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Wagon building a labor of love for Dexter resident
DEXTER, Mo. — Jerry Brown has built 661 wagons, but don't bother asking him for a blueprint.
Brown, 71, began building pack-drawn wagons 25 years ago. The longtime Dexter resident said he has always made them strictly from memory.
"People call weekly asking how they can buy a set of plans," Brown said. "I tell them we have no drawn-out plans and they are all in my head.
"I've been doing this for so long that I just sit down and try to put it together," he said. "There's always someone at one of the shows I attend taking pictures of my wagons so they can build their own wagon that they hope will turn out like mine, which doesn't bother me."
Jerry Brown's Custom Wagons — an operation consisting of Brown and employee Albert Bostic of Bloomfield, Mo. — has manufactured wagons for customers in Canada, Puerto Rico, South America and every state in the United States except South Dakota and Hawaii. His clientele has included CBS late-night talk show host David Letterman, the August Busch family, Purina Farms in St. Louis, Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. Brown recently completed the company's only Conestoga wagon — a broad-wheeled covered freight carrier used during the 18th and 19th centuries — which now sits inside the Cowboy Church building near Oak Ridge.
For Brown, building his wagons is a labor of love.
"I said when I built a wagon for a customer in every state that I would quit, but I doubt that will happen," Brown said. "This is a passion. I like to weld, and work with wood and this is something that combines the two into something that is unique."
A lifelong fan of horses and mules, Brown built his first wagon by himself at the request of a neighbor. The job took nearly two months to complete, Brown recalled.
Now, the time to make one of his wagons has been cut down to two weeks. Brown said no two wagons are alike.
"The wagons may look similar, but there may be such a small difference as one wagon may be just a half-inch longer than the other," Brown said.
The process begins when Brown makes the wagon's wheels and steering using steel purchased from a supplier in Sikeston, Mo.
Brown then constructs the wagon's frame from planks measuring 14 inches wide, one-and-a-half inches thick and 16 feet long. Brown cuts each plank to the customer's specification, though the average length is about 12 feet. He then sands and uses seven coats of spar varnish and paint to produce a clear finish. Glue and about 500 bolts and screws are used to keep the boards together.
After attaching the wheels and brakes, the wagon is ready for the customer. Brown takes orders in person, by telephone at 573-624-4755 or over the Internet at www.brownscustomwagons.us. Brown also visits 10 fairs a year to promote his product.
As for when he'll stop selling, Brown said that remains to be seen.
"It's the best thing to ever happen to me," Brown said. "It's the first hobby to make money. We don't want to get rich but it's enough."
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