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Archive for Monday, July 22, 2002

Craftsman’s wagons summon pioneer past

July 22, 2002

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— Some people like making model planes or ships. Others enjoy needlepoint or basketweaving.

Don Werner likes making wagons.

Don Werner works on a covered wagon outside his shop in Horton.
Werner is one of a handful of wagonmakers, or wainwrights, across
the nation. He produces the wagons full time for ranches, tourist
attractions and living history farms.

Don Werner works on a covered wagon outside his shop in Horton. Werner is one of a handful of wagonmakers, or wainwrights, across the nation. He produces the wagons full time for ranches, tourist attractions and living history farms.

Not little red wagons, but big ones like the prairie schooners used by pioneers to cross Kansas to Oregon and other points west.

In his shop, the 62-year-old retired electrician labors as a wagon maker, or wainwright a craft linked more to the past than the present.

"We are as authentic as possible with the look and design as it was back then," Werner said. "You are pretty much going on feel and measurements, exactly like they did in the old days."

Werner built his first wagon about 15 years ago after he met a wainwright at the Silver Dollar City theme park in Missouri. While watching him, Werner decided it was something he would enjoy doing.

His first effort was a basic box wagon, like the one he remembered as a boy on the family farm.

"I remember shucking corn and liked the sound of it hitting the side of the wagon," Werner said. "The only way to get a wagon was to build my own."

Orders roll in

Word soon spread about Werner's skills and people started calling either wanting him to make a wagon or restore one. Pretty soon, he had orders for chuckwagons, prairie schooners and buckboards.

Then about five years ago, Werner decided to make it a full-time job and eventually began filling orders from such places as ranches, tourist attractions and living history farms.

"Basically, if it's a wooden wheel, we build them," said Werner, who is helped by his wife, Connie, and two part-time workers.

Werner estimated he's among 10 wainwrights in the country. It takes about six to eight weeks to build a wagon, he said.

Werner attaches bows to one of the first covered wagons he made
outside his shop.

Werner attaches bows to one of the first covered wagons he made outside his shop.

He's built more than 70 wagons that have been sold in more than 30 states. He plans to start building stagecoaches, using a design from the 1840s.

Asked which was his favorite, Werner thought before answering.

"It's hard to say which I like the best. They all are fun to build," he replied.

He's particularly proud of one recent project an escort wagon for the Fort Riley honor guard. Working with photos and details from the military, he left the wood natural and painted the metal parts black.

Recreating the past

Werner also shows off his prairie schooner, which has appeared in numerous parades and traveled parts of the old Oregon Trail in celebration events.

He said most settlers traveling the Oregon Trail used the schooners, not the larger Conestoga freight wagons favored by Hollywood westerns.

"Going across the mountains to Oregon, this is the one they used," he said with a nod toward his wagon.

Steam rises as Don Werner sprays water onto a hot iron ring to
shrink it onto a wheel at his shop in Horton. Werner has built more
than 70 wagons that have been sold in more than 30 states.

Steam rises as Don Werner sprays water onto a hot iron ring to shrink it onto a wheel at his shop in Horton. Werner has built more than 70 wagons that have been sold in more than 30 states.

In his woodworking shop, Werner starts each wagon with the chassis, sides and seats, using hickory, white oak or poplar. If he's making a covered wagon, there's the added chore of making the wooden bows to support the canvas top.

The only concession to modern technology is a steel axle and hub insert that can be placed inside the wooden axle to keep the look authentic.

"It pulls easier and there is no maintenance," he said. "In the old days, they had to stop every few miles and grease the wheels."

Part of his back yard looks like a junk pile, where Werner keeps an assortment of metal parts like brake assemblies. But finding the old parts is getting harder.

"Anything I think is usable, I try to latch onto," he said. "But they are getting scarce now. I used to go to sales and buy them up, but you have to make your own now."

A careful process

In the blacksmith shop, Werner uses tools from the 1800s to assemble the wooden wheels. He buys the wheel parts hubs, spokes and rims and items like metal seat springs from the Amish in Pennsylvania or Ohio.

"There's just not enough hours in the day to do everything, so you have to farm some of it out," he explained.

Assembling the wheels takes time. First the spokes go into the hub and then the wooden rim encircles the spokes. Next, he measures the wheel, and cuts a piece of steel the right length.

Using a vintage machine, he cranks the metal strip into a round form a rim that fits over the wheel. The rim is heated, placed on the wheel, and cooled to ensure a tight fit.

"You have to be on top of it," he said. "If you start out wrong, you might as well tear it down and start over because nothing is going to work right."

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