Friday, March 9th, 2012
Montgomery competed in the Iditarod
By Robb Hemmelgarn
In his 86 years of life and counting, there haven't been many endeavors that Don Montgomery wasn't afraid to attempt.
As an Ivy League educated attorney, Montgomery served as an assistant Attorney General for the State of Ohio and was later elected as Mercer County's Prosecuting Attorney before enjoying a career in private law practice and later as the president and CEO of the Celina Insurance Group.
With a seemingly endless resume of accolades and accomplishments, perhaps the most intriguing tidbit in Montgomery's life to this point was one that spawned from a childhood dream and unfolded during a five-year span during the mid-1970s.
Born in Celina in 1925, Donald West Montgomery spent his boyhood afternoons in the mid-1930s thumbing from cover to cover through National Geographic Magazines and daydreaming about corners of the globe which were far more fascinating than Mercer County.
"Dad always enjoyed reading about Admiral Richard Byrd and his expeditions throughout the South Pole," explained his oldest son, Bill Montgomery. "Exploring in the poles always interested Dad, especially the mode of transportation they used - dogs and sleds."
The curiosity sparked Montgomery to develop a makeshift sled in his parents' backyard on 672 North Main Street, and with a harness he constructed from scrap leather, he tied down his two dogs - one of which was a beagle - and off he rode.
"He managed to train those two little dogs to mush and pull him around the yard," chuckled the younger Montgomery. "After a few years, he sort of outgrew doing this and didn't really pick up the interest again for nearly 40 years."
In 1973, a group of Alaskan men headed by Joe Redington Sr., diagramed the final touches on what had been a 10-year vision of a long-distance sled across the wilderness of the Alaskan frontier. Last Saturday, the 39th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race kicked off in Anchorage, Alaska, and over the course of the this week, 49 men and 17 women, along with their teams of dogs, will embark on the grueling 1,100-mile trek to Nome.
"Three years after that first race, I went along with my father and a veterinarian from Kidron (Ohio) to check out the lay of the land in Alaska. Dad decided that he had something to prove in that the native Alaskans weren't the only ones who could successfully conquer this trail," remarked Bill Montgomery. "We took a brand new Chevy truck up there over 4,100 miles and then drove another 1,000 miles of gravel roads before ending up at Joe Redington's personal cabin, which was a Quonset hut with a stove for heat and an outhouse. The Northern Lights, wild horses and moose we observed along the way were truly amazing. The country there is absolutely beautiful. We stayed in that little hut for a month and when we returned, that new truck had four bald tires, a shattered windshield and cracked headlights. Despite that, it was an unforgettable adventure."
Don Montgomery returned to Mercer County with the seed of adventure deeply planted in his mind and was ready to return a year later. With a sponsorship from IAMS dog food company, Montgomery arrived back in Alaska in 1976 with a team of home-bred Alaskan Huskies.
Dubbed as the "Buckeye Bullet" by his fellow mushers, Montgomery embarked on a journey that unfortunately concluded 600 miles later when they slammed into whiteout conditions for more than 24 hours. He was later rescued, certifying that his adventure fizzled out well short of his goal. Montgomery took the next year off to reconfigure his approach and revamp his equipment in eager anticipation of a return in 1978.
"He was very determined when he returned and still had something to prove. I believe not finishing the last time he was there really motivated him," his son commented. "They raced in the evenings a lot using miner hats for lighting. He often pointed out that on many occasions he glanced over and noticed the eyes of wild wolves reflecting from the Northern Lights, running alongside of his team. He had a bear gun and a pistol, so he was well-protected in case of an emergency, but thankfully he never needed to use either of them."
A few weeks after taking off, Montgomery completed his dream of crossing the finish line. Although he didn't win the event, he was the first Ohioan to ever complete it and was later elected to the Mushers Hall of Fame in Alaska.
"A couple of years after he returned, he recalled one stretch of the race between stops that was extremely long, so he had a cabin built along the trail and it was dubbed, "Don's Cabin". Within a few years, the cabin was ransacked by hungry bears, but was later rebuilt and remains a vital resting point today 36 miles out of Ophir and more than 50 miles from the next stop."
Although Montgomery never ran the Iditarod again, the "Buckeye Bullet" blazed the trail for mushers in the lower-48 who feel they have something to prove, while his legacy will also give them a place to rest along the way to proving it.