Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Gillis Family Last Wagon West

These two postcards show the Leon Gillis family with their "Last Wagon West," a homemade 20-by-8-foot covered wagon, with rubber wheels that.they used to travel from Virginia to California in 1961-1962. The eight-member family included six children aged 6 to 18. The entire family slept in the wagon or alongside in their sleeping bags every night. The Yuma Daily Sun on June 11, 1962 reported that the dog that started on the trip and made it 3,200 miles had recently been crushed by the wagon and was not expected to survive. Another dog that had been found abandoned in the desert had also been injured a few days earlier when hit by a car not far from Yuma.

The Gillis family trip west apparently was both the first and last coast-to-coast wagon trip. It began in Providence Forge, Va., on September 26, 1961 and ended at Santa Monica, California 11 months later. The family sold postcards along the way to help with expenses. The above postcard shows the Gilllis Family stopping along the highway to talk and visit with their fans and well wishers. The postcard below shows the wagon in Virginia  along U.S. Highway 11 near Cedarville. Road signs show State Route 80 leading to Meadowview and U.S. Highway 11 pointing the way to Roanoke and Chilhowie.

Leon Gillis reportedly said that he wanted his children to have a broad education beyond the formal education they got in school and to see the world. After reaching the west coast, the family stayed in California for a year. Their wagon was trucked back east and later sent on a freighter to Europe. In Europe, the family traveled through Holland, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia.

More wagon trips followed with various family members. The Palm Beach (Florida) Post, published ann article February 10, 1969 when the wagon was in Florida with a Gillis niece.

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  1. It wasn't until viewing the second photo I realized the wagon was being pulled by horses and not a motorized vehicle! I assume they used horses in Europe too? What an experience for all of them - not just the children. I'm assuming Mom & Dad did a little homeschooling along the way?

  2. I hope the children enjoyed and learned from those very long journeys. Sad about the dogs.

  3. Providence Forge is not far from where I live. I suppose the Gillis family was in the local news at the time, but I was too young to notice or care. Such an ambitious trip - oh what determination they had not to give up. It couldn't have been easy.


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