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Rural Missouri Magazine
The Buggy Smith
Ray Smith’s historic wagons and carriages appeal to horse owners who would rather drive than ride

by Bob McEowen

Ray Smith installs a pair of horse shafts onto a buckboard wagon with help from Gary Parkin of Poplar Bluff. Parkin often stops by Ray’s home-based shop, Smith-made Wagons and Carriages in Mill Spring, to lend a hand building carriages and buggies.

Ray Smith has heard every old horse and buggy story at least once. The memories begin almost as soon as he swings open the double doors to his storage barn. With one glimpse of the stable full of wagons, carriages and buggies many visitors instantly recall a childhood spent farming with horses or delivering goods on a wagon.

“It seems like every older fella that comes here and looks at one of these buggies has to tell me some story,” Ray says. “I’ve listened to more stories than you can imagine.”

Not that Ray minds. After all, customers come to Ray to relive a time when driving to town meant harnessing a horse and watching the scenery glide slowly by to the sound of clopping hooves. Whatever kind of horse-drawn vehicle his customers remember, chances are this Ozark Border Electric Cooperative member has something like it in his barn. If not, he can build it.

A former pilot, Ray has turned an interest in buggies into a business. Today, Smith-Made Wagons and Carriages builds and sells about a dozen historically accurate horse-drawn vehicles each year from Ray’s home near Mill Spring.

Instead of waiting for customers to order a specific vehicle, Ray offers a variety. His company — in reality, Ray, a couple of friends who pitch in on projects and the occasional hired craftsman — turns out a bewildering array of buggies and carriages.

Smith walks a doctor’s buggy from his storage barn. The former pilot says he likes to keep an inventory of vehicles on hand for customers of his business, Smith-Made Wagons and Carriages.

“There are so many different models of wagons. I have over 60 copies of original plans of different kinds of vehicles,” Ray says. “We try to build something that we think somebody would really enjoy.”

Currently, his barn is stocked with everything from a two-wheel cart to an enclosed delivery wagon modeled after a vehicle John Deere sold at the turn of the last century. He has utilitarian spring wagons, practical runabouts, an upscale doctor’s buggy and a fancy surrey with the requisite fringe on top. One carriage, called a storm wagon, features leather side panels that roll down for protection from the elements. Under construction in his barn is a true buckboard — the natural give of its wooden frame, rather than springs, soften the bumpy ride.

In part, Ray stocks so many vehicles to increase his chances of making a sale. Often horse-drawn vehicle enthusiasts travel great distances to visit Ray. Having a number of carriages in stock increases the chance the visitor will leave a customer.

“It’s an emotional buy,” Ray says. “If you don’t have an inventory of different styles people will come and look at one thing and they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s nice.’ It’s much better if you can say, ‘I have a selection out here. Which one would you like?’”

The real reason Ray offers so many different vehicles is that he enjoys building and driving something new. Ray finds inspiration for future projects while perusing original horse-drawn vehicle literature published by Sears and Roebuck, John Deere and smaller coachworks, like the Kelks Buggy Company of Sedalia.

Ray Smith builds historically accurate horse-drawn vehicles at his home near Mill Spring.

“That’s the fun of it,” he says. “I go through all the catalogs I have and say, ‘Oh, I’d like to build that.’

“That doesn’t mean that somebody is going to buy it,” Ray admits. “It’s just enjoyable to build it. I’ll drive it for a while and hope somebody will buy it and take it away from me.”

Like his customers, 74-year-old Ray has his own story to tell. When Ray was a boy his father farmed cotton in central California.

“I used to see him coming down the rows with a cultivator and two mules,” he recalls. “That was always exciting to me.”

While his father earned a living from the ground, Ray sought his livelihood in the air. Ray became a pilot and eventually operated a flying school, aircraft dealership and charter service near San Francisco. In 1967, as a respite from his business, he found relaxation restoring an old spring wagon.

“I took it apart and I suddenly realized, my, there was a lot of thought that went into building one of these things, a lot of engineering,” he says.

Ray learned of a few old wagon makers still living and working in California’s Gold Rush region and began visiting their shops. These men, remnants of the original carriage trade that lasted into the 1920s, provided Ray with a link to a time when horses-drawn vehicles were the primary mode of transportation. In addition, Ray visited museums and private collections to study wagon construction, take photographs and record dimensions of old vehicles.

By 1974 Ray was so steeped in old wagons that he bought 14 at one time and set about restoring them. All this experience — Ray says he restored more than 30 horse-drawn vehicles before building his first one from scratch — made Ray an expert in his own right.

The front suspension of a utility spring wagon shows the detail Smith puts into his vehicles. He says he tries to make wagons and carriages the way they were built 100 years ago.

“The way you really learn to do these things is restore a lot of them,” he says. “That’s really the best way — that and find as many old wagon makers as you can and ask them as many questions as you can.”

Ray was content to fly airplanes and build and restore wagons on the side until a series of events changed his life forever. In 1980, Ray’s first wife died. Three years later his aviation career was grounded. “In 1982, I busted my flight physical and found out I was diabetic. That ended my flying,” he says.

Ray sold his business, which at that time included a fleet of 11 airplanes, and took up real estate sales. Eventually he remarried. His new wife, Jan, was originally from Missouri. In 1996 the couple moved from California to care for Jan’s father and bought a farm along the Black River, south of Piedmont.

Here Ray built his buggy business. Selling primarily through wagon auctions and to word-of-mouth prospects, he has supplied a fairly steady stream of horse enthusiasts who would rather drive a buggy than ride.

“The last few years driving has really taken hold,” Ray says. “It’s amazing how many people drive and how many clubs there are throughout the country. Thousands of people are driving now.”

While Ray has sold a number of wagons and carriages in Missouri, many of his buggies go to other states. He’s sold vehicles to customers in Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana and California. One wagon he restored was used in the television show “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” He later built a pair of buckboards for the show.

Ray takes his horse, Stanley, and one of his buggies for a drive along a dirt road near his home.

At one time Ray made almost every part on his vehicles, including wheels. Today, Ray concentrates on woodworking and buys wheels, axles and other parts from specialty suppliers — a practice common to 19th-century wagon builders as well.

As much as possible Ray says he strives to build vehicles like those of his predecessors. “We make them like they were built 100 years ago,” he says. “That’s the fun of it for me.”

Ray’s current inventory includes wagons and buggies that range in price from about $1,200 for a two-wheel cart, to more than $4,000 for a surrey. At those prices, a buggy or wagon is within reach of most horse enthusiasts, Ray says. “A couple of thousand dollars will get them a nice vehicle that they can enjoy.”

And that, more than the money he makes selling about one vehicle a month, provides the real satisfaction for Ray. When the doors to the barn close, with one less wagon inside, Ray knows he’s done his part in helping someone relive a memory.

“It’s a labor of love,” he says as he stands by a wagon in progress in his workshop. “I get a lot of gratification when I see somebody buy something like this and really enjoy it.”

For more information, write Ray Smith at Smith-Made Wagons and Carriages, Rt. 1, Box 1422, Mill Spring, MO 63952; or call (573) 223-2019.


For information about wagons and wagon parts please contact Ray Smith directly by phone or mail at the address above.

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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