe factory to keep the farm afloat. Then her mother got sick and died.
Finally, it was just Uncle Waldo and Annie. They were so poor Annie rode a mule to town to work to earn the money to support the farm. That’s when the local folk started calling her Jackass Annie.
She didn’t act like women were supposed to. Didn’t dress like a lady. Too loud. Too brash. Divorced twice, too. Kicked the last one out when he wanted her to sign over the farm. Not happening, she said. Her mother left it to her.
Annie was never part of “polite” society.
But then, dirt poor people never are.
If you enjoy this publication, please consider pledging your support. Thanks!
The journey of a lifetime…
As Annie stood in her little shack, her little doggie running in circles around her feet, here’s what she couldn’t help thinking about. Her mother. Working her fingers to the damn bone, saying she’s going to go see the Pacific Ocean one day.
Well, she never did. Never had the chance or the money. Worked herself to death on that farm until they buried her in the family plot.
Damn it all, she was going to see the Pacific Ocean for her mother if it was the last thing she did in this life.
So Annie mortgaged her farm and used the money to buy a beautiful retired race horse named Tarzan. In November 1954, she pulled on men’s dungarees, packed a few clothes and set out for California with her horse and her little doggie.
She had nothing but a bedroll and some clothes. She hung pails of feed from the horse using twine and hoped people across America would be good to an old woman travelling by herself to fulfill her dead mother’s only wish.
If you look up Annie Wilkins on the internet, here’s what you’ll read.
People were good to her. They offered her food and a place to sleep. Small towns let her sleep in the local jail. Hotels gave her a free room. Farm families opened their doors and gave her food and shelter and feed for the horse. Some people gave her money and some kind farmer even gave her a spare horse.
Day after day she rode, through good weather and bad. Sometimes her doggie rode on her horse and other times he trotted beside on a leash that used to be her clothesline. Over mountains and through valleys. A man in Arkansas fell in love with her and proposed marriage. She kept going.
Living on the farm, she had no idea how many cars were on the streets in the big cities. They spooked her horse terribly. She got interviewed by journalists who were fascinated by the woman who traveled thousands of miles on horseback.
It took her a year and 23 days, but she did it. When she finally stood in front of the Pacific ocean in utter awe, she said a prayer for her mama.
Here’s the part that will melt your heart…
When Annie set out, she saw herself as a dying woman. Slumped in her saddle, she trudged along, hoping strangers would be kind to a poor old woman with no money and not much life left to live, either.
She mocked herself, calling herself an old frog on a lily pad. Foolish old woman. Chasing a dream and depending on charity from strangers along the way.
But as the miles went by, it wasn’t just the farm she left behind.
People looked at her in utter amazement. They were in awe of the journey and called her an inspiration. An utter inspiration! Not a single person looked at her like she was just old “Jackass Annie” ignoring doctor’s orders.
As the miles rolled by, she sat up straighter in the saddle. She didn’t mock herself anymore and began to feel honest to goodness pride. She was really doing this thing. People cheered her on. It was the journey of her lifetime!
Journalists and newspaper people met her riding into town, asking to buy her lunch and write her story. She started selling self portraits and postcards to fund her own journey — and people bought them! Asked her to sign them.
In one interview, she told the journalist her second husband left because she wouldn’t deed him the farm. Said she should have given him the damn thing and rode away years ago. Best thing she ever did.
In Missouri, a school asked her to speak to the students about her journey and the newspapers came to cover it. She was an inspirational speaker. Her!
When she stood in front of the Pacific Ocean, she wept with pride and joy.
She was not the same woman who’d left the farm over a year ago.
The doctor was wrong…
Annie spent two years in California. She had dinner with Art Linkletter and became a mini celebrity. An inspiration. All over the newspapers.
Two years later, she went back to Maine. Not to the farm. The government took it for back taxes anyway, but she didn’t even care. She just stopped in Minot Maine for a visit. People barely recognized her, all dressed up so fine. Those that did still yelled hey look, it’s Jackass Annie. So Annie just kept on going.
“When Mesannie returned to Minot, she was wearing a dress, a hat, and gloves — Ma didn’t even recognize her!” — Local Minot Resident (source)
Annie moved in with her good friend, Mina Titus Sawyer, up in Whitefield Maine. Her and Mina had been friends for years.
A decade later, Annie finally decided to turn her journal, photos and postcards into a book. Because darn it all, why couldn’t she be an author? She’d traveled 7000 miles on horseback, by herself. So she started writing.
Her book was published in 1967. Last of the Saddle Tramps, she called it. And there was her name, right on the cover. She was a published author!
Turned out, the doctor was wrong. Annie Wilkins lived for 24 years beyond the original prognosis he’d given her.
Instead of settling into a state run retirement home just waiting to die, she’d travelled thousands of miles on horseback, saw the Pacific Ocean, and published a book.
Annie Wilkins died in February 1980 just shy of 89 years of age. She was buried in her family plot in Maple Grove Cemetery in Minot, ME.
“That’s the thing about the future. You can’t get there by imagining. You can only get there one step at a time, and the hardest part is taking that first step.” — Annie Wilkins
What I like about your writing is that you always introduce me to people I have never heard of before (vis. the subject of this article) and/or put new and unique spins on a lot of old ideas.
Well, I guess her physician with the poor prognosis for her life expectancy should have been called the “jackass doctor.”
Annie’s dream gave her the impetus to keep moving...and in doing so she found her voice!
Great story. Love it!