LIVINGSTON — If you think wooden axles and wheels went out with the horse-and-buggy days, Jem Blueher will set you straight.
Blueher, 43, is among a handful of people restoring old axles and wheels and bringing horse-drawn vehicles back to life.
His cavernous Anvil Wagon Works at the edge of Livingston is as much museum as it is workplace.
Each project has its own place on the floor surrounded by old and new parts.
His coal-fueled forge is in one corner. Nearby is a giant bellows that is not now in use but may be one of Blueher’s restoration projects someday.
The walls are covered with hundreds of old farm and wagon-making tools including pitchfork tines and broad axes used to hew logs. A lady’s sidesaddle hangs near the ceiling. Axles and wheels line an upstairs railing.
Vices, grinders, hand-cranked drills, augers and tire shrinkers that fit a metal rim around wooden wheels hang from posts and fill shelves.
A 50-pound power hammer helps save Blueher’s arm when doing heavy-duty blacksmithing by repeatedly slamming a heavy chunk of metal down on whatever he’s shaping. The hammer runs on electricity now, but may have been powered by water years ago.
Blueher buys old tools — especially those for wheelwrighting, blacksmithing and woodworking — at auctions.
“It’s a lot more fun to use the old tools than brand-new ones,” he said.
Old tools are tough to replace because some obsolete metal equipment was melted down during World War II for the war effort.
Demonstrating a foot-powered grinder, he cheerfully said: “If I ever run out of electricity, I’ll be set.”
Tracking down old tools is just one part of his job that he likes. He loves every step of working on old wagons and talks enthusiastically about even the most inscrutable project.
Nobody but an optimist would have tackled one restoration.
He shows a photo of a barely intact iron-rimmed wooden wheel with a small pile of other metal and wood parts.
Blueher turned the pieces into a sleek black delivery wagon with red pin striping and red wheels.
Blueher, who has lived in Livingston since he was 10, caught the restoration
bug helping his stepfather, Don Ellis, work on artifacts from Montana’s past.
Ellis grew up on a ranch near Great Falls where horse-drawn implements did the work.
Ellis restored sheep wagons as he ran several businesses, branching out to make tepees, too. He still helps Blueher in the shop now and then.
In 1991, Blueher graduated with an electrical electronic engineering technology degree from Montana State University in Bozeman.
After college, he bounced through several temporary engineering jobs in Denver but never found his niche.
He also was a whitewater rafting guide in Alaska and ski instructor in Vail, Colo., returning to Montana frequently.
After buying property near Livingston, Blueher lived in a sheep wagon that he restored while building a cabin. He liked the sheep wagon’s snug accommodations so much that it took a while to adjust when he moved into his relatively spacious 20-by-24-foot cabin.
He had begun restoring sheep wagons full time by 1997. Before long, people were bringing in other kinds of wagons to fix up.
He finally had found the work he was meant to do.
“I enjoy building something out of nothing and bringing it to life,” he said. “It’s addictive, a never-ending process. There’s always something different.”
Learning woodworking from his stepfather, he sought out experts to teach him other 19th-century skills.
After trying to make missing or broken metal parts for wagons, he went to a Bozeman blacksmithing conference to improve what he could do.
Dissatisfied with some of his own wooden wheel repairs, he visited wheelwrights for advice.
“They were all good about sharing their knowledge,” he said.
Blueher continues to restore old sheep wagons and make new ones from scratch for resorts, dude ranches and people who just want a unique guesthouse.
“They are the original American RV,” Blueher said.
Few resemble a place where a grizzled old sheepherder might bunk for the night. Blueher outfits some with a corrugated metal or copper roof and custom cabinets and metal work inside.
After working on scores of wagons, he’s refined his techniques.
To make the bows arching over the top of the wagons, he used to soak lengths of wood in a creek and then bend them. But that didn’t produce a uniform shape.
Now, Dave Engel, a Joliet wagon maker, steam bends the bows to an exact curve.
Sheep wagons cost from $3,000 for a basic restoration to $35,000 for an elaborate model built from the ground up.
Blueher is currently restoring a stagecoach that once hauled freight and passengers over Flesher Pass between Helena and Lincoln.
When the stagecoach arrived at Blueher’s workshop, it looked like a pile of weathered wood held together with rusty iron work. It had no wheels, seats or front axle.
One of his next projects is a two-person Brewster Brougham (pronounced Brome) carriage.
Broughams are small, horse-drawn taxis that moviegoers may recognize from films set in Victorian-era London.
Although a little worn and frayed, the elegant carriage is in fair shape for being 100 years old. Its leaded-glass windows still slide down to open. Rubber tires rim the wheels. Black felt lines the interior and covers the seat.
Blueher also has made a chuck wagon outfitted with a full set of cooking utensils that he made at his forge.
In a slight deviation from his normal work, he restored an 1862 Civil War cannon used at the Battle of Gettysburg.
The 3-inch ordnance rifle, which came out West during the Indian Wars, sat in front of the Park County Courthouse for years before being moved to inside storage at the Yellowstone Gateway Museum. It will be put on display when money is raised for a protective enclosure.
Blueher loves tackling seemingly impossible projects. He has unraveled the mystery of a wagon’s manufacturer by tracing a fading name painted on weathered wood.
He enjoys researching the wagons, consulting reproductions of catalogs of old wagon and buggy companies.
On one wagon, he couldn’t figure out how the tailgate latch worked until finding information about the device in an old patent document.
When Blueher is done with his current projects, he has several more waiting, including a horse-drawn sleigh.
Today, most people consider horse-drawn vehicles symbols of a simpler, more romantic time.
There is nothing simple about a well-made wagon that includes scores of innovations.
Although some were made one at a time in small shops, wagon making was industrialized in the 1800s with large factories cranking out assembly-line vehicles.
Studebaker and John Deere made horse-drawn wagons before they started producing mechanized vehicles.