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Old-world wagon rekindles Gypsy spirit

Fri, Nov 15th, 2002
Posted in Features

It's not uncommon to come across wagons in all shapes and sizes dotting the countryside throughout the rural areas of Fillmore County. Wagons are a much needed and relied upon necessity for today's farmers. But travel a few miles north of Canton and you'll see a most unusual wagon -- a one-of-a-kind creation built by a couple of creative carpenters.Elmer Yoder, proprietor of the Country Blacksmith Shop in rural Canton along with friend, Tom Jesse, of St. Paul Park, MN, conjured up the idea to build a horse-drawn Gypsy wagon a few years back. Jesse, who lives with friends in rural Canton during most of the year and assists Yoder in his blacksmith shop, said that he and Yoder spent many hours discussing ways they could recreate one of the age-old Gypsy wagons. "We actually started talking about the idea about three to four years ago," said Yoder. "It just started off as idle talk -- we'd sit and swap ideas and bounce things off each other," added Jesse. But their pipe dream became reality this past spring. "It was during a slow time of year in the shop, so we thought it would be fun to fill in the time with something," Jesse added. What better way to pass the time than to build something that had never been built in Fillmore County, according to the two men, and perhaps not even in the United States? Horse-drawn living wagons have been used throughout Europe for the past 150 years. The best were said to have been built during England's Victorian era, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Those who lived in these traveling wagons called their homes a van or vardo. People who lived in more traditional homes called them Gypsy caravans. There was no other possession as prized by the Gypsy people as their vardo. Much pride was taken in the wagon's construction and functionality. When the Gypsy man of the household died, he was laid to rest inside his wagon and it was set ablaze. That could account for the scarcity of wagons. Most that are found in Europe today are safely kept inside museums. The process for building the wagon for the Fillmore County men wasn't exactly easy. Even though the two were experienced carpenters, they needed a set of plans. That's where their challenge began. With a little help from a friend, Jesse got on the Internet and located a site in Berkley, California that maintained rare books on old traveling vans like the one they dreamed of building. Eventually, they located some plans, but when they arrived, they were not to scale and the two found themselves pouring over every detail to figure out a way they could construct a life-sized wagon. "That's what took the longest -- trying to figure out the scale," said Jesse. "We eventually tracked down a book from England that had what we were looking for."Several months later, the book arrived and the two set out to build a Ledge Wagon. "We were originally going to build a Burton style wagon, but we had better plans for the Ledge model," said Jesse. With English Gypsy caravans, there were several styles to choose from. The vans were classified according to their shape and include such names as Reading, Bow Top, Brush and Open Lot. The Ledge style, which was the basic design the pair decided upon, is sometimes called the Cottage wagon. It has a narrow base with upright sides. The body is built out on a ledge over the wheels. While the plans offered significant help in getting the two carpenters started, much of the creativity and intricacies of the design came from their own ideas. "Lots of the ideas came from up here," said Yoder, pointing to his head. Jesse, whose background was as a journeyman, home and boat builder as well as a blacksmith, counted on his friend to help direct the project through to the end. "I developed Epilepsy four years ago and I don't always remember everything," Jesse said. "It was a good thing I had Elmer to work with." The wagon boasts more than 300 mortis and tenon joints, a cedar-lined bedchamber, and a copper surround wood stove enclosure, complete with ventilation system. The wagon has interchangeable tongues designed to accommodate a two-horse team or a single horse. According to both men, the wagon is light enough for just one horse to pull it. "Because of the large wheels, a man can move the wagon short distances," Yoder said. Most of the materials used for the wagon were purchased from local people. "We ordered the wheels, axle, springs and water barrel -- but most everything else we got around here," Jesse said. The two men decided to paint their wagon bright green with red trim to show off their one-of-a-kind creation, which took them just shy of six weeks to complete.An early summer tornado tipped the nearly completed wagon on its side, but only caused minor damage. "I guess we can say that our wagon is guaranteed to survive one tornado," joked Yoder. The unpredictable windstorm offered the two men a convenient, while not planned, opportunity to seal the undercarriage with a mixture of linseed oil and turpentine. "There was no sense getting upset," said Jesse, who explained that it took three men to turn the wagon back on its rightful side.The two carpenters are quite modest about their remarkable wagon, but did enter it into this year's Mabel Steam Engine Days Parade, where it was awarded first place. "It was a new challenge for us and quite fun," said Yoder. "I guess when you're having fun, it shows," added Jesse. Throughout the summer and fall, the bright green Gypsy wagon was parked quietly outside Yoder's blacksmith shop, getting glances and attention from customers or the occasional passerby. Jesse even tested out the accommodations by living in the wagon for a short time. "This project wasn't so much about the wagon…but more about us working together," Jesse said. "Elmer is a good friend. We had a blast doing this."While the two have a hard time putting a value on their rare wagon, they both agree that they would decide on a price for the right buyer. In addition to all the materials, the two also have lots of time invested in the project. But they're not finished just yet. "Next spring we want to put copper on the roof," Jesse said. After that? The two are tossing around the idea of building a 40-foot Viking long ship from local pine. "It's just idle talk," Jesse said. Sounds familiar. The two men have all winter long to ponder a plan for their next great creation.

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