Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Western Vehicles in South Dakota

When it comes to the restoration, conservation, and re-creation of early western vehicles, Doug Hansen and his team of craftsmen in Letcher, South Dakota are among those often mentioned.  I’ve had the privilege of visiting Doug’s place several times and am always impressed with the diversity of vehicles on site and the quality he turns out.  If you enjoy the heritage of the early American West, Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop gets you up close and personal with some of the most legendary surviving wheels from that era.
In keeping with a series of interviews we’ve been doing for our Wheels That Won The West® Archives, we asked Doug to share some thoughts on his company and the vehicles they work with. 
Can you give us an overview of the primary work you do at Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop?

“We specialize in heavy & western horse-drawn vehicles, and focus on historic replication of these vehicles, along with authentic restoration and conservation work. We also offer wheel repair, as we can build or restore nearly any kind of wooden-spoke wheel. Another key component of our business is the retail side, supplying wagon components, and wheels etc. to enthusiasts around the world.” 

Doug and Holly Hansen of Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop

It’s always interesting to learn how folks got started in any business.  What’s the background to your story?   
“Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop started as a hobby, which grew into a passion, and eventually a full-fledged business. My family was a key element in offering me fertile ground to grow my passion. I gained a lot of my interest in horses and buggies from my mother (a saddle maker), and grandfather (farmer, blacksmith).  My father was helpful as well by providing me access to his work shop & skills. My mother had collected several buggies which she had purchased at auctions & called on me to help with the restoration. My grandfather had worked in his uncle's blacksmith shop and had some great pointers on the art of the wheelwright and blacksmithing. He also was quite a hand with mules and horses and introduced me to driving as well. This proved very helpful in allowing me to fully understand all aspects of the trade. 
Eventually word of mouth spread and, as I continued my research, I became increasingly busy restoring neighbors' and acquaintances' horse-drawn vehicles. I saw this as a way to make a full-time career out of my growing interest in and passion for preserving history through these horse-drawn vehicles. Thus, Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop was started in 1978 in an old Depot building I moved to our location on the west bluffs of the James River just north of Mitchell, South Dakota.  My wife Holly and I have grown our business over the years as we built chuck wagons, hitch wagons, stagecoaches, and restored vehicles of all varieties. I’m often asked how I was trained in the field and my best answer to this is; I was driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Pursuing understanding, I embarked on a self-taught journey, with very limited written resources, searching out tidbits of information along the way. But in reality I studied under the old masters of the trade, not literally in person, but by example: as I have studied, dissected and analyzed their work for over 35 years.”

Replica 1840 linch pin Prairie Schooner

Over that time period, you’ve worked on a lot of different vehicles.  What do you consider your most significant accomplishment in your business?  

“I think that would have to be our ability to embody the authentic and original elements of design, and implementing those elements as we work to restore, replicate and conserve the historic integrity of these unique, wheeled vehicles of the past. Capturing the essence of design, function, and technology held so close by the craftsmen of old has made a profound impact on our success.”

What's the most memorable vehicle that you've been involved with?
“Wow! That’s a tough question as there are so many vehicles steeped in rich history. If I were to say what vehicles I have learned the most from, it is the original concord coaches that we have restored. We have found signatures, dates, details in construction processes, methods, etc.           

I’ve developed a deep respect for the industry of horse drawn vehicle manufacturing. The people behind it were every bit as talented, educated and gifted as any in the present transportation industry. The craftsmen, engineers, designers and marketers developed some of the most intricately handsome, stylish and enduring vehicles that played such a dynamic role in developing our nation.” 

Doug Hansen driving Jim Patrick's Peter Schuttler chuck wagon during
 a buffalo hunt reenactment 

Your shop always seems to be full of interesting projects.  What are some of the things you’re working on now? 

“Current and upcoming shop projects include: restoration of a 2-seat mountain spring wagon, conservation of a historic Henderson mud wagon from Santa Barbara, California, restoration of an original Yosemite coach, a Schooner for the California Trail Museum, a replica Banning Concord Coach, one of 3 made by the Wilmington wagon factory. 

We just recently completed a newly constructed 5th wheel covered wagon. Currently we are working on restoring both an oil & a water wagon. We have several buggies and light wagons in for repairs, along with a few chuck wagons. Most notably we have five stagecoaches on our schedule in the next year for new construction or restoration work.” 

Doug Hansen driving his restored mud wagon during a historical reenactment

There are a number of similarities between the marketing and advertising of vehicle companies in the 1800’s and those of today.  Not the least of which are the efforts to create and strengthen brand loyalty.  With that said, I’m always curious as to whether a person has a favorite early vehicle brand?

“Sorry but I do not have just one… Peter Schuttler for their design and quality which continued throughout the wagon making era, Abbot-Downing for their famous Concord Coaches, and MP Henderson for their great western vehicles.”
Replica of M.P. Henderson mud wagon circa 1870

Interesting; Just one more question before we let you go back to the shop… What is it that you enjoy most about the work you do?        

“I feel like I am an explorer discovering the lost world, kind of like the Indiana Jones of wagon archeologists. Really, not a day goes by without making some discovery. My passion to fully understand this lost art & era is nourished by the new knowledge I recover daily. Another great aspect is the relationships that have developed from this quest. I’ve met so many great people on this journey and enjoy sharing this interest.” 

Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop Team

Special thanks to Doug and the entire crew at Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop for sharing some the behind-the-scenes details of their business.
Finally, for those waiting on an answer for our October 9th blog post, “Name That Vehicle,” the set of wheels we highlighted was built by Studebaker and called an “Arizona buckboard.”  We chose that image to illustrate the point that vehicles often had numerous variations made to their designs, sometimes making them a bit more challenging to immediately identify.  Congratulations to Doug Hansen as he emailed with the correct answer.  Reviewing these pieces makes for interesting discussions as well as opportunities to learn more about America's early western vehicle industry.  As a result, we’ll make it a point to share a few others from time to time. 

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