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,