Thanks to local craftsmen, an old sheepherder’s wagon has been restored for this year’s San Benito Saddle Horse Show and Rodeo Downtown Parade on June 22. This particular model of wagon was built from 1880 to 1910.
For its working life, Basque sheepherders used the wagon to follow a band of sheep in the open pastures of Wyoming. The canvas top, wood box and interior were refurbished about 20 years ago, but the 1900-era wagon’s old-fashioned wooden spoke wheels were no longer sound.
Always up for a technical challenge, Hollister resident Dave Wright volunteered to give the wagon a major tune-up. Owner of Wright Bros Welding on Fairview Road, Wright was looking forward to putting to use a collection of tools his grandfather had made his living with in the early 20th century.
“There wasn’t an Amazon Prime then, where you could just order them,” Wright said, referring to the set.
These very specific wagon tools became key to the big project.
Wright described his grandfather, A.C. Parsons, as a “jack-of-all-trades.” When he became an orphan at age 11, Parsons struck out on his own, working on and repairing equipment at local ranches and farms around Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley.
Wright eventually inherited Parson’s tools, but until now never had a chance to put them to use. The day he pulled off the wagon wheels in his shop, Wright saw the square shape of the axle nut and realized he had just the wrench for the job.
Fitting the repairs into their job schedule when they could, Wright and his employee Adolfo Villegas rebuilt the wooden wheels, gluing the curved strips of wood that make up the “fellow” and binding them tightly together. Each wheel was unique in the repairs needed. A damaged hub was reshaped, glued and bound together with steel bands that were heated and shrunk in place. Damaged spokes were reinforced with metal plates and riveted in the same manner that wheelwrights used generations ago. After each piece was repaired, they were placed in a tank of boiled linseed oil mixed with Australian timber oil and turpentine. The axles were badly worn after 100 years of use and had to have metal straps added so the hubs would fit. After a good coating of grease, they were finally ready for the road.
Following more than a month of detailed work by perfectionists Wright and his team, the wagon was now ready to join the parade as entry number 11. Fittingly, it will be pulled by an antique tractor.
In this age of increasing automation and uniformity, here is a chance to admire the genuine craftsmanship still performed in San Benito County.