A Little Wagon with a Big Story

Persistence pays off in family's search for relative's one-of-a-kind wagon.

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Courtesy of Loretta Sorensen
Erik Wagner restored the wagon for the Schultz family and has used it in the Plymouth County Fair Horse Show for several years. He is shown here driving his Haflinger team, with a load of family and friends.

Photos and vivid memories were the only evidence brothers Lanny, Lee and Mel Schultz had that their great-uncle, John Helgen, had ever used a small wooden wagon owned by South Dakota’s Custer State Park.

In the late 1920s, John (an uncle to the Schultz brothers’ father) traveled from Plymouth County, Iowa, to western South Dakota to work at the park. “For several years, from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, he was a travel ambassador for Custer State Park,” Lanny says. “He took this wagon and a small buffalo calf to cities across South Dakota to promote the park. At some of the nearby events, our family saw John and his team and wagon.”

To pull the wagon in parades and events, John used four hinnies that roamed free in Custer State Park. A hinny is a cross between a female donkey and a male horse, versus a mule, which is a cross between a male donkey and female horse. John trained the hinnies to pull the wagon, then turned them loose in the park at the end of the summer.

Son of the “Cow-Boy King”

John Helgen’s father, Friederich D. Helgen, may have instilled a showman’s spirit in his son. According to the April 30, 1931, LeMars (Iowa) Globe-Post, Friederich was “induced to reminisce a little when he recalled that he started his brief business career in Plymouth County,” in an operation that came to be known as a “real Wild West, with grass ranges, cowboys, and bellowing herds of cattle.”

Friederich wasn’t in Plymouth County long before he realized there were thousands of acres of “splendid grass” in the western part of the county. Early white settlers took no interest in it, so Friederich offered to herd their cattle on the grass for $1/head. In the first year of his venture, he collected a herd of 360 cattle, earning him the title of “Cow-Boy King.”

Photographs and memories

Although John left Plymouth County, he never forgot his home and relatives still living there. “He brought the buffalo calf to a Sports & Travel Show in Sioux City in 1959,” Lanny recalls. “While he was in this area, he stayed at our farm near Merrill.” The buffalo calf that rode in the wagon during parades drew a lot of attention. It was a compelling sight and an effective marketing tool.

old photo of a red wagon with a buffalo calf inside being driven by a team of four hinnies

The Schultz family has numerous photos of themselves with John and the wagon and many fond memories of riding with John during area events. “John was special to us,” Lanny says. “He always wore a cowboy hat, and as kids, we liked that.”

As far as the family knows, John built the wagon himself. Including wheels, the wagon measures 73 inches tall. It is 9-1/2 feet long and 3 feet, 10 inches wide. The high sides were likely made to be tall enough to contain a buffalo calf (adult buffalo can jump as high as 6 feet).

Looking for a relic of the past

As they grew into adulthood, the Schultz brothers often wondered what become of his wagon. “I contacted Craig Pugsley, who was working for Custer State Park,” Lanny says. “There was no record at the park about John’s use of the wagon or what became of it once promotional efforts took a different path.”

They knew the wagon had 1938 Ford automotive rims on it and the wheels had wire spokes. During the time John used it, a South Dakota state emblem featuring pheasants was painted on either side of the wagon. That and the wagon’s red color made the piece stand out.

faded emblem of South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks

For more than 10 years, the Schultz family searched in hopes of finding the wagon or learning what had happened to it. From time to time, Lanny and his wife visited the Custer area, asking people there if they’d ever seen the wagon at a public event or had any knowledge about what had happened to it.

“One of the people we talked to was a preacher at the Little White Church on the south side of Hill City,” Lanny says. “For a time, he worked at Custer State Park and drove his own buckboard with a team of mules in parades to promote the park. But he had no recollection of ever seeing Uncle John’s wagon.”

“We couldn’t get there fast enough”

After so many years of searching, Lanny and his family were somewhat shocked to receive a call from Craig in 2016, saying he had happened onto the wagon during a random drive.

“We made arrangements with the owner to come and check the wagon out,” Lanny says. “We were certainly hoping it was the same one Uncle John had used. When we were finally able to make the trip, we couldn’t get there fast enough.”

On arrival at Custer State Park, they learned that the man who originally purchased the wagon from the park had passed away. He had horses and had used the wagon and kept it in good condition. After his death, when his acreage was sold, the wagon went with it.

A good candidate for restoration

The Schultz family relied on LeMars, Iowa, hobbyist Erik Wagner to restore the wagon. “It was in pretty fair condition,” Erik says. “There were several coats of paint on top of the original color. There was some minimal damage to one side, but structurally it was pretty sound.”

old red wagon in process of repair

While removing paint, Erik uncovered original stencils and pinstriping, including a just-visible South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks logo. The Schultz family sought permission to restore the logo, but were unsuccessful.

Erik made a copy of the wagon’s original stencils to create a new design on each side of the wagon. “The original wagon was red with gold pinstriping,” Erik says. “There was so much decoration on it that it almost looked like a circus wagon. Someone spent a lot of time, because you could see that was all done by hand.”

Erik has taken the wagon to the Plymouth County Fair several times, using his Haflinger team in show competition. This horse breed is similar in size to the hinnies that were used in the past.

“It’s been very rewarding for our family to be able to acquire, restore and display this wagon that held so many good memories for all of us,” Lanny says. “We look forward to sharing the wagon and its story with others in our community for many years to come.” FC


For more information:

Schultz Bros. Trucking, 25411 Lake Ave., Merrill, IA 51038.
Erik Wagner, 23397 Lynx Ave., LeMars, IA 51031.

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

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