Life on the Farm. Click here to find out how a new mower turned a chore into a pleasure.

Rural Missouri Magazine
The Wagon Man
Gary Stull traveled far to arrive at Wagonwheel Ranch

by Jeff Joiner

At first glance, Gary Stull is almost a parody of a cowboy. Dressed in chaps, jeans and boots, and wearing a cowboy hat as he works in his shop near Cape Fair, he looks the part. But if you look closely, you’ll see Gary is no actor. Slightly bowlegged, he’s got a weathered look to him and if you look at his hands you’ll instantly see he’s no weekend western wannabe. Chafed, scarred and rough, these are the hands of a man who has worked hard most of his life.

Gary Stull has built wagons and wheels for nearly 30 years.

Gary is one of handful of people in the country who make a living building and restoring horse drawn wagons, something he’s done for nearly three decades. Gary’s life has been a long search for a calling, a search that, despite a life-threatening illness and personal loss, has led him to a life rebuilding the past.

A native of Illinois, Gary earned a degree in forest products technology from Southern Illinois University in the early 1960s and went to work for the Kimball Furniture Company in Indiana and Alabama where he researched materials and new ways to make furniture. Later Gary started his own furniture company in Montgomery, Ala.

After moving to a farm near Montgomery, Gary began building expensive, mahogany reproductions of antiques.

“I was building furniture by myself, one piece at a time and was happy as I could be.”
About this time Gary and his family were also raising and showing horses and traveled to shows nearly every weekend. Along with his business, Gary was consumed with horses.

In the mid-1970s Gary came across the burned up hulk of a miniature wooden wagon in the parking lot of his local lumberyard.

It turns out the wagon, a half-scale covered wagon, had been accidentally set on fire. The lumberyard owner gave the wagon to Gary to get rid of it and he rebuilt it by salvaging the iron parts, replacing all the charred wood and remaking the canvas top. Gary and his two young sons bought a pair of ponies to pull the wagon and began taking it to parades where it was a big hit.

“Other people started asking, ‘Can you repair this wagon and can you fix this wheel. So I started doing this work on wagons while I was making furniture, never thinking it would turn into a business,” says Gary.

In 1981 Gary and his wife, Kathryn, sold their farm in Alabama and moved to Ash Grove, Mo., to be closer to his parents in Arkansas. His reputation as a wagon builder followed him and before long that part of the business eclipsed furniture.

Gary prepares spokes of a wagon wheel at his shop near Cape Fair.

By 1988 Gary worked full-time building wagons and wheels for a growing list of customers from all over the United States. He also became a regular at the annual Silver Dollar city crafts festival where he was known as the Wagon Man.

But Gary’s life didn’t always progress so smoothly. He says the year 2001 was one that nearly killed him, literally. In the spring his wife of 32 years died unexpectedly. Three months later Gary was hospitalized with a rare illness that nearly took his life. Gary went to see doctors for recurring ulcers, but what they found was far more grave.

Doctors told Gary he had developed an extremely rare form of ulcer that completely destroys the lining of the stomach. His doctor told him the only treatment was removal of his stomach, an almost unheard of procedure.

Following his surgery, Gary began a long struggle. No one, particularly his doctors, knew how to help him learn to live without a stomach. Eating was difficult and his body began wasting away.
“He looked like a 93-year-old, crippled man,” says Cyndi Stull, Gary’s new wife and the women who helped care for him.

Cyndi worked for Silver Dollar City for many years and knew Gary and his wife through their involvement in the crafts festival. Cyndi and Gary became reacquainted after his illness.
It’s hard to believe looking at him now, but at one time Gary weighed nearly 300 pounds. “He looked just like Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza,” says Cyndi.

Cyndi began researching his condition and learned he was essentially malnourished and needed vitamin and mineral supplements to provide nutrients usually processed in the stomach. Slowly he began to improve, though he will never be a heavy man again. “Now I call him Stick Man,” says Cyndi.

Today Cyndi and Gary are married and he credits her with saving his life.

“It’s a miracle and a blessing from God that I’m here today and I have her in my life,” says Gary.
Today the couple are partners in Stull’s Heartland Hitchwagons, the business they moved from Ash Grove last year, where Gary lived for 21 years, to near Cape Fair a short distance from Table Rock Lake. Gary built a new shop on land they call the Wagonwheel Ranch.

Gary and Cyndi Stull are developing their Wagonwheel Ranch into a retreat center where guests can learn traditional crafts and homespun arts.

Gary can rebuild a 100-year-old wagon or build a completely new one from scratch including the wheels which he makes from hand including turning his own wooden spokes on a lathe. About half his business is restoration work and half new wagons. He makes nearly every kind of wagon from buckboards and Springfield wagons to covered wagons and chuck wagons.

Gary and Cyndi travel to large western shows, like Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming, throughout the year and set up shop demonstrating his skills. The couple sprinkle in a lot of history and storytelling in their demonstrations.

“We put on a show and give them some history and show them how it was done,” Gary says. “It’s not rocket science to build a wheel, but it does involve some physics and geometry to get a serviceable wheel.”

A new venture for Gary and Cyndi is building a bunkhouse for guests at their Wagonwheel Ranch. Next year Gary will begin teaching people how to build a wheel or an entire wagon. The bunkhouse will be available for Gary’s students or to families or groups wanting a quiet place for a retreat. Cyndi, an Missouri native, will offer visitors some of the experience she’s gleaned from living in the Ozarks including gardening, cooking and other homespun arts.

Gary is amazed at the journey he’s taken to arrive at Wagonwheel Ranch. It wasn’t always an easy one, he says, but he’s certainly glad he made the trip.

For more information about Heartland Hitchwagons and the Wagonwheel Ranch contact Gary and Cyndi Stull at 373 Fossil Cove Rd., Cape Fair, MO 65624, or call (417) 538-2380. Visit them on the Web at www.ozarkswagonman.com.

Rural Missouri Magazine Digital Edition
2014 Missouri Snapshots Photo Contest
 
Rural Missouri Merchandise Out of the Way Eats Subscribe to Rural Missouri Rural Missouri Prints Store

Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives

Rural Missouri
2722 E. McCarty Street
P.O. Box 1645 • Jefferson City, Mo. 65102
573-659-3423

Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri's Facebook Page Rural Missouri's YouTube Channel Subscribe to Rural Missouri's RSS Feed Rural Missouri | Pinterest