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Sheepwagons — America’s original Home on wheels

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KANAB — When Sam Jackson was done restoring his first sheepwagon, "at least a hundred people came up to me and said, 'That sure don't look like the one my grandpa had. His was all old and dirty.'

"But, I told them this is the way it looked when it was new. Trouble was, by then, hardly anyone had seen a new campwagon."

These self-contained homes on wheels — America's first travel-trailers — were once all the rage for any self-respecting sheepherder. But as with so much else, they have become relegated to the antique column. And as with so many other long-gone bits and pieces of Americana, restoration has become the goal — at least for a few hobbyists like Jackson.

The sheepwagons (or campwagons, as they are sometimes called) that Jackson restores were first built in Wyoming around 1885 and manufactured by sheep ranchers and lumber companies until as late as 1940. The Studebaker wagon company even got into the business and manufactured hundreds between 1903 and 1913. "When these wagons hit the plains, sheepherders thought they'd died and gone to heaven. Everything you needed was built right in. Well — perhaps you'd have to find a sagebrush for the bathroom."

For centuries, sheepherders lived out of tents carried on pack animals, said Jackson, who grew up in the sheep business. But the idea of tucking all the amenities into the trademark mushroom-shaped vehicle had a lot of appeal.

Jackson grew up in Fountain Green in Sanpete County, once a major hub of sheep production in Utah. During World War II, most of the young men in the area were drafted into the army; at age 11, Jackson was drafted into sheepherding. "I lived in a campwagon during the spring, summer and fall. In the winter, I went to school."

When he first married, he lived in a campwagon for the first year, earning $16 a day. But he decided the lonely life of a sheepherder was not for him. They moved to California, Jackson went back to school and eventually he ended up in industry, where he spend 20 years with missiles, then 20 more as a facility manager for Exxon Nuclear at the National Engineering Labs in central Idaho.

But when he retired in 1995, Jackson and his wife Rene'e were already raising Rambouillet sheep as a sort of hobby on their ranch in the Big Lost River Valley, so he figured that "the next step up was to restore an old sheepwagon."

They have since moved to Kanab, where Jackson is also involved in producing a brainchild of his own, the Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, held in conjunction with the annual Western Legends Festival.

Over the years, Jackson has also restored a dozen or so of the sheepwagons, some for unusual clients, such as Mohamed Al Fayed, whose son, Dodi, was killed with Princess Diana; he has one of Jackson's sheepwagons on his estate near Ketchum, Idaho.

A California businessman got one to serve as his 2-year-old daughter's playhouse. Other people use them as "guest cottages" or for camping. Some are driven in parades.

For a lot of people, the appeal is nostalgia. They remember the sheepwagon their father or grandfather used.

Early wagons were built light so that they could be pulled by a single span of horses or mules. One team could do the work. Sheepwagons were essentially replaced when the truck and camper came along.

"They are part of our Western heritage," said Jackson. "Thousands and thousands were built, but most of them have rotted away. A lot of the wheels ended up in flower beds."

Some of them are in pretty sad shape by the time they arrive at the Jacksons. "We try to save as much of the metal as we can. Most of the wood needs to be replaced." After a wagon was discarded, it often became the home of deer and mice. "Even if some of the wood is still solid, the odors accumulated from the animal residents never quite goes away," said Rene'e.

Replacement parts, particularly for the running gear, are getting harder to find, said Jackson, so sometimes he has to have new parts made.

Rene'e, who also makes pottery, does most of the painting for the wagons. "Green was the color," said Jackson. "Farm wagons were always painted red, and the sheepwagons were always green."

One of the fun things for Rene'e has been to see some of the repairs that were made on the wagons they get. "You're out in the desert, hundreds of miles from anywhere, and if your wagon breaks down, you have to fix it. Some of those guys got pretty ingenuous."

Restoring a wagon takes a lot of work; Jackson easily puts in a thousand hours on each one, he said. And every time he finishes one, he swears it is his last. But then another one comes along.

Jackson has also restored old cars; he and Rene'e have a 1947 Plymouth they drive around town. "I get in that, and I think I'm 16 years old again," he said with a laugh. "My folks had one just like that." He took it to Lehi so his mother could drive it on her 90th birthday; that was the birthday present she wanted.

Working on the wagons is kind of therapeutic, said Jackson. "It keeps him off the streets," Rene'e said with a laugh. But there's another reason he puts the time and effort into it. "Someone needs to remind us we haven't always had what we have now," Jackson said. "We owe a lot to the people who came before us, who built the things we can improve on. Without them, where would we be?"


E-MAIL: carma@desnews.com