Dunn County man restores wagons as retirement hobby
David Watkins has restored thousands of wheels and hundreds of wagons in his lifetime.
On June 1, he loaned the Dunn County Historical Museum a restored military wagon used to carry supplies. This type of wagon was designed during the Civil War and more were built during the Spanish-American War and World War I, said Watkins, a resident of Dunn County. Many of them went overseas as well.
It took him 20 years to collect all the parts for the wagon with pieces coming from various states. The process requires a considerable amount of research.
"Once you start restoring these things, you want to get them as accurate as possible, and you can't avoid history," he said. "It's every step you take, there's history there. I try to preserve as much as I can. I don't label anything—I don't put my name on it because if 100 years from now somebody restores that, I don't want them to see me. I want them to think this is the first time it's ever been worked on."
Even as a young man, Watkins knew he would one day need a retirement hobby he would never grow weary of. He learned about wagon restoration while working for the Montana State Prison, and soon fell in love with the craft.
Every military company had a supply wagon that carried their tents, stoves and other supplies in addition to extra wheels and parts of the wagon. Though multiple companies built the wagon, all the parts had to be interchangeable regardless. If one supply wagon broke down, the military would carry the salvageable parts with them in case they lost another.
This particular wagon was the first type where the driver sat on the wagon rather than on the back of a horse. Previous wagons also required a team of six horses while this one used four mules. He estimated it weighs about 2,500 pounds, noting that this is one of the heaviest wagons he has trailered to the museum from his property, which is about eight miles away.
Deb Lancaster, the museum's oral historian, said Watkins has been a strong resource of historical information and skill over the years.
"It's just incredible the amount of knowledge that he has and the fact that he's willing to share it is wonderful," she said. "... He is an amazing person and an amazing resource, and Dunn County is very lucky that he is right here. Certainly the museum is very lucky that he was willing to loan it."
Cathy Trampe, museum chairperson, described Watkins as a "perfectionist" noting all the time he spends researching the background of his pieces in addition to his work restoring the project back to a replica of its original state. She is amazed by all the things he has worked on over the years and the projects he helps with.
Watkins said it sometimes takes about a year of research before beginning a restoration project to avoid erasing a piece of history. For example, a dent or other damage may be the result of a historical event rather than a mishap.
He has restored projects for people in the past, especially enjoying working on those with some sort of family history. Now he works only to preserve them for himself, adding that he pays even closer attention to detail now than he did working for others.
"My favorite is always the current one, it's always the one I'm working on," Watkins said. "I've talked to many people who restore, and just about without question every one of them have said, including myself, 'I would like to go back and redo some of those because I can do it better now.' We all start out dumb, we all start out green, and hopefully we learn in the process of growing old."
Watkins has loaned multiple wagons and buggies that he has restored to the museum, a novelty that is not lost on those working there.
"I think it's really neat that it's here because, as he said, there are very few of them on display anywhere in the United States," Lancaster said. "The fact that this little county museum now has one on display is incredible, and hopefully people will not miss the opportunity to see it while it's here."