High Wheels: Preserving Logging Equipment History

Century-old high wheels restored at by Doug Hansen and crew at South Dakota shop.

| May 2007

A nearly forgotten mode of shipping came back to life recently at a South Dakota wheelwright's shop, when Doug Hansen and his crew restored a set of Michigan logging wheels, also known as high wheels.

The story begins with the gift of a pair of wagon wheels dating to the late 1800s. Rogan Coombs, owner of Coombs Tree Farms in Fortuna, Calif., was given a pair of wagon wheels discovered by a friend in a forest near Fortuna. Rogan recognized the wheels as high wheels from the early days of the American logging industry.

High wheels won quick acceptance as an efficient manner of transporting logs, and were an important innovation. Prior to their invention, when logs were transported they were simply dragged over land, either by hand or using animal power. Later, wagons pulled by oxen or horses were used. If rivers were nearby, logs were floated to a railroad. Sleds worked well in the winter but not in the summer.

Recognizing what he'd been given, Rogan knew the high wheels were a good fit for a museum he and friends are planning. The group has collected more than 70 pieces of antique logging equipment (and three working locomotives) and is in the process of having the collection restored to working condition. "It has to be a working museum. We would like to be able to show people how everything works," Rogan says. "We would really like to use (the wheels) in a parade with a pair of draft horses."

Rogan started asking fellow loggers about the restoration project. "I ran across the Hansen name in several places," he says. "They are pretty well-known. At that point, Doug Hansen of Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop in Letcher, S.D., got his hands on a once-in-a-lifetime project.

In business since 1978, Doug is known worldwide as an expert in construction, restoration and repair of horse-drawn vehicles. Based on that experience, Doug told Rogan the project would take up to a year. Rogan loaded the pieces onto a specially modified wagon and hauled them to Doug's South Dakota shop.