To most people, the word “stagecoach” conjures romantic images of a six-up team thundering across the prairie, kicking dust in its wake. To J.W. Brown, the word connotes metal and wood—the myriad pieces it takes to actually build a stagecoach, each fitting perfectly according to the blueprint in his mind.
Brown has hand-crafted 60 stagecoaches over the past 40 years, not to mention the buckboards and chuck wagons and even one chariot.
Brown, 81, got started building coaches by helping a friend restore two stagecoaches in the early ’70s.
Most of the stagecoaches Brown has built since then are replicas of models made by Abbott and Downing, the New Hampshire firm that started building coaches in 1813. By the late 19th century the company was the leading supplier of stagecoaches for routes that linked major cities and small communities across the West.
“It started as a hobby, but it got out of hand,” Brown says with a grin. “I decided early on that if I was going to build one, I would build it right.”
Brown’s stagecoach business is housed in a metal outbuilding near his home in Weatherford, Texas. The front portion is for leatherwork, and two larger adjacent workrooms house finished stagecoaches.
Forty or more jigs made by Brown and his 10 employees hang on the outside of the building. “They fit metal to wood and wood to metal,” Brown explains about manufacturing parts himself. “Home Depot doesn’t carry parts for stagecoaches.”
When beginning a new project, Brown starts with the running gear, or frame, which is constructed from oak or another tough wood. Next up, the large rear wheels and smaller front wheels attach to axels, which are affixed to the frame.
Brown built a set of wheels—once—and says that the expereince taught him to leave that complicated process to a wheelwright, like his contractor Paul Raber, an Amish wheelwright in Montgomery, Ind. Raber uses White Ash grown in the North for his wheels, which according to Brown, is stronger than southern-grown White Ash, which tends to fracture and break from having matured (and bent) in typically windier conditions.
The body is made of wood or fiberglass, depending on customer preference, and is suspended above the running gear with thick leather straps that cushion the ride. Ovular in shape and tough as can be, the coach bodies had to go through water and over rough ground.
“Abbot and Downing coaches went from St. Louis, over the Rocky Mountains, to San Francisco,” Brown says. “The ride had to be as comfortable as possible.”
Over the years, stagecoaches made by Brown have appeared in numerous movies and television shows, including Maverick, the 1994-film starring Mel Gibson; Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman; and most recently, the film Night at the Museum.
His stagecoaches are also in the collections of museums in San Jose, Calif., Lubbock and San Angelo, Texas, Minneapolis, Minn., and Phoenix, Ariz. The Wells Fargo Corporation also uses a Brown-built stagecoach in its advertisements.
Recently, Brown handed over the company reins to his son in law, but each coach still bears the J.W. Brown stamp.
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