Eric Stange Introduces Us to the “Pony Boys”

October 16, 2022

Filmmaker and friend of FC, Eric Stange, recently joined us on Making Media Now, the Filmmakers Collaborative podcast to chat about his latest film, “Pony Boys.” 

Eric’s film will be shown as part of the 2022 Boston International Film Festival.

Here is an excerpt of our conversation. To hear the full conversation, listen here or via your favorite podcast app.

Making Media Now: On this episode, we’re joined by filmmaker Eric Stange to discuss his latest film, Pony Boys, which is now streaming online as part of the New York Times OpDoc film series. About a dozen years ago, Eric had a conversation with a neighbor of his in Arlington, Massachusetts. The neighbor told him that another neighbor, Jeff Whitmore, had related a story that seemed impossible to believe in 1967 when Jeff was nine, he and his 11 year old brother Tony left their home and need a mass in a homemade two wheeled horse cart being towed by a tiny 10 year old Shetland pony named King and made their way alone on a 27 day, 350 mile journey to Montreal to attend Expo 67 This was a story Eric Stange just had to tell. 

Pony Boys is just the latest entry in Eric’s impressive filmography as a documentary filmmaker who specializes in history and science films for the likes of PBS, National Geographic and the BBC. Eric has produced and directed film such as “Edgar Allen Poe, Buried Alive,” “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making us Sick,” “The War That Made America” and “Murder at Harvard,” among many others. 

MMN: How did this story come to you?

Eric Stange: Well, about 10 years ago, I was at a neighborhood barbecue and a neighbor across the street asked if I had ever heard the story of another neighbor’s childhood adventures, a mutual friend and neighbor, and I said, No. And she told me, “Well, you oughta talk to Jeff one of these days. Ask him what he did in the summer of 1967.” And so the next time I saw Jeff Whittemore, who I, I didn’t know well, but you know, we’re neighbors and see each other at neighborhood functions. So I said, I heard you have a good story to tell. 

And he told me with total modesty and sort of no recognition that this was all that unusual about how he spent the summer of 1967, when he was nine years old and his older brother was 11, driving a Pony cart from Needham, Massachusetts to Montreal. 

And I said, “Well, you mean with with your parents or your older brother or something?” He said, “No, no, no, just the two of us, Tony and me, nine and 11.” And he said, “My mother wrote ahead to the Boards of Selectmen to tell them we’d be coming through town and to watch out for us. And we did it.”

I told him I’ve been a documentary filmmaker for a long time, and I told him, one of these days, I’m gonna come back to you and I wanna make a film about this. And he laughed. He never really believed that I would do it, but about 10 years passed and I did come back.

So he came over to my living room and sat down and we did a long interview and he told the whole story. A couple days before, he’d given me a family scrapbook that his mother had kept about the whole trip. So I was able to see a ton of newspaper articles and things. I learned a lot about the story just from that. Sure. 

I really wanted to hear his take on it, and it was a great, wonderful interview. What was best about it, really, in some ways is that he really hadn’t told the story to anybody in any depth for a long, long time.  And so it was almost as if he was remembering a lot of the details just as we went. 

And then literally four days, five days after that interview, the world shut down with Covid. I mean, it was just at the beginning of March, 2020. And there I was with this 90 minute interview and the whole scrap book, which was full of photographs and newspaper clippings. I couldn’t leave the house or I could, you know, how it was. And so I decided, well, I guess I’ll just edit with what I have. And it became my Covid project. 

MMN: How closely aligned were there memories of the two brothers of the adventure? 

ES: That’s a good question, because there were definitely things that they remembered very differently. This was an oral history. It’s not journalism, it’s not academic history. So I have to confess that I didn’t always take the trouble to try to pin down exactly who was remembering it correctly. I mean, they, they certainly were in agreement on all the important things. 

MMN: How far into your consideration of the story were you before you decided on what your approach was gonna be in telling this story? 

ES: I knew I wanted it to be as immediate as possible, and that’s why I shot it with both of them looking directly into the lens. I wanted it to feel like they’re telling the story to the viewer directly.

I didn’t know when I started that we were gonna find this wonderful trove of news reel footage shot by Associated Press in those days. The AP had a news reel unit that went and spent some time with the Pony Boys. It took us a while to find it. Our archival film researcher, Heather Merrill, did an amazing job and found that footage. 

And I’m sure there were other TV crews that went up and stayed with them for a day or two. They (the brothers) have no real memory of that. They just know there were tons of reporters all the time. They don’t remember specifics. 

MMN: It’s such a formative experience, you know, two brothers, and it wasn’t like they were six and four, they were eleven and nine at the time. And it’s kind of hilarious how in the film where they talk about, “Gee, I can’t remember. Did I change my clothes? Did I have shoes when we started?”

ES: Yeah. I mean, and a lot of times in the interviews when I’d ask them a question, they would just shrug, say, I don’t know, I was nine. I have no memory of any of that. Or, I was 11. I don’t know. It didn’t seem important. They did remember quite a bit, but there were plenty of things they had no memory of at all.  

MMN: The boy’s mother really comes through as  the unsung hero or perhaps the semi-sung hero of the film. I believe it’s Tony who says that she ended up having the most effect on them being who they became. Tell me a little bit about the boys’ relationship with their mom and the impact she had on them. 

ES: Unfortunately, she’s passed away. I would’ve loved to be able to talk to her. I’ve talked to all the siblings, or all but one. And they all talk about how their mother was just this adventurous person who really believed in learning by doing, as the older sister Wendy says in the film. And they had all sorts of adventures. I mean, this probably was the most out of the ordinary adventure that they had, but they did other things too. Their mother just encouraged that sort of attitude. 

And as Wendy says in the film, their father was maybe not quite as on board with it, but he would go along with it. And they learned an awful lot from her or from those experiences. And I think they brought it to their own parenting practices as well. I mean, both Tony and Jeff have two kids of their own. Of course, I had to ask them both: “Would you have let your nine and eleven year old do this?  Neither one would say yes. 

MMN: We would be remiss if we didn’t talk a little bit about, about their means of transportation. That would be via King, the Shetland Pony. His role, of course, was a huge role. And I found it really interesting that even then there was a bit of a controversy over whether King was being subjected to treatment that he maybe shouldn’t have been subjected to.

ES: Yeah,  there were a lot of letters coming into the house, which the kids weren’t aware of cuz they were off on the trip. But their sister, Wendy and the father and the mother were getting these letters, lots of them complaining that they were abusing the pony. That no one should make a pony do that kind work. Shetland ponies were bred for hauling coal out of coal mines. That’s why they bred small and strong.  Hauling a very small pony cart with two quite small boys was not a struggle for King. 

And King was examined right before they left Needham. Then he was examined again in Southern New Hampshire. Then I recall he was examined at when they got to Montreal.  And he passed with flying colors every time.

MMN: And, well, not to reveal any spoilers, but I was very happy to learn that not only did King make the journey with flying colors, he went on to live another 20 years thereafter. 

ES: He had a very busy life all through Jeff. The younger brother was nine at the time of the trip. All through Jeff’s teenage years, he and King would go do birthday parties on weekends and that was Jeff’s summer job and even weekends during school. So yeah. King kept very busy. 

MMN: So we know how King and the boys got to Montreal. I wasn’t clear on how they got home. 

ES: Yeah. It goes by fast and it was too complicated to explain. There’s a little bit of a headline that says arriving home by truck. What happened is the family that ended up putting them up in Montreal was a farm family. They stayed usually on farms because it was just outside of Montreal. And the farm family very had a dump truck and rigged up the dump truck to the pony truck and they drove King and Tony, the older brother, home. The trip up there took 27 days. The trip back of course took probably six hours. 

MMN: How did your film find its way to the New York Times OpDocs?  

ES: Well, we, we submitted it. They have a submission process online. Someone involved with the film kind of knew someone there, which may or may not have helped. But it was really about going through the process. And I think, who knows; with these things so much is luck, Maybe if we’d submitted it a week later, they wouldn’t have hit that moment. It was around the back to school time. You know, these things—it’s like you, you cross your fingers and you hope for the best. 

MMN: Have you been going on in a regular interval and reading the comments? There are hundreds of them. 

ES: Oh yes. Yeah. I love the comments.