Western Vehicles in South Dakota

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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When it comes to the restoration,conservation, and re-creation of early western vehicles, Doug Hansen and histeam of craftsmen in Letcher, South Dakota are among those often mentioned.  I’ve had the privilege of visiting Doug’splace several times and am always impressed with the diversity of vehicles onsite and the quality he turns out.  Ifyou enjoy the heritage of the early American West, Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop gets you up close and personal with some of the most legendary survivingwheels from that era.

In keeping with a series of interviewswe’ve been doing for our Wheels That Won The West® Archives, we asked Doug toshare some thoughts on his company and the vehicles they work with.  

Can you give us an overview of theprimary work you do at Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop?

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

Doug and Holly Hansen of HansenWheel & Wagon Shop

It’s always interesting to learn how folks gotstarted in any business.  What’s thebackground to your story?   

“Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop started as ahobby, which grew into a passion, and eventually a full-fledged business. Myfamily was a key element in offering me fertile ground to grow my passion. Igained 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 byproviding me access to his work shop & skills. My mother had collectedseveral buggies which she had purchased at auctions & called on me to helpwith the restoration. My grandfather had worked in his uncle's blacksmith shopand had some great pointers on the art of the wheelwright and blacksmithing. Healso was quite a hand with mules and horses and introduced me to driving aswell. This proved very helpful in allowing me to fully understand all aspectsof the trade. 

Eventually word of mouth spread and, as Icontinued my research, I became increasingly busy restoring neighbors' andacquaintances' horse-drawn vehicles. I saw this as a way to make a full-timecareer out of my growing interest in and passion for preserving history throughthese horse-drawn vehicles. Thus, Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop was started in1978 in an old Depot building I moved to our location on the west bluffs of theJames River just north of Mitchell, South Dakota.  My wife Holly and Ihave 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 wastrained in the field and my best answer to this is; I was driven by anunquenchable thirst for knowledge. Pursuing understanding, I embarked on aself-taught journey, with very limited written resources, searching out tidbitsof information along the way. But in reality I studied under the old masters ofthe 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 PrairieSchooner

Over that time period, you’ve worked on a lotof different vehicles.  What do youconsider your most significant accomplishment in your business?  
“I think that would have to be our ability toembody the authentic and original elements of design, and implementing thoseelements as we work to restore, replicate and conserve the historic integrityof 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 aprofound impact on our success.”

What's the most memorable vehicle that you've beeninvolved with?

“Wow! That’s a tough question as there are somany vehicles steeped in rich history. If I were to say what vehicles I havelearned the most from, it is the original concord coaches that we haverestored. We have found signatures, dates, details in construction processes,methods, etc.           

I’ve developed a deep respect for the industryof horse drawn vehicle manufacturing. The people behind it were every bit astalented, educated and gifted as any in the present transportation industry.The craftsmen, engineers, designers and marketers developed some of the mostintricately handsome, stylish and enduring vehicles that played such a dynamicrole in developing our nation.” 
Doug Hansen drivingJim Patrick's Peter Schuttler chuck wagon during a buffalo huntreenactment 

Your shop always seems to be full of interestingprojects.  What are some of the thingsyou’re working on now? 
“Current and upcoming shop projects include:restoration of a 2-seat mountain spring wagon, conservation of a historicHenderson mud wagon from Santa Barbara, California, restoration of an originalYosemite coach, a Schooner for the California Trail Museum, a replica BanningConcord Coach, one of 3 made by the Wilmington wagon factory. 
We just recently completed a newly constructed5th wheel covered wagon. Currently we are working on restoring bothan oil & a water wagon. We have several buggies and light wagons in forrepairs, along with a few chuck wagons. Most notably we have five stagecoacheson our schedule in the next year for new construction or restoration work.” 
Doug Hansen driving hisrestored mud wagon during a historical reenactment

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

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

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

“I feel like I am an explorer discovering thelost world, kind of like the Indiana Jones of wagon archeologists. Really, nota day goes by without making some discovery. My passion to fully understandthis 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’vemet so many great people on this journey and enjoy sharing this interest.” 
Hansen Wheel & Wagon ShopTeam

Special thanks to Doug and the entire crew atHansen Wheel & Wagon Shop for sharing some the behind-the-scenes details oftheir business.
Finally, for those waiting on an answer for ourOctober 9th blog post, “Name That Vehicle,” the set of wheels wehighlighted was built by Studebaker and called an “Arizona buckboard.”  We chose that image to illustrate the pointthat vehicles often had numerous variations made to their designs, sometimes making them a bitmore 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 apoint to share a few others from time to time. 
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