Crosbie’s passion is sheep wagon restoration

You could open the top if you burned the pancakes."
Attendees at the 1902 Cowboys gathering in New Underwood Sunday, Sept. 10, were greeted by an authentically restored sheep wagon brought back to life by New Underwood area rancher Gene Crosbie. 
Crosbie is well versed in wagon restoration, having restored a variety of wagons of all sizes, styles and functions. This hobby began, according to Crosbie, when he was still a child. 
“Everybody had wagons sitting around, just falling apart in their fence lines,” Crosbie said. 
Crosbie was inspired to modify his first wagon as a ten year old, when he and a friend were going camping. They had a pup tent and a Greyhound wagon, and Crosbie set to work to build a stock rack for the wagon. 
Crosbie purchased his first wagon in the 1990s from Chet Miraz of Dupree. The wagon had belonged to Miraz’s brother, Norman, who had herded sheep with the wagon. Crosbie saw an advertisement in the Tri-State Livestock News for the sheep wagon.
With each wagon comes a lifetime of history. One of Crosbie’s wagons came from Tom Sternard, who lives southwest of Faith near the former town of Cooper. According to Crosbie, the wagon was originally built for Oscar Vansickle by the great-grandfather of ranch supply store owner and South Dakota senator Gary Cammack. It is a small wagon, one that Sternard used as a playhouse for his children. Crosbie hypothesized that the wagon was one built for day herding, not for fulltime sheep herding.
The wagon that Crosbie featured at the 1902 Cowboys gathering was purchased from Francis Curtis near Green Grass. Now lined on the interior with knotty pine, the wagon was covered with Masonite when it came into Crosbie’s possession. 
In fact, according to Crosbie, there was a variety of materials used for the sheep wagons. One of the wagons Crosbie purchased from a seller in Belle Fourche, had two layers of canvas, then aluminum, for its construction. 
The invention of sheep wagons is credited to a Rawlings, Wyo., blacksmith named James Candlish. The first wagon was built in 1884, based off an idea given to Candlish by sheepman, mine operator and businessman George Ferris.   
According to Crosbie, the first sheep wagons had canvas for door coverings. Dutch doors, with upper and lower partitions, became standard later.
“With the Dutch doors, you could keep the top open and keep the dog out, or you could drive the wagon. You could open the top if you burned the pancakes,” Crosbie said. 
Most of Crosbie’s sheep wagons have a narrower base that widens above the wheels. Crosbie is currently working on a sheep wagon that is a bread loaf pattern, said Crosbie.
Sheep wagons are, by necessity, wider than regular wagons. According to Crosbie, a pony wagon box is 32 inches wide, a regular wagon box is 38 inches  wide, and a large sheep wagon box is 42 inches  wide. This width makes it possible for a stove to fit into the sheep wagon. 
While sheep wagons could be procured from numerous sources in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Studebaker Brothers company made a wagon which was, according to Crosbie, “the Cadillac of the wagons.”
The Studebaker Brothers began making first wagon parts, then whole wagons, in the 1850s. They added sheep wagons to their line later. The Studebaker Brothers’ catalogues from 1899-1915 featured customizable sheep wagons, Crosbie said.
Studebaker Brothers would construct the outside of the sheep wagon, but the buyer could customize the interior, according to Crosbie.
Sheep wagons were used throughout the settling of South Dakota as sheepherders would live on the open range for weeks at a time, accompanying their herds as they grazed. The sheepherders lived on canned food, raisins, and eggs. They enjoyed rare visits from other sheepherders and people commissioned with bringing supplies to replenish the sheep wagons. 
In South Dakota, sheep herding in this manner largely ended after World War II. At this point, ranchers began to fence off their pastures, rendering the constant sheepherder unnecessary. 
Some sheepherders continued to live in and herd from their sheep wagons in western South Dakota into the 1950s. In the mountains of Wyoming, sheepherders can still be found running sheep on government land at present.
In addition to the history that already accompanies each sheep wagon, Crosbie’s restorations are making new history. The wagon featured at the 1902 Cowboys gathering has also been displayed at the sheep dog trials during the Black Hills Stock Show. It has also been used during the western South Dakota Buckaroo ride. 
“It can be used for the board of directors meeting or for a bull session,” Crosbie said. 
Another of Crosbie’s pieces, a Mormon hand cart, was also on display at the 1902 Cowboys gathering.

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