Frank Pfannenstiel, the last of the original Disneyland cowboys, has ridden off into the sunset at the age of 92.
Born in Fort Hays, Kansas, Frank was a real wrangler, having spent his early years on a wheat farm before his family moved to a ranch in Denver, Colorado. At 17, he joined the Marines as a machine gunner and served at Midway and Guadalcanal. After the war, he returned to his life as a “cowpoke” in Colorado, riding a spread of 22,000 acres.
In early 1954, he joined Owen Pope at the Disney Studios to help tend to and break the horses they were acquiring to lead the stagecoaches, wagons and streetcars at Disneyland. Frank relocated to the park two months before opening to work at the Pony Farm. In the Opening Day parade, he drove a covered wagon, sitting beside the governor of Tennessee and following Fess Parker on horseback.
Frank began leading mule packs in 1961 and later was assigned to drive the streetcars. He eventually was put in charge of the Circle D Ranch training new horse-car drivers, making harnesses, and taking the occasional turn as driver. A regimented rule-follower and traditionalist, he was not only the first Pony Farm worker Pope hired, he also turned out to be the last to retire, irascibly rubbing the right people the wrong way till the end. He finally retired in 1990 and moved back to the Denver area.
For the last decade-plus, he had been living in his trailer on two friends’ ranch in Aurora, Colorado. Even into his 90s, he was actively helping to care for and train the ranch’s horses, until catching pneumonia last spring. When I paid him a visit in September, he wasn’t at full strength, but Frank perked up the more he got to sharing about his days at Disneyland. But what really wound him up was recalling his final years at the park, as Disneyland’s Pony Farm stopped hiring experienced horsemen and started handing the reins over to “know-nothing college kids.” As Frank barked, “Some of those kids couldn’t tell apples from oranges!”
Although I just learned the news, Frank passed away in October, in fitting fashion for a weary horseman. He’d spent much of the day sitting on his deck, enjoying a clear, beautiful day, capped with a shot of whiskey. He enjoyed a big, hearty meal and died peacefully in his sleep. Happy trails, cowboy.