The date was May 24, 1849, four months to the day from the day that John W. Marshall bent over to investigate the curious yellow rock at the Sutter’s millpond, unwittingly unleashing one of the greatest migrations across the North American continent. The Place was the rough and tumble frontier town and final supply point for all westward travel, St. Joseph, Missouri.
Ezariah Bigler, inveterate fortune seeker and banjo player, stepped up onto the front wheel hub of his heavily loaded Conestoga wagon and swung himself into the seat. He carefully stowed his beloved banjo under the seat, picked up the reins and spurred his four gray draft horses westward. He was on his way to make his fortune in the California gold fields along with 83 other people in 27 similarly loaded wagons.
Ezariah was particularly welcome on this trip because his singing and banjo playing were well known by his traveling companions and would likely be their only source of entertainment during the arduous, three and a half month trek west. He would often sing and play as he rode along to pass the time and lighten the load for those who had to walk. He often composed little ditties that he would play around the campfire at night.
As the days and weeks rolled by, Ezariah started to notice a disconcerting thumping that seemed be coming from this right front wheel. Fearing that the wheel or the axle might fail, leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere, every time they stopped for the night, he would pull the wheel, check the spokes and rim, re-lubricate the hub and make sure that the locknut was tight. But as the miles added up, the vibration continued to get worse.
As they began climbing the foothills on their way to the Rockies, the thumping increased in intensity, as the road got steeper and the ruts got deeper. Finally, just as he reached the crest of a small hill, the axle snapped sending the wheel careening over the edge of the road and into the valley below. Ezariah limped his wagon to the edge of the road and sat there in the seat completely dejected not knowing what to do.
In total desperation, he spoke the words that would be made famous by Kenny Rogers many years later :
“You picked a fine time to leave me, Loose Wheel!”