Time Traveler: Collecting Horse-Drawn Wagons

Iowa collector J.R. Pearson focuses on horse-drawn wagons, especially those brands distributed by John Deere.

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A peddler’s wagon.

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Just one buggy ride with a friend in 1990 convinced J.R. Pearson that he needed to find his own horse and buggy so he could enjoy the experience of a leisurely drive at his own convenience.

"It was so peaceful and quiet," the northwest Iowa farmer remembers. "We just went for about half a mile. When we got back to my farm, I told my friend, 'I have to have one of these.' He told me he'd sell me that one."

That's how J.R. acquired his first horse-drawn vehicle, a John Deere Reliance buggy. In the following years, J.R.'s woodworking skills led him to build wagons for the horses he was buying. After making a few vehicles of his own, he became interested in wagons he saw at auctions.

"The first wagon I bought was a John Deere," he says. "I didn't plan that, it just happened. It cost me $75. But since I started out with John Deere, I stayed with it until I had a whole series of John Deere wagons."

J.R. has acquired 16 triple-box wagons made by a variety of companies and sold by Deere & Co. as early as 1881, including Old Hickory, Mitchell, Moline, Fish Bros., Wisconsin, Standard, Smith and Davenport. His John Deere collection includes four triple-box wagons, an Ajax, Triumph, Triumph Special, regular John Deere and several 802s with flare boxes. Other pieces in his collection are from the Stoughton, Newton and Moline lines. J.R. also has a Standard Oil wagon he restored, as well as a dray wagon and peddler's wagon.

"I have 35 spring seats with different wagon company names on them," he says. "One is a Deere & Webber, which is pretty rare. I have John Deere wagons that range from the old triple boxes to the 802 and 953. I even have three John Deere flare boxes, which could someday be scarce."

A peddler's wagon is among his favorites. Decades ago, small-town storekeepers ordered their wares from salesmen who traveled the country in wagons. J.R. uses his wagon in show competition and carries a cultivator on it.

In building a collection, research is important. But when he's buying wagons, J.R. doesn't consider the history of a vehicle when he estimates its value. "I just look for good quality," he says. "It's always good if there's some original paint on the wagon or the name on it somewhere. If it's been kept inside and the wheels have been up on blocks so they're out of the dirt, that usually means the wagon's in pretty good shape."

The collectible wagon hobby is growing rapidly. J.R. says collectible wagons are harder to find and more expensive to buy than when he began his hobby 15 years ago. "There was a time when people were melting things down to get the iron," he says. "Iron wasn't bringing a very good price then either, but there wasn't a lot of interest in the old wagons and implements."

J.R.'s wagons only rarely appear in parades. He's more inclined to take a few favorites out each year, using them with his Belgian teams in area horse shows. He's won numerous trophies and ribbons in antique classes.

As he became more familiar with wagons, J.R. began designing and building his own hitch wagons and buggies. "I always tinkered around in the shop," he says. "I had an idea about how to make some parts of the wagons. I tried to keep it simple and always thought about making the wagon safe and easy to get on and off. The first wagons I hitched to were the triple box, and I thought they were clumsy to get on and off, so I made some changes to the wagons I built. I built a few buggies from scratch. One I really like and have used a lot is a wagonette. I took my wife for her first wagon ride in that."

As word of J.R.'s expertise spread, he's taken on more projects. He's built six hitch wagons, including four he's sold to collectors and one he uses for his own hitches.

Then a friend in Arizona brought J.R. a partially restored stagecoach. "It was a mud wagon stage coach (a rugged vehicle for use in particularly rough country)," J.R. says. "It was down in Phoenix and my friend wanted to use it with his mule hitch. He brought it up and I finished it for him." When the friend came to retrieve the completed coach, the piece made a unique debut. "My wife and I used it in our wedding," J.R. says. "He brought six black mules all the way from Arizona to pull it. We were married in the arena at the horse show that summer."

Then J.R. tackled an altogether different project. Several years ago, he and his friend Loren Schrier started talking about horse-drawn equipment. J.R. shared his interest in building a horse-drawn hearse.

"Loren thought that was a great idea and he wanted to be involved in the project," J.R. says. "I found the frame from a hearse in Brookings, S.D. The spindles still had the factory name stamped on them, so it wasn't used very much. We worked together on it. I did the undercarriage and he did the body. It's all out of solid walnut we cut in the area and planed, and it has brass-plated trim. It took us a good year and a half to get it done."

When they were ready to take the hearse out of the building where they had built it, the men faced a challenge. Well aware that it wouldn't fit through the main door, they had to build 40-foot ramps to bring the hearse to a rear door.

"It was almost like a birth," J.R. says. "About 30 people gathered around to see it when we brought it out. They'd heard about it and everybody was curious to see how it turned out."

Finished in 2000, the hearse saw official duty almost immediately. "It was kind of ironic," J.R. says. "Just a few days after we finished it, the woman who did the upholstery for us lost her grandson in an accident. She asked us if we'd use the hearse at his funeral, which we did."

The two men designed the hearse themselves. "It was a pretty good challenge," J.R. says. "We used some detailed drawings we found and just made things up as we went." Carefully designed to accommodate modern caskets, the hearse has since been used in other funerals.

At some point, J.R. and his wife, Sue, hope to display their wagons. For now, the collection is for their own enjoyment, and for posterity. "I just want to see some of this history preserved," J.R. says. "We know they're not making any of these wagons anymore."

For more information, e-mail J.R. Pearson at suebedo@evertek.net 

Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. E-mail her at sorensenlms@gmail.com