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October 26, 2011 10:25 PM

National TV Show Features Letcher Wagon Shop

Letcher, SD

The first name of Mr. Hansen was corrected in this story.

Before there were horse-powered engines, there was just plain horse power. 

A wagon shop in Letcher is keeping the tradition of horse-drawn wagons and coaches alive and well in South Dakota as well as the rest of the country.

"The way our shop operates is very much similar to a shop pre industrial revolution. Since we're building custom vehicles, we would be more parallel to a shop from maybe the 1850s," Doug Hansen of Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop said.

Hansen says he didn't wake up one day with the desire to be a wagon maker. No, his hobby sprouted in a common South Dakota place.

"It started out on the family farm. We had a horse we broke to drive a carriage, bought a couple of carriages and got involved in restoring them and found this kind of work really fascinating," Hansen said.

Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop has the distinction of creating America's most authentic replications and restorations of wagons like these. The wheelwrights and blacksmiths here can spend up to 2,000 hours on just pieces like a chuck wagon - a kitchen on wheels.

Some of the recreations and restorations have been in a few movies and used for big ad campaigns, like Budweiser and Wells Fargo Bank.

The business has acquired a lot of different wagons that have rich histories because of who rode in them.  John Wayne and Teddy Roosevelt were among famous passengers on now worn seats. Learning more about how it's made, you'll find out replicating and restoring history is not always a smooth process.

"I got a chipped tooth one time when we were hot setting some wheels and the steel from that snapped and hit me in the mouth. Other than that it's no big deal," Joel Westberg, a blacksmith, said.

In the age of fast cars, this type of process is a big deal to national TV show, "How It's Made". Camera crews from The Discovery Channel program focused on every spark, every brush stroke and every hammer  to bring this little wagon shop in Letcher to TV screens all across the country.

"When the director got here I said, how'd you find us? What directed your attention toward us and he said, I had you on the radar for about seven years and it was just a matter of getting it coordinated," Hansen said.

"How It's Made," spent a total of three days at the shop, two more than usual in order to capture the intricacies of wagon-making.  The episode should air in the next few months. For these men who spend their days with big machines and scorching hot iron, a camera crew took some getting used to.

"That was kind of spooky, I don't like that kind of stuff, but we had to kind of set up a little scenario where I was doing the gear for this coach and we were making jacks and the corner irons," Westberg said.

"It was unusual for this South Dakota hick guy, but it was exciting, you know? You stopped and started for the camera a lot. You were basically waiting for the camera instead of getting done with it," Tim Hoffman, a wheelwright, said.

This TV show has covered the nuts and bolts of how gummy bears, baseballs and glass bottles are made. Now focusing on Hansen's Wheel and Wagon Shop, it's finding a way of life that has spent years hiding the pages of the history books.

"It's more than just a job. We're keeping history alive, we're keeping crafts alive. We're rediscovering lost arts. It's great to have the opportunity to contribute to that," Hansen said.
  • Letcher, SD

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
The first name of Mr. Hansen was corrected in this story.



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