The Future of History: Preserving Horse-Drawn Vehicles

South Dakota craftsmen work to reproduce, restore and preserve horse-drawn vehicles and a part of America’s heritage.

| August 2015

In 1887, Clement Studebaker, president of the legendary Studebaker Bros. Mfg. Co., conservatively estimated that America was home to at least 80,000 wagon and carriage builders. By the turn of the 20th century, those numbers had begun to fall sharply. Even so, industry directories still counted close to 40,000 of these firms in 1904.

Despite the huge numbers, an even larger and more sobering transition was in the works. Technological advancements in agriculture and personal transportation were in the process of plowing under a way of life that had endured for centuries. The impact was so dramatic that, over the next dozen years, trade publications regularly reported the steady demise of wagon and carriage makers.

After generations of horseflesh ruling the road, the entire industry suddenly found itself scrambling to understand the changing business climate. Of the horse-drawn vehicle companies that survived the growing popularity of automobiles, most were thoroughly devastated by the Great Depression. Incredibly, several dozen wagon builders lasted into the 1940s; a few even hung on into the 1960s.

For all intents and purposes, that would seem to be the end of the story for America’s first and largest transportation industry. While wood-wheeled wagons, coaches and carriages had dominated the U.S. landscape for more than 200 years, the age of rockets, space exploration, early computers and advancements in farm equipment clearly spelled the end for such antiquated wheels – or, at least it appeared to be an industry whose day had come and gone.

Driven by a continual fascination with the Old West as well as America’s agricultural heritage and the transportation industry as a whole, individuals from all walks of life have consistently held fast to our most fundamental roots as a nation. In the process, antique wooden wagons and western vehicles have become increasingly popular with collectors, businesses, communities, reenactors and entertainment venues. It’s a trend that was anticipated some 37 years ago, when a young man heeded the advice of his blacksmith grandfather and went into the business of making, repairing and restoring horse-drawn vehicles.

Today, that venture has not only succeeded where countless others failed, but has set a gold standard for quality and serious attention to detail. In fact, this company’s commitment is so strong that it has likely helped save and showcase more historic vehicles than any other source in the U.S. Reinforcing that point, these folks have worked on thousands of authentic, wood-wheeled vehicles during the last four decades.