"I've been around horses and wagons all my life, so becoming a wagon maker seemed a natural way to bring my heritage together with my love of western history in order to preserve that legacy for the future."
Before railroads and telegraph wires reached the remote cities and towns of the western U.S., stagecoaches were the fastest way to deliver news. People would gather at stage stops and eagerly await the arrival of newspapers and mail.
Their heyday didn’t last out the 19th century, though, and by the early 1900s, stagecoaches had become little more than faint memories of days gone by. The ones that survived ended up in museums or as novelties at amusement parks and in parades. A few were stored away in the backs of barns where they sat silently, slowly decomposing ghosts from the past.
One such barn-find relic was rescued several years back by the Carriage and Western Art Museum of Santa Barbara, California. Originally built in the 1870s by the M.P. Henderson Co. in Stockton, California, the stagecoach carried mail and passengers 75 miles from Santa Barbara to Ventura and eastward through the rugged Santa Clara River Valley to the gold, oil, and cattle town of Saugus (part of present-day Santa Clarita). Besides the challenging terrain, the coaches were under constant danger from outlaws like the infamous Tiburcio Vásquez.
The Saugus stagecoach was stored in the Carriage Museum until the Los Rancheros Pobres, a men’s horseback riding club in Santa Barbara, raised the funds to have it restored by Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop for the 90th anniversary of Santa Barbara’s Old Spanish Days celebration in early August, 2014.
“The museum and the Pobres knew they had a special coach with strong historic connections to the area’s past and wanted to restore it as close to its original condition as possible,” says Doug Hansen, owner of Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop in Letcher, South Dakota.
When the coach arrived at Hansen’s shop, Doug’s daughter, Leah Murray, the shop’s Project Manager, set about coordinating with the various craftspeople who would be involved in the restoration. “The coach is what was known as a ‘mud wagon’ meaning that it ran through areas that had little in the way of established roads,” Murray says. “It was remarkable that it had survived 125 years given what it must have gone through.”
Hansen and his team of wheelwrights, blacksmiths, painters and upholsterers spent six months and over 650 hours meticulously disassembling, restoring, and reassembling hundreds of parts, reusing what they could and custom building other pieces to replicate them as authentically as possible. They used Italian naked leather hides to restore the upholstery to its original look and custom-formulated paints to be historically accurate and preserve the patina and graphics of the coach in its heyday.
“When we restore a coach, it’s a lot like an archaeological dig,” Hansen says. “Many times we find things unique to a particular wagon that give us insights into its history.” In the case of the Saugus coach, Hansen’s team found a leather scabbard designed to carry an axe mounted to the front boot. “This was evidence that the trail often had to be cleared of fallen brush before the coach could proceed on its journey.” Other times, Hansen workers have found inscriptions and dates that tie a wagon to specific craftsmen and times.
Throughout the restoration, Murray and Hansen stayed in close contact by phone and email with the museum staff 1,700 miles away. “I was struck by the irony of using today’s instant communication to help restore a part of history from a time when getting information across a hundred miles could take days and involved a fair amount of risk,” Hansen says.
While Hansen’s products are firmly rooted in the past, the company’s reach is high tech through its Magento ecommerce website, http://www.hansenwheel.com. “Our online ordering and secure payment capability allow customers anywhere to shop with us 24-7,” Hansen added. “We’re excited to bring our quality and craftsmanship to wagon enthusiasts around the world.”
Established in 1978, Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop’s customers range from museums and collectors to corporate marketing departments and theme parks such as Disney and Knott’s Berry Farm. International customers include an amusement park in Japan, a historical society in Denmark, and a private ranch in Uruguay. Nearly a third of Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop’s business comes from interior designers and film production prop departments. Hansen wagons have been cast in movies such as “Dances with Wolves” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
“I’ve been around horses and wagons all my life, so becoming a wagon maker seemed a natural way to bring my heritage together with my love of western history in order to preserve that legacy for the future,” Hansen says. Thirty-six years after its opening, the shop has become the premier builder of authentic horse-drawn vehicles worldwide.
For information about Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop, contact: Doug Hansen http://www.hansenwheel.com