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Montana man brings history back to life with horse-drawn wagon restorations

Dave Engel inside of Engel's Coach Shop in Joliet
Posted at 1:20 PM, Oct 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-10 15:21:46-04

JOLIET - Horse-drawn carriages and wagons might be a thing of the past — but Dave Engel is working to bring them back to life.

Engel's Coach Shop in Joliet is run by Dave and Diane Engel — and is focused on horse-drawn carriage and wagon restorations.

Dave and Diane Engel were both born in Montana but lived in Kansas for awhile during Diane’s time in the Army as a nurse.

During a time of transition, they decided to return to where they were raised.

After moving back, Dave was approached by his brother-in-law with an idea.

“He had this brainchild of ‘Let’s fix buggies,’ and asked if I would come join him," Dave reflects. "And that was 44 years ago.”

While others wouldn't dare do what Dave has taken on, he is seemingly a master of all trades.

“Woodworking, blacksmithing, painting, upholstery, that helps keep my mind engaged, that variety of things," Engel says.

About five years ago, Engel was approached by the Borax company to restore a wagon.

The company asked Dave to video himself working on the project, to show the donor's the progress.

After the project was complete, Dave got to researching.

“So I searched YouTube, and there was nobody that was doing the craft or the trade on a consistent basis. So I decided I’m going to do it anyway, I might as well keep the camera running and try to document beyond what a book can do," Dave explains. "Actually let people see the ins and outs of how this works.”

His channel took off, and he now has over 180,000 subscribers.

His viewers enjoy his videos so much that they have started to visit him in his Joliet shop.

MTN News asked Diane Engel about the visitors' origins, to which she said, "we've had a couple come all the way from Australia, and one from France, just to meet Dave."

Diane tells MTN News that she loves meeting all of the visitors and hearing their stories.

One visitor happened to be in the shop while MTN News was there.

“About every couple of years, I’ll make a trip out west by myself. I just figured this was the perfect time to come to visit him, to come out and see the shop," Howard Shively says. "It has been an absolute joy just to see the machinery that I’ve watched him operate for so long.”

Shively drove from Michigan after watching Dave's videos for the past five years.

"He's a lot taller in person," Shively jokes. “It’s just very good for the soul, for me today to see this.”

It's safe to say that Dave Engel's videos have reached far and wide.

In a state like Montana where much of our history comes from ranching, there is a lot of potential work for Dave Engel.

Phil Johnson grew up living and working on his family's ranch in Montana.

His family's history in Montana and Wyoming stems back much further than his birth in 1947.

The Johnson and Spear families migrated to the New Chicago settlement in the 1870s where they started their ranching operation.

In 1883, the families moved down to Bighorn, along with their livestock. They used a Chuckwagon to move and also used it in their ranching operations.

Johnson's grandmother was a famous photographer in Montana named Jessamine Spear Johnson. She photographed the wagon in the late 1800s—and Johnson has a copy of the photo.

Chuck Wagon photo by Jessamine Spear Johnson circa late 1800's
Chuck Wagon photo by Jessamine Spear Johnson, circa late 1800's

“That really was the mode of operation on all of the Montana-Wyoming ranches," Johnson explains.

With modern technology, the Chuckwagon soon became a thing of the past. So the Johnson family let it sit on their property, seemingly forgotten about.

Until 2017, when the family decided to sell the ranch.

“This became one of the last things to be moved, and we had a choice," Johnson explains. "It was going to be destroyed, and I’m looking at it and getting passionate and saying, 'No, I think we better do something with it.’"

Through a mutual connection, the Johnson family found Dave Engel. Engel agreed to take on the project after finishing up some others.

After five years the project is complete, and the Johnson family says they are ecstatic.

Chuck wagon restoration by Dave Engel
Chuck wagon restoration by Dave Engel

Johnson tells MTN News he is grateful to have this piece of family history.

“Grandkids, great-grandkids, cousins, aunts, uncles, everybody’s excited," Johnson says with a laugh.

The wagon now stays at family property in Helena and Johnson says that it might be seen in parades.

A complete start-to-finish video is on Dave's YouTube channel of the project.

These restorations require vast knowledge and patience, and Dave Engel tells MTN News that he is honored to be able to complete these projects. He says that he couldn't imagine himself doing anything else.

Even as an experienced wheelwright, Dave still runs into challenges now and then.

“But that’s the challenge that keeps me motivated,” Dave says. “That’s what he likes is a challenge," Diane adds.

While these restorations aren't something you see every day, Dave Engel will continue to showcase his projects for the world to see.

If you are interested in Dave's videos and want to see more, please click here.

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