|JOKER the Donkey (1984)||Les Vilda and Joker (2005)|
JOKER THE DONKEY
Joker was born in 1980 in Kansas and died in 2007 on a farm near Milford,
NE. He lived to be 27 years of age
– owned by Santa Fe Trail Ambassador Les Vilda, of Wilber, NE, for the past 23
of those years.
He grew up to weigh 600-650 pounds.
He was a light brown color with a white face, belly, and legs and had the
black stripe down his back and across his shoulders.
He was a very docile donkey that really enjoyed being around people.
He lived the first four years of his life in Kansas.
He was purchased from Mr. (?) Beattie of Lyndon, KS (an auctioneer at the
Overbrook, KS Livestock Barn in 1984) by Les Vilda in 1984.
This was the year that Les and his 3 traveling companions (Valerie
Havorka and David and Denise Fikar) walked the Santa Fe Trail from Ft. Osage
(near Sibley, MO) to Santa Fe, NM. Les’s
feet had given out on him during the trail walk – he couldn’t support the
extra 40+ pounds that his backpack held, so he bought Joker to carry his
backpack. The purchase was made
just West of Overbrook, KS
Joker received a lot of attention during the trail walk.
When the travelers camped in a town, it would be only a few minutes after
their arrival that the area was swamped with people (young and old) who wanted
to pet and/or feed the donkey.
As the travelers made their way to Dodge City, KS, they were passed on
the highway by the Budweiser Clydesdale Team.
A few days later the travelers learned that the people caring for and
operating the Budweiser team were considering Joker as their new “lead
When the travelers arrived near Wagon Mound, NM, Joker found himself the
subject of a photograph that made him part of a Smithsonian Institution’s
Traveling Exhibit of the Santa Fe Trail. The
same photo became part of the book “ALONG THE SANTA FE TRAIL” - Photography by Joan Myers and Essay by Marc Simmons.
The same photo was used yet again in the March 12, 1987 edition of “The New York Review of Books” as part of the review for “Along The Santa Fe Trail”.
Joker has now gone International!!!
Joker was quite an asset to the travelers.
He was able to carry extra food and water into areas of the trail where there
were none. He proved to be quite
the ‘watch dog’ – braying at intruders (2 and 4 legged) trying to get into
camp during the middle of the night. Intelligent?…It
didn’t take him long to figure out that if he pulled the short end of the rope
that tied him to fence posts, he could walk away.
(Les needed to find a new knot to tie.)
When Joker arrived in Santa Fe, the question came up:
‘Was Joker the first donkey to walk the Santa Fe Trail since the
railroad first arrived in Santa Fe?’
When the travelers arrived in Santa Fe, Dr. Marc Simmons took them to see
the La Fonda Hotel. Upon their
return to the Plaza, the donkey was gone. A
while later, the travelers found him tied to the tree in the courtyard of the
Palace of the Governors. When was
the last time a donkey was allowed to do THAT??
But, naturally, no camera!
Joker spent the next 2 years in Wilber, Nebraska on the farm of Donald
and Violet Vilda (parents of Les). During
that time he visited several schools and museums including 2 visits to the Omaha
Children’s Museum in Omaha, NE. Joker
would go on weekend camping trips with Les and would sometimes pull Les around
in a small 4-wheeled wagon. Several
trips were made with the wagon from the farm to Wilber (about a 4 mile trip
taking nearly 1.5 hours one way) as a novelty way to pick up groceries.
The town’s people always seemed to enjoy seeing him come into town.
April of 1987 found Les on the Santa Fe Trail again.
Joker started the journey with him.
They started this trip from New Franklin, MO.
Near Lexington, MO, Joker threw a shoe.
The guy that put the shoe back on ran the shoe nails too high into Jokers
hoof and by the time the team had made it to Buckner, MO, Joker had developed a
very bad limp. Joker was given a
ride back to Nebraska and Les finished his journey with a horse and wagon.
In 1992, Joker pulled a wagon filled with food, water, and equipment for
Les Vilda and Terri Tuxbury as they traveled about 170 miles of the Nebraska
City Cut-Off of the Oregon Trail.
Joker lived nearly the rest of his life on the Vilda farm.
As the years went by and organizations became more ‘liability
conscious’, Joker did fewer and fewer school, museum, and community events.
By the early 1990’s, Joker was pretty much retired.
Donald and Violet Vilda retired from farming in 2001 and moved off the
farm. At this time, Les moved Joker
to the farm of Don and Donna Strinz – canvas tent and tipi makers near
Milford, NE. Here, Joker had a new
playmate – a horse. (Prior to this, Jokers only playmates were cattle.)
Strinz’s grandchildren loved coming on the farm for a donkey ride –
it was easier to get onto his back than the Tennessee Walker horse.
Joker was noticed missing on Valentine’s Day (February 14) 2007.
He was in the pasture on Monday, but not there on Wednesday.
After an extensive search of nearly 2 months, his body was discovered on
Saturday April 28, 2007. Cause of
death is unknown.
Joker was very photogenic! His
photo has appeared in numerous newspaper articles all along the Santa Fe Trail
and the Nebraska City Cut-Off of the Oregon Trail.
Photos of Joker were used in 2 of Les’s publications:
Rabi’s Mountain Man Guide To: Making Fire With Flint and Steel
(1996), and Rabi’s Mountain Man Guide To:
Making Rope (1999). Joker’s
photo can also be found on Les’s postcard:
“Get Off My Ass!”. A
pen and ink illustration was done of Joker by Dave Marchant for The Santa Fe
Trail Calendar-1991 (cover and insert)(The calendar was produced for 4
consecutive years (1990-1993) as a group project of Les Vilda, Dave Marchant,
and Sharon Mosher.).
Joker was also the inspiration for the title of Les Vilda’s business:
Donkey Will Travel.
The business logo (the donkey chess piece – found on the home page of
this website) was drawn by Barb McBride from a photo of Joker.
Joker will be greatly missed by friends and family - and practically
anyone who ever met him. It would
be nice to think that Joker, like the Santa Fe Trail, will continue to “Live