Fred Dankowske was a 12-year-old boy living in Chicago when he first heard of the Mormons: the newsboys calling the headlines one day in 1877 announced that Brigham Young, the Mormon king, was dead.
The news meant little to the Polish immigrant then, nor ten years later when he began working his way across the west, seeking adventure and looking for his place in the world. In 1890, his ramblings took him to Salt Lake City, where he went to a Mormon service for the first time.
What I heard at that service was not only a pleasing revelation to me, but convinced me beyond all question that all the anti-Mormon propaganda I had read and heard in the past was warped and false. This conviction reversed my views on Mormonism. Its edifying principles drew my profoundest admiration for the church and its people.
He did not join the church then, nor for many decades thereafter, but he became an enthusiastic ambassador for the Mormons, and supported the cause financially.
Liking what he found in Utah, Fred went into the real estate business in Ogden, intending to settle there permanently. More or less. Okay, less. Fred was not constitutionally fitted for settling anywhere. Not even when he met Mary Alice Robins, a young lady of Ogden (and, incidentally, the granddaughter of Ellen Briggs Douglas Parker). And especially not when he made a fortune in the real estate market, freeing him for the rest of his life from the necessity of toiling at fixed employment.
Fred and Mary were married in 1898. They could have taken the train to tour America’s great eastern cities – they could have taken a ship to tour Europe’s great cities. But the newlyweds had their own idea of romance: They set off by horse and wagon to tour the national parks of America, spending their honeymoon in Yellowstone. “We camped where night overtook us. Firewood, sagebrush, game, fish, and water were plentiful, and none suffered want.”
Their honeymoon never really ended. After Yellowstone, they headed for another park, taking their time and enjoying the journey. Over the next few years they wore out six sets of horses and wagons. They saw all the parks and forests and national monuments, and they visited the principal cities of every one of the then-48 states in the Union.
Although not called on a mission, my wife and I served constantly in the capacity of self-appointed ambassadors of good will for Mormonism, with this mighty continent for our field. Wherever we went with our rolling home, inquisitive humanity manifested a burning desire for information. We were always engaged in conversation. We rarely drew up to the curb in a great city or a hamlet without an audience. Those who gathered round us soon discovered that we were Utahns, and when they learned that they were actually face to face with a pair of living specimens of Mormonism, they plied us with all kinds of questions. Thus we were able to correct many erroneous ideas. We always parted in friendship, and extended them a hearty welcome to Utah and Temple Square, where competent guides could complete the introduction.
After 1912, the ramblers attracted even more attention whenever they pulled up to a curb. Fred had bought his first automobile, but it didn’t work well for camping. Then he had a brilliant idea. He designed and paid the International Harvester Company of Chicago to build a motorized house-car – forerunner to all the Airstreams and Winnebagos and other travel palaces on the highways. His house-car had only two cylinders and sat on very high wheels “shod with solid rubber tires about one inch thick.” It was equipped with a stove and a folding bed.
This house-car was succeeded by a second model, and in 1923 by a third model – christened the Nomad, and shown in the accompanying picture. In the luxury of the Nomad, the Dankowskes would spend the rest of their touring lives. “In these riper years,” Fred mused in 1939,
I realize that my nomadic career is the brightest spot in my life. It looms up like a great beacon of light, directed by the kind, protective finger of divine Providence.
Our travels have not only given us a first-hand introduction to the resources and grandeurs of our country, but they have proved a living, visual university to us. Important courses in geography and history and in the study of human-kind have been taken during our travels. …
I recall the early wilderness of the West, now converted into a vast empire of wealth. To me the land of the setting sun, the windswept, desert plains and sun-scorched hills of the Golden West, is the land of lofty scenes and familiar faces. I am happy to say that I can still climb mountains with men half my age. Last summer , while touring British Columbia, Alberta, and the world-famous Canadian Rockies, I climbed to the top of a range of glaciers. This celestial sojourn necessitated a round trip of sixteen miles of ups and downs. Here I found myself on the roof of the earth, in the midst of moss-covered crags and vertical walls, where mountains rise on mountains and the glittering peaks try to pierce the sky. Amid these celestial scenes and influences – far above the competitive struggles of mankind – one finds his haven of rest. Here we breathe the air of freedom and live in a strange and future world – a world conforming with the hopeful dreams of the master minds of the ages.
In the winter of 1934-35, when Fred was 71 years old, he and Mary wintered in the warmth of Southern California, attending the Wilshire Ward in Los Angeles. There the subject of Fred’s baptism was raised.
I did not delay this sacred function all those years because Mormonism was not good enough for me, but because I was unfortunately possessed of convictions which the years of struggle could not overcome, and I therefore felt unfit for membership.
Fred does not record what those convictions were, or how he overcame them. But on March 2, 1935, he was baptized.
On July 17, 1939, Time Magazine profiled the pair of famous caravanners:
In 1890 Fred Dankowske, a footloose youngster from Chicago, drifted to booming Salt Lake City. There he made a real-estate killing, fell in love with pretty Mary Alice Robins, who shared his passion for travel and scenery. … Come boom, come depression, the Dankowskes chugged through all 48 States, Canada, parts of Mexico.
Their only objectives were nice views, an occasional mountain climb. Bronzed, lean Fred Dankowske finally dropped the pretense of attending to business, called no city his home.
Soon the Dankowskes outgrew their caravan, got one bigger, better equipped. In 1923 they bought a $4,200 super-caravan, the Nomad. They never had to replace this one.
In their early seventies, the Dankowskes claimed to be the U. S.’s oldest caravanners; their “palace on wheels” was known from coast to coast. They had covered 300,000 miles, never had an accident. Three weeks ago, still heading for the horizon, still happy as newlyweds, the Dankowskes nosed the 16-year-old Nomad out of Chicago toward California. Fondly beaming on wife Mary, Fred Dankowske announced that they would keep on to the end of the trail. Said he: “This is the finest kind of life. It costs only $160 a month and you see the dreams you carry in your heart.”
Then Time recorded the end of the dream:
In Omaha, Neb. the Dankowskes’ trail ended. In the first accident it had ever had, the Nomad collided with a policeman’s car. Mrs. Dankowske, both legs fractured, was rushed to the hospital. Last week she was dead.
Mary was buried in Ogden. Fred settled, as well as a nomad could settle, in the Wilshire Ward, where he passed away in 1942. He was buried next to Mary in Ogden.
We have many mountains yet to climb, in our eternal journey, before the spiritual and moral grandeurs of mankind achieve the grandeur of this glorious earthly paradise on which we live.
– Frederick Vincent Dankowske, 1939