Collectibles: He'll Fix Your Wagon

<< Back to Robb Report, September 2007
  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Doug Hansen did not reinvent the wagon wheel, but he has reverse-engineered

it more than once. As the owner of Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop, a business he

founded 29 years ago in Letcher, S.D., Hansen has built and refurbished

thousands of wheels, as well as thousands of stagecoaches, chuck wagons, and

horse-drawn carriages. Along the way, he taught himself woodworking,

blacksmithing, upholstering, painting, and the other tasks involved in making

wagons and their fittings. “The old masters who built the vehicles taught me

through their work,” says Hansen. “I’d take an old vehicle, tear it apart, study

the style and the fabric, and I’d copy what they did. Through that, I came to

appreciate the fine engineering that they did, and I didn’t want to change

it.”

Hansen, a 49-year-old lifelong South Dakotan, says his interest in

wagons began “totally by accident” in 1975. His mother purchased a broken

horse-drawn buggy at an auction, and Hansen, then a teenager, decided that he

would restore it. “I thought it would be cool, you know? And I had a lot of good

family resources around, from equipment to knowledge,” he says, noting that his

father kept a well-outfitted workshop on his farm; his mother, who made saddles,

taught him to work with leather; and his grandfather educated him in

blacksmithing and how to harness horses and hitch buggies. Once Hansen’s

neighbors learned about his restoration project, they offered him additional

jobs repairing their antique vehicles and wheels. Within three years, he had

printed business cards and officially established his business.

 

His shop,

which is located about 90 miles west of Sioux Falls, S.D., now employs a staff

of 12, who work on 20 or so commissions at any given time. About half of the

jobs are restorations of original vehicles, but Hansen expects that demand will

dwindle sharply in the years to come. “There are not as many antiques left,” he

says. “We’re running out of them.”

Regardless, it is likely that plenty of

work still will come his way. Movie studios often hire Hansen to produce

authentic-looking Western props; his handiwork can be seen in Pirates of the

Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (the wheels for a cart that appeared in

a sword-fighting scene), Looney Tunes: Back in Action (several oversize wagon

wheels), and Dances with Wolves (accessories for a wagon, as well as wheel

repairs and other services rendered on location for the film, which was shot in

South Dakota).

Although Hansen accepts commissions from museums and

corporate clients who present their vehicles in static displays, he estimates

that three-quarters of his wagons, stagecoaches, and carriages are used for

transport at Western-themed resorts and similar settings. Before a vehicle

leaves his shop, Hansen test-drives it with a team of horses in a dry riverbed

nearby. “We learn about the vehicle and whether it needs fine-tuning,” Hansen

says of the trial runs, “and we get to appreciate it—to stand back and look at

our work and take it for a drive.”

Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop, 605.996.8754,
www­.hansenwheel.com

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