Ohio repairman keeps wheels turning on horse-drawn carriages and wagons

Ohio wagon mechanic rolls out horse-drawn buggies

NEW HOPE, Ohio - The needle of the 109-year-old bit into the fabric of a dashboard, with its stitch steady as the man handling it, making a customer's dashboard that would shield the driver from any horsehair or horse droppings, which might be flung into the driver's face.

The dashboard was for a buggy to be pulled by a horse as it clip-clops along the edge of a rural highway. Ivan Burkholder's eyes followed the darting needle of the huge Singer sewing machine, which he uses to piece together several pieces of fabric for the dashboard of the vehicle. Burkholder's mind is probably a century away because the work he does has been done the same way for hundreds of years.

He owns and runs Woodlyn Coach Co., which is nestled quietly beneath spreading trees about 60 yards off a not-so-busy road in rural Holmes County, Ohio. The nearest community is New Hope, which is just a crossroads about an hour's drive by car from Cleveland. By horse, it would take several hours to make the trip.

Burkholder deals in travel time by horse because all of his business has to do with wagons, buggies and sleighs pulled by horses. Burkholder, 62, is in his 50th year in the carriage repair business. His father and grandfather, who taught him the trade and business, asked him to work on a wagon wheel when Burkholder was 12. From then, he fell in love with not only the business, but the lore of it.

"I found an old wagon in a barn and I took it home and redid it," said Burkholder, offering a shy smile with his story. "I made some money on it." He did not finish the thought. But there was no need. It was obvious he had found his passion in life.

Woodlyn Carriage Co. is a complex of two wooden buildings, each filled with all kinds of equipment to get wagons and buggies back on their wheels. In one moment, Burikholder might be stitching fabric with a 4-foot wide Singer sewing machine and the next moment, he might he hammering a piece of bent medal for a buggy fender.

In another room, there are three other workers, each intently eyeing work on vehicles which have been brought in for repair. Wayne Troyer has been with Burkholder for 31 years. "He's my paint striper," said Burkholder, pointing a finger toward Troyer's delicate work. The pain striper has between his fingers a small brush that he uses to apply a thin line of yellow paint to accent the red runners of a sleigh a customer has brought in for updating.

It is the kind of sleigh depicted in paintings of Santa Claus. Troyer has given the sleigh fresh coats of paint and the striping he applies with a delicate touch give it a little more pizzaz. Soon, all that will be needed is a horse or two with jingling bells on their harnesses to pull a family through the snow. "Yeah, we're getting there," said Troyer, who used to be a furniture decorator until Burkholder nudged him into the buggy, wagon, and sleigh business.

"It rings my bell," said Troyer, who said he found the work so satisfying he gave up the furniture business. However, there are not a lot of people knocking on Burkholder's door to learn the business. He admitted his is a dying art as far as bringing in people who are skilled in the work. "Nobody's knocking on my door asking for a job," said Burkholder.

Still, business for repairs is brisk. Holmes County is filled with wagons and buggies owned by the Amish people who are abundant in that part of the area. Burkholder said he does some work for them, but admitted most of his customers are not Amishy, but who love the lure of horse-drawn vehicles.

One customer pulled in his driveway, towing a horse van. But inside was a buggy that needed some repair work on its fenders and upholstery. "We can fix that," grinned Burkholder. "I'll take the top rail off and we'll cover it just like a dashboard," said the repairman.

The largest part of Woolyn Coach is what Burkholder calls his "showroom." It is filled with used used in farming, including a water wagon in which a farmer would take hundreds of gallons to his field. There is also a small Conestoga wagon, similar to the type American pioneers used in the 1800s as they moved Westward.

In a corner is an actual stage coach Burkholder found at an auction. He said its vintage is 1890. It is large enough for four people easily to fit inside on its upholstered seats. There are carriage running lights on the outside. The stagecoach is in need of heavy repair, but Burkholder does not seen intent on selling it. He likes to eye his possession, probably secretly wishing to hold on to it. So far, no one has bitten on the $9,000 price tag he has attached to its front right wheel.

Inside his shop is an old painting depicting a mostly-gone time of life. it is of a man driving a team of two white horses that are pulling what looks like a farmer's wagon across a small creek. In the background is a big red barn. The driver seems to have a smile on his face. The painting depicts a time in the past. However, while talking with Burkholder, it seems to be part of his 21st Century. He is holding on the past and still working it everyday with enough business to keep him, his three employees, and an office manager busy.

Ivan Burholder has one foot in the past and the other in the present. It does not take much thought to determine which foot he favors.

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