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Buggy rebuilders are rolling along

LIVINGSTON, Mont. — When it comes to being obsolete, typewriter salesmen, bowling pin setters and iron lung repairmen have nothing on wheelwrights.

People sometimes joke about Jem Blueher's seemingly outdated profession of building wooden wheels and repairing century-old buggies. But the Livingston craftsman laughs all the way to the bank.

His carriage repair business, Anvil Wagon Works, has a yearlong backlog for repair work. There's also no shortage of work for his other old-time business venture — tepee manufacturing. He operates White Buffalo Lodges with partner Jim Bonawitz.

Everything about their workshop and personalities underscores a deep respect for 19th-century craftsmanship. In fact, if Bonawitz and Blueher had a choice, they would have been born 125 years ago, when any respectable town in the state had its own wheelwright, blacksmith and carriage shop.

"The stuff you get now, it doesn't have the workmanship. The cars just don't have the character that the old carriages have," Blueher said.

A visit to their workshop shows the lengths to which the partners go to keep old-fashioned craftsmanship alive in the Internet age.

In half of the shop, Bonawitz and a sewing person craft 80 to 100 tepees each year. Most of the wagon restoration and wheelwright work — Blueher's domain — is done in a fenced-in yard behind the shop. Stacks of rusted wagon wheels, oak and steel hubs, withered wooden axles, soot-blackened stoves and every possible piece of wagon hardware are stored in the Cowboy Era boneyard.

"This is going to end up a sheepherders wagon," Blueher said, pausing in front of one set of running gear, which resembled a wagon no more than a pile of bricks and lumber resembles a house. "There's always something to start from."

It would often be easier, Blueher and Bonawitz say, to start from scratch. But that would sacrifice the soul of the wagon. Clients like to know the vehicles on which they ride once ferried goods and families over the muddy ruts of the untamed West.

"We have a lot of fun, bringing these old things back to life," Bonawitz said.

Blueher spends from 100 to 300 hours on each restoration job, fetching anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 for the work. The wagons originally sold for $50 to $100.

He hand-forges new hardware using an anvil and a coal furnace. He spends hours studying old photographs to ensure accuracy down to the exact color of a pinstripe. Owners of old wagons expect the vehicles will be treated as family heirlooms.

Many of Anvil Wagon Works' customers are Montana ranchers, including a Great Falls-area woman who brought in a dilapidated buggy last year for a complete restoration. The John Deere "Velie Concord" buggy was used by the woman's grandfather to court local ladies.

Blueher rebuilt the wheels, chiseled a new seat and replaced much of the wooden body.

The wheel work is some of the most difficult, Blueher said. Custom-welded steel bands are heated, then slipped around the wooden spokes and felloe of the wheel. As the band cools, it contracts, producing an audible pop as the wood of the wheel tightens.

Blueher loves all wagons but has a special affinity with the cramped comfort of sheepherders wagons. They're the original American mobile home, he said.

Most have a fairly standard set-up: a small stove near the door, a bed crossways in the rear and a six-paned window. One of these wagons was Blueher's home for nearly two years as he built a cabin outside of Livingston.

"That was the hardest thing, moving into that cabin," he said.

Before embarking on a career in old wagons and wooden wheels, Blueher earned a degree in electrical engineering from Montana State University. He spent time working in an office but found himself often staring out the window.

"I just got sick of the big city and the real world," he said.

Bonawitz, who is trained as an airplane mechanic and was a supervisor for the Postal Service in Bozeman, joined the business two years ago as a partner. The two men have been friends since kindergarten.

Before becoming a partner, Bonawitz found himself at times jealous over his friend's freedom and choice of work. The two talked about forming a partnership, but they both worried that friendships and business don't easily mix. Bonawitz took a week vacation from his postal service job to work in the shop. The partnership has endured, the two say, because of a shared work ethic and a love for the Old West.

"We're both easygoing and hardworking," Blueher said.

"We were both born in the wrong century," Bonawitz added.

One regular employee does most of the sewing work for the tepee business. Temporary workers help with tepee pole peeling. Members of the partners' families also help out. Blueher's mother is often called on to hand-paint traditional designs on the sides of the tepees.

White Buffalo Lodges sells between 80 and 100 tepees per year, ranging in price from $500 to $2,000. Media mogul Ted Turner has been a regular customer, as has much of Paradise Valley's cowboy glitterati.

Anvil Wagon Works has restored about 50 wagons, from simple two-seater buggies to elaborate chuck and sheepherders wagons.

The wagon restoration business has easy potential to grow, but Blueher wants to keep it small. With two people, quality can always be assured.

There were substantial risks for both Bonawitz and Blueher to leave behind solid jobs with retirement plans for a chance at making a living off horse-powered vehicles and cloth shelters. But the business has roots deeper than both men.

Blueher's stepfather, Don Ellis, started building tepees 20 years ago in Livingston.

"Everybody laughed at him at first," Blueher said.

Ellis erected his first tepee at the grand opening of a Livingston feed store. Twenty minutes after being set up, the tepee was sold. Six others were sold that first year.

"Then the news media got involved," Ellis said. The tepees were featured by Charles Kuralt. Vogue and Glamour magazines held fashion shoots in the tepees. Playboy also had a shoot in one of the tepees. Soon dude ranches and resorts were asking for tepees.

Ellis still considers tepees one of the best inventions for the Great Plains.

A tepee remains erected in the yard of his Livingston home. Despite winds that regularly rip down nearby highway signs, the tepee has never toppled.

Ellis also keeps a restored sheepherders wagon in his yard. As a boy, he spent his summers living in the wagons with his cousin.

He still sleeps in the wagon, "Especially when I'm in trouble," he said.