March 2, 2006
Ben Hill Co. -- Most of us have visited a used car lot, but few people have ever seen, much less visited, a horse-drawn wagon lot.
Wagons, originally built in the 1900s and often given up for dead, get new life from a man who produces miracles from almost nothing to work with.
You would be hard pressed to find anyone more knowledgeable about horse-drawn wagons than David Nelms. "People at hardware store put wagons together," says David, as he stands near the Thornhill brand of wagon.
"Excellent wagon," says David, "It just holds up good." A no-frills wagon, but you could buy accessories for a little extra money. "The brakes were eight dollars extra; Seat was five dollars," says David, but many people in the South didn't have a need for brakes because the land was so flat.
People who lived in the hill country would buy the brakes. Eight dollars here, five dollars there were big bucks back in the 1900s. Want more luxury? "Studebaker had the Cadillac of wagons," says David. Studebaker built wagons for about 20 years before it made cars. "It rode better than the rest of the wagons," says David. Leaf springs under the seat gave the brand a competitive advantage.
You might think the demand for horse-drawn wagons would have little or no market these days, but think again. He says business is good at a time with automakers in Detroit have their financial problems. David doesn't know of another wagon re-builder or a show lot around here. If you want to stop by and take a look at the used wagons and maybe kick the wheels, take it easy. The wheels are made of wood and steel.
David Nelms sells and rebuilds horse-drawn wagons, some more than a hundred years old. "I see something there to fix," shouts David in excitement as he digs through a small pile of rotten wood and rusted metal, the remains of a wagon that sits under pine trees near his shop.
He will make it as good as new. "I have a body shop for old wagons," says David, where he has patiently rebuilt 15 wagons, so far, and where he makes time stands still. "I work with it 'till I get it like I want it. Regardless of how long it takes," says David, as he sands cypress boards that will become the wagon's floor on a newly refurbished yellow frame.
He always wanted a yellow wagon like those in the movies. Each one of the wagons he's rebuilt has withstood the test of time-often hard times, but it gets a new life. "Amazing how they held up through all the years," says David.
He strongly believes the old hardware is hard to beat, and uses the original parts when he can. Many of the old parts just need the rust of time removed. "Parts not a problem. Make it yourself," says David. Or repair what you have. "You can't go out and buy it," says David.
He is always on the lookout for wagons wherever he travels. If he sees one, he asks the owner if he would like to sell it. He often pays $ 1500 for an old wagon stuck under a barn that looks like it isn't worth taking away. "According to how much work you are going to put in it," says David.
Instead of selling it, the owner usually wants it reconditioned but doesn't know who can do the work. David offers his services and often the owner takes him up on his offer. In a few months he has it completely rebuilt. "I enjoy fixing it for a family," says David. "People seem to enjoy it after it's fixed."
Those few seconds of surprise when a family sees the refurbished wagon for the first time excites David. He often rebuilds wagons for third generation owners who remember riding in them as children, and who want their children and grandchildren to have those same pleasant memories.
David will put his heart and soul into each wagon to make it as good as new, reversing the adverse affects of time.