In 1887, Clement Studebaker, president of the legendary Studebaker Bros. Mfg. Co., conservatively estimated that America was home to at least 80,000 wagon and carriage builders. By the turn of the 20th century, those numbers had begun to fall sharply. Even so, industry directories still counted close to 40,000 of these firms in 1904.
Despite the huge numbers, an even larger and more sobering transition was in the works. Technological advancements in agriculture and personal transportation were in the process of plowing under a way of life that had endured for centuries. The impact was so dramatic that, over the next dozen years, trade publications regularly reported the steady demise of wagon and carriage makers.
After generations of horseflesh ruling the road, the entire industry suddenly found itself scrambling to understand the changing business climate. Of the horse-drawn vehicle companies that survived the growing popularity of automobiles, most were thoroughly devastated by the Great Depression. Incredibly, several dozen wagon builders lasted into the 1940s; a few even hung on into the 1960s.
For all intents and purposes, that would seem to be the end of the story for America’s first and largest transportation industry. While wood-wheeled wagons, coaches and carriages had dominated the U.S. landscape for more than 200 years, the age of rockets, space exploration, early computers and advancements in farm equipment clearly spelled the end for such antiquated wheels – or, at least it appeared to be an industry whose day had come and gone.
Driven by a continual fascination with the Old West as well as America’s agricultural heritage and the transportation industry as a whole, individuals from all walks of life have consistently held fast to our most fundamental roots as a nation. In the process, antique wooden wagons and western vehicles have become increasingly popular with collectors, businesses, communities, reenactors and entertainment venues. It’s a trend that was anticipated some 37 years ago, when a young man heeded the advice of his blacksmith grandfather and went into the business of making, repairing and restoring horse-drawn vehicles.
Today, that venture has not only succeeded where countless others failed, but has set a gold standard for quality and serious attention to detail. In fact, this company’s commitment is so strong that it has likely helped save and showcase more historic vehicles than any other source in the U.S. Reinforcing that point, these folks have worked on thousands of authentic, wood-wheeled vehicles during the last four decades.
Preserving wooden wheels
A few hours east of Mount Rushmore and the renowned South Dakota Badlands, a steady stream of America’s past is being preserved. While getting there is relatively simple, digesting all that is going on is another story. Turning north off of I-90 in central South Dakota toward the small town of Letcher, it doesn’t take long to arrive at the exit for Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop. The driveway is neatly manicured and aptly named, “Wagon Road.” Here, the husband-and-wife team of Doug and Holly Hansen work with a dozen artisans and craftsmen to reproduce, restore, conserve and preserve some of the country’s most iconic and impressive wheeled history.
It’s a business model that’s far from unnoticed. Powerhouse brands with deep roots in the Old West such as Wells Fargo and Anheuser-Busch, along with entertainment industry professionals, are regular clients of the Hansens. The firm’s numerous film and television projects are highlighted by works like Pirates of the Caribbean, Dances with Wolves, Hell on Wheels and many more. Other clients include a host of private collectors, theme parks, museums, businesses and individuals with special vehicle or part needs. Even antique auto clubs have come to depend on Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop for help with authentic repairs on wood spoke wheels.
Managing so many day-to-day details keeps the entire group of blacksmiths, wheelwrights, painters, coach builders and office staff extraordinarily busy. Even so, the place models a close-knit atmosphere with each job being far more than a means to put bread on the table. For the team in South Dakota, this is a way of life.
A day at the shop
With 20,000 square feet of enclosed workspace, the company is a year-round home to an amazing lineup of vehicles and brands. From cannons, stagecoaches, farm wagons and sheep wagons to sleighs, military vehicles, water wagons and giant freight wagons, a multitude of early transportation is preserved and created here. Like badges of honor, the pedigrees of these wooden warriors are admired by collectors worldwide.
My first visit to Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop was part of a family vacation more than 15 years ago. I planned the entire trip to ensure our travels included a tour of the facility. I’ve been there on multiple occasions since and each time, I’ve been struck by the work ethic, sheer number of projects and self-sufficiency of the entire organization. In addition to wood, paint and metal fabrication, the facility is also equipped for custom upholstery work.
Doug says they complete about 60 full vehicle assignments each year. It’s a number that actually exceeds the production rate of many early wagon builders. Reinforcing the depth of each project, the average amount of time spent on each vehicle ranges from a single week to 2,000 hours or more for the most extensive work.
While some modern equipment is used for added efficiency, a large percentage of Hansen’s tools trace their lineage to another era. It’s intriguing to see so many century-plus-old machines still employed in the daily work of the shop. Among them, an antique hub borer is regularly called on to drill out hub centers. A special press forces hollow-coned steel boxings into wheel hubs. In operation, these boxings encircle the axle skeins, helping the vehicle run as smooth, true and as effortlessly as possible.
Elsewhere, a vintage tire and hub band shrinker is employed to upset (tighten) steel tires and metal bands on wheels. Doug still uses his great-grandfather’s 300-pound anvil as well as other family heirlooms from the blacksmith shop. He estimates that at least half of the specialized gear in use is either an original piece or modeled after a pattern that would have been used during the heyday of wagon and carriage making.
On any given day, the melodic ring of hammer and metal are joined by the lingering aroma of fresh paint and solvents. Seasoned hardwoods are carefully shaped to match original parts and pin striping, lettering, logos and custom mural work are applied with the same free-handed eye for artistry that was prevalent in the late 1800s. Many rare talents and polished skills have been reborn here. It is truly a place where history comes to life.
A legacy of leadership
Which of the countless old builders and styles of horse-drawn vehicles are Doug’s favorites? He stops and smiles, pondering the question. “There are a lot of great brands and vehicle types,” he said. “I have a tremendous appreciation for them all, especially those makers with an intense commitment to craftsmanship. Abbot-Downing’s legendary Concord stagecoaches, M.P. Henderson’s California designs and Peter Schuttler brand wagons all are known for quality and have a way of drawing attention. These and many more historic vehicles have given us tremendous insights as our business has grown.”
With a nod to the early tradesmen, Doug shared how much he has learned from focusing on original construction details ... things like how a specific maker chamfers a hound, shapes a sand board, mortises a hub or configures the metalwork in a particular area are all important when replicating and preserving history.
“Each of these 19th and early 20th century builders had specific ways of creating pieces and when you realize just how complex these machines are, it’s easy to develop a strong respect for the extraordinary art and technology in every vehicle. In fact, many of the designs are the result of innovative patents introduced in the 1800s,” he says. “The very nature of so much early restoration work means that we’re operating in areas for which there are no owner’s manuals or technical handbooks. As a result, we’ve made it a point to closely study and carefully document the surviving works of the old master craftsmen. We’ve learned a great deal by paying close attention to every part of a maker’s work.”
It is a practice that closely mirrors the discovery process of archaeologists, he says. So much so that, during the restoration and conservation efforts at the shop, it’s not unusual for these craftsmen to uncover previously unknown maker information such as signatures, dates and even faint stenciling and elaborate murals under layers of non-original paint. “Believe it or not,” he says, “we once found an old trimmer’s awl inside a small cavity of a stagecoach. It had apparently been forgotten and sealed up in there from the time the coach was built in 1878!”
Examples of the firm’s premier-level restorations include a scarce Fish Bros. farm wagon originally built in Clinton, Iowa, as well as a very early John Deere Iron Clad wagon. Other distinctive vehicles such as a Yosemite touring coach from the Madera County Historical Society in California and an enormous ore wagon used near Ketchum, Idaho, in the 1890s have also been preserved. Likewise, a set of 10-foot diameter “high wheels” used for logging timber along with dozens of original stagecoaches have been revived by this small group of craftsmen on the Dakota plains.
In the midst of helping so many others locate and preserve special vehicles, Doug has managed to hold onto a few prominent pieces himself. An ultra-rare, tall-sided freight wagon built by Studebaker Bros. in South Bend, Indiana, is one of the standouts in his collection. This giant workhorse once plied the American plains, carrying essential goods for use on the western frontier.
Others in his private stock include an original condition California mountain wagon, a Yellowstone touring coach and a triple-box Mitchell farm wagon with strong surviving paint and stenciling. Hansen is the documented second owner of this wagon since its construction in Racine, Wisconsin, a century ago. The company has worked diligently to uncover the personal history of each piece. It’s this balance between condition and provenance that often makes a noticeable difference in auction resale values.
The road to tomorrow
Amidst the wide open backdrop of the Dakota plains, Doug Hansen is building something more than horse-drawn vehicles. He’s carving a lasting legacy by preserving some of the rarest wood-wheeled transportation in the country. For more than two centuries, horse-drawn vehicles of virtually every description were built in the U.S. Some were basic family conveyances; others were relegated to a life of labor on the farm or in the city. Still more plied the rugged terrain of the West while carrying emigrants, supplies, mail and ore, all alongside the hopes and dreams of a young nation.
From the 18th through the 20th centuries, millions of these vehicles were built. Unfortunately, the majority of them have not survived. Of those that still exist, many will find their way to South Dakota for a new lease on life.
Such is the story of a 21st century wagon maker; a business defying the odds, not only surviving, but thriving and making its own history. Even so, the growth of Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop isn’t an account of overnight success. Nor is it one of quick flips, shortcuts or easy answers. A lot of long hours, travel and hard-earned sweat equity are deeply ingrained in the operation. After all, it takes more than determination to reach back through time and revive a bygone era. It takes a real passion to mirror the depth and diversity of such a craft. That faithfulness to yesterday’s wheeled legends is a more than a simple acknowledgement of the past. It’s a resilient tribute to the roots of our nation and fertile ground for the future of history.
Early wagon industry details included within this article were supplied by the Wheels That Won The West® Archives. Established in 1995, this commercially managed collection of rare wagon and western vehicle history has become a go-to resource for archaeologists, museum designers, curators, collectors, vehicle builders, writers, businesses and reenactors around the world. Housing thousands of period photos along with countless original catalogs, directories, specifications, pieces of business correspondence and other primary source documents, this compilation is regularly tapped to identify unknown vehicle brands, histories and timeframes of manufacture, while also helping authenticate originality levels.
For more than two decades, the Wheels That Won The West® Archives have been devoted to unraveling the mysteries of America’s early wooden wheels. That commitment to discovery and documentation has helped build an epic profile of America’s first and largest transportation industry. –David Sneed