Route 66 Series: Henry’s Rabbit Ranch
Animals – the beautiful, elegant, and cuddly creatures we share our humble planet with.
As a student of military history, I’ve come across many spots in otherwise grim battlefield memoirs about the love and kindness of animals. Baby rabbits who turned fierce World War I fliers into maternal care givers. Wounded forest critters who cracked through the hearts of grizzly foxhole dwellers. Dogs who served as honorary mascots to their regiments, warning their human friends of impending danger. Birds who carried messages which saved entire battalions. Cats who provided good luck and giggles aboard battleships.
In this crazy world of darkness and pain, animals have a way of steering us toward the light. Perhaps that’s why people turn to them to fill the void, and not just in our souls. You’d be surprised how many times, even in recent history, humans turned to animals for leadership. Honest to God leadership in the form of an electoral ballot. Think I’m crazy? Here’s just a few examples.
In 1994, the town of Sunol, California, elected a new mayor named Bosco, a black Labrador and Rottweiler mix. Rabbit Hash, a small town in Kentucky, has only opted for canine mayors, according to Wikipedia. Talkeenta, Alaska, saw the election of a cat named Stubbs for mayor in 1997 (which made me extra happy, since our cat Sergeant Stubby goes by Stubbs for short). In July of 2018, Sweet Tart the cat took over the mayoral duties of Omena, Michigan. And just last year, Fair Haven, Vermont saw a real squeaker of a mayor election when a Nubian goat unseated the city’s incumbent mayor (a dog named Sammie) by two votes.
Another prominent animal leader once resided in the quiet countryside of Illinois. Her name was Montana, and from the very beginning, she had big life dreams. Being a fuzzy little bunny rabbit didn’t dampen her spirit, and she didn’t sell herself short. A small-town mayoral post wasn’t even enough for her. Instead, she went straight to the top and ran for President of the United States. It’s no tall tale. Just ask her owner – Rich Henry of Henry’s Rabbit Ranch off Historic Route 66.
My husband and I learned about Montana and the rabbit ranch as we traveled along the route last summer. It actually wasn’t the best travel day. That old highway can be a bit tough to navigate. Pieces of it are missing, routes are re-directed, and those isolated country roads can make two city dwellers lose their bearings. We also had a nasty storm to contend with. As the rain poured down and the roads got muddier, we were increasingly anxious to reach the day’s final destination of St. Louis.
Suddenly, something caught my eye in the travel guide book. “Henry’s Rabbit Ranch.” It was a good hook for me, since any fuzzy creature is likely to get my attention. Then when I read that visitors could play with the rabbits, St. Louis was a lost cause. This was a stop we couldn’t miss. Besides, bunny rabbits seemed like the perfect antidote to our irritable travel moods.
We pulled into the driveway of what looked like an old pump station, and we immediately knew we were in for a treat. Right outside, there was a line of cars buried in the yard hood first (like Cadillac Ranch). There was also an impressive array of rabbit regalia in the yard – statues, wooden carvings, bumper stickers, and even an old bunny playground piece.
Since it was still pouring down the rain, my husband and I hurried into the friendly-looking place. There, we were greeted warmly by Rich Henry, along with one of his big and furry rabbit friends named Gilbert.
I’ve always been more of an animal person than a people person, so Gilbert got better manners from me than poor Rich. That bunny was pretty sociable too. He dove in for pets, happily sniffed at my fingers, and when I tried to wonder about the place, he hopped right along at my heels (probably because he learned fast what a sucker I am). While I petted and played with this incredibly friendly rabbit, we learned about the history of this very unique stop on old 66.
It all started with Rich’s daughter in the 1990s. She got a pair of rabbits as pets, a boy and a girl, and she took them to live in her one-bedroom apartment. Have you ever heard the expression “breeding like rabbits”? Well, there’s a reason for it. “She didn’t account for the resulting population explosion,” Rich explains. “Things were getting a little out of hand.” So, he stepped in and adopted the rabbits, every single one of them. He took them to his lovely home, with plenty of yard space, just off Route 66. He fast fell in love with all the rabbits and their charms. He also noticed how well they responded to training and treats. Enamored with the fuzzy playmates, Rich decided he couldn’t keep them to himself. “Next thing you know, there was a new attraction on Route 66.” First called Henry’s Old Route 66 Emporium, Henry’s Rabbit Ranch became the official name in 1999.
It didn’t take long for Rich Henry and his rabbits to earn a place on the 66 map. Word of mouth travels fast, but so do travel guides, and Henry’s rabbits got write-ups in plenty of them. Especially since the ranch was one of the first modern attractions on the resurrected historic highway.
Part of that attraction was a very determined little rabbit named Montana. She was born in 2001, and she quickly became Rich’s steadfast companion, as well as the undisputed queen of the rabbit ranch. “It was like the Lone Ranger and Tonto, only Montana was the Lone Ranger,” says Rich. Montana delighted all the visitors who came to the ranch with tricks, standing up for treats, and even signing autographs. Her star rose fast, and she became an official member of the Route 66 E-Group. She was also a favorite at the local Route 66 Festival, where she met fans and travelers from all over the world. She had an amazing run in a pet photo contest too. Out of 30,000 entries, Queen Montana placed 106th.
Perhaps the celebrity went to her head, because she decided to aim a bit higher after that. In 2008, Montana ran for President. As her campaign bumper stickers and pins show, she was very qualified. “Seven years as Queen has taught her effective leadership. She has no relatives to give jobs to, and she is uninfluenced by lobbyists (the rumors of being influenced by the Carrot Growers Association were largely unfounded).” Montana was also very good with the public, since she continued to greet the many 66 travelers at the Rabbit Ranch with warmth and affection.
While Montana never became President of the United States (it was our loss really), she certainly enjoyed a long and healthy reign at Henry’s Rabbit Ranch before she passed away in June of 2008. She was buried next to her many furry playmates, 63 to be exact, in the Long Ears Memorial Park. Rich keeps it very-well maintained and dreams to make it a full-on memorial garden someday. “The stones tell some of their story,” Rich says of the rabbit final resting places. “I tell the rest.”
So, what did Henry’s Rabbit Ranch teach me? A big lesson is to take pleasure in the simpler things, like plump little rabbits and all the love they have to give. And inside the simple disguise, there was a lot of greatness on that ranch. Rabbits like Montana taught me to dream big, and as an aspiring writer, that is important. It doesn’t matter who or what you are. You can reach for the stars. Even if you don’t get there, you’re bound to make some friends along the way. Or at the very least, pet a very adorable bunny rabbit.
Henry’s Rabbit Ranch Visit
Interview with Rich Henry & Henry’s Rabbit Ranch Website: https://www.henrysroute66.com/
Route 66 Road Trip – Moon & C. Taylor
I hope, even in these unusual times, that this article provides some smiles and joy at the prospect of the coming Easter season. Many thanks to Rich Henry for kindly providing me with lots of history and photos from his incredible Rabbit Ranch.