Lyle Woods and the Mountain Grove Express
When you hear the words "Pony Express," you don't usually think of a pony like this one. It's an eight-cylinder one-ton Ford with an 8x8x6 box mounted behind the cab and a hoist on the back for lifting heavy freight onto the bed and back to the ground at the end of the trip. Canvas-covered openings at the front are for hauling lengths of pipe too long to fit in the box.
It's Lyle Woods' pony, which most of his customers know by another name: Mountain Grove Express. He drives it Monday through Friday in all kinds of weather, every week of the year, from Springfield 70+ miles east and back again. He makes no stops along the way, until he gets to Mountain Grove, where most of his customers live. There, he delivers goods of all kinds that he has picked up the day before in Springfield, and takes on other goods to be carried back to Springfield.
Lyle said he never knows which of his customers he'll be serving until they call in a request. "I don't really have an accurate count of the customers we have, because we pick up new ones all the time. I guess at one time or another I've delivered things to just about everybody." Over the 20 years he has driven his pony express route, that could add up to hundreds of customers, and thousands of stops. "I like doing it. It's a good job, but it's a hard job. UPS and Federal Express have size and weight limits on what they haul," he said with a grin. "I just haul whatever I can get in the truck."
The most unusual freight
Some operators who think driving a pony express might be easy work, don't last long at it, he said. "If they're not willing to do the work, they come and go pretty quick," he said. His most unusual freight? He thinks about it a while. "I guess the most unusual would be a skunk's head." He sees my expression and laughs, then explains. "Sometimes the vet calls and I have to pick up an animal that has to be tested at the state lab for rabies. It's all packed up and you can't see it. But you know it's there."
During the course of his morning's work, Lyle makes stops in and around the towns of Mountain Grove and Norwood. When all freight has been delivered and all pick-ups made for items with a Springfield destination, he heads west, pulling into Springfield around 1 p.m. He checks in with his dispatcher and picks up call-in orders, then heads out on the Springfield half of his route. The historical significance of his profession is not lost on him. " I got into this back in 1980, when some of the expresses were run by the people, or the sons of the people, who first started them. I knew some of them. These expresses going out to each town started in Springfield." He says he doesn't know anybody who knows how long ago. So we don't know that, either, or whether they started out with horses and wagons, or with early trucks. It leaves us to wonder if they may have gone by the same routes as today, but with very different ponies.