Archive for Friday, January 16, 2009

Wagons in the works

Horton couple bring horse-drawn creations to parade

January 16, 2009

Don Werner wishes the hunks of iron and wood could talk.

Sometimes, when somebody backs into his workshop with a pickup heap of scraps that used to be a wagon, Werner thinks about where it's been through the years.

"I just wish it could talk and tell me where it's been," he says. "It would be amazing."

But these days, Werner is just as much focused on the future as on the past.

He restores old wagons, but he's just as busy making new ones for museums, chuckwagon suppers, businesses and anyone else who has an interest in keeping old-time wagons on the modern-day trail.

His Werner Wagon Works will be featured for its 15th straight Lawrence Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade, which kicks off at 11 a.m. today downtown. The Werners will be in a horse-drawn covered wagon, designed true to the covered wagons that bumped their way over the Oregon and Santa Fe trails in the 19th century.

'Hard knocks'

Werner, who grew up on a farm, built his first wagon 19 years ago, simply out of curiosity.

Gradually, it became a side business to his electrician job in Kansas City.

But he remembers the day his wife, co-owner Connie, called him at work, saying the National Oregon/California Trial Center in Montpelier, Idaho, had an order for eight wagons on deadline. He took a leave of absence from his job but never went back.

"It's hasn't been easy, though," he says. "I've kept busy. I don't know that I've ever been caught up since that date."

On one recent day, he pulled a 21-hour shift in his workshop to meet a deadline. He knows of only four other full-time wainwrights in the U.S.

"When I started this," he says, " I didn't have any idea this was going to happen."

Now, he splits his time between making new wagons out of pine and walnut, and repairing old wagons, some of which date back to the Civil War.

Early on, Werner would draw rough sketches of old-time wagons and replicate them. These days, he knows the patterns by heart.

"With most stuff," he says, "you just get in the middle of it and work your way out. It's what we'd call the school of hard knocks."

'Special' parade

Werner always has two or three projects going at one time. One of his current wagons is a stagecoach for the Patee House Museum and Jesse James Home in St. Joseph, Mo.

His company has produced wagons for people in more than 40 states.

"It's a fun thing," he says. "It's a different thing every day. It's not like going to a job at a plant where it's repetitive. You meet all types of people. That's the fun part."

The Werners produce all sorts of wagons - stagecoaches, chuckwagons, covered wagons, hitch wagons. They don't work much in light wagons, hoping not to tread on the toes of their Amish colleagues.

Their prices start at $3,000.

But Don Werner doesn't think that much about the money. He thinks about the history.

For instance: The couple often thinks about the thousands of wagons that went west on the trails. What ever happened to them?

"It just blows by mind," Don Werner says. "You think, 'Where'd all these wagons go?'"

"Just imagine traveling six months in that wagon," Connie Werner adds. "You probably wanted to kick it down the road when you got there."

Today, the Werners will help to lead a parade that promotes horse-drawn vehicles of all kinds, including wagons.

They say this is one of the highlights of their year.

"It's a big family thing," Connie Werner says. "It's wonderful, really something special."

Looking to the future, the Werners are hoping to ensure wagon-making doesn't die.

"We're looking for somebody to learn the trade," Don Werner says. "I know there is somebody out there - it's just finding the right person."


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