I believe living horse power can be an effective way to transport local food to market, and that more people should adopt this sustainable form of transportation. To bring working animals back to the city streets, I decided to build a commercial horse-drawn wagon in 2010. My project would allow me to sell bread and produce directly from my wagon parked on the City Green of Vergennes, Vt., the town nearest my home.
Building the delivery wagon was fun, and it combined my love of woodworking with my interest in working with animals. The project took many hours and cost about $2,000 in materials. If I were to build a wagon like this on commission, I would probably charge $4,500.
Delivering Local Food With a Bakery Cart
My family operates Good Companion Bakery on our 110- acre farm just outside of Vergennes, Vt. Sustainable transport of our baked goods, produce and meat to market was one of my motivations in building a wagon.
The cargo hold is outfitted with a handmade storage system that allows us to haul 150 pastries, 80 loaves of bread, several boxes of produce and two coolers of frozen meat. We can’t fit that much food in our car! And, unlike our station wagon’s cargo area, which is all curves and wheel wells, I designed the hold of our horse-drawn vehicle to be a perfect match for the type of goods we sell. Every pine cargo crate has good clearance and ventilation, and a shelf with a lip keeps each crate snug on even the bumpiest of rides.
Our wagon is based on plans for a bakery van drawn by John Thompson, a British man who made scale drawings and models of horse-drawn vehicles during the 1920s and ’30s, when gasoline-powered cars and trucks were rendering equine-powered transportation obsolete. Thompson drew plans for all sorts of vehicles, including passenger conveyances, furniture delivery vans, fire engines, hearses and water tankers. I chose Thompson’s historic design for a bakery cart because it seemed the right size for the quantity of goods we would usually take to the farmers market in our car.
The first step in building our horse-drawn wagon was to select the appropriate running gear (wheels and axles). I wanted the real deal — wooden wagon wheels rather than air-filled rubber tires. Wooden wheels last a long time with proper care and look more appropriate on a cart built from a historic design.
I recycled two wheels, the spring suspension and some wooden parts from an antique delivery wagon and ordered two new wheels from the Witmer Coach Shop of New Holland, Pa. My apprentices and I rebuilt our bakery cart’s running gear using these scavenged pieces as well as several custom-made wooden components.
Building the Wagon Box
We used traditional mortise and tenon joints on the wagon box construction for maximum strength and for resistance to racking (coming out of square) while lurching along on the road. The frame members are all made from solid, locally cut and milled ash. The woodwork for the footboards, bench, doors, roof structure and wall frame is also ash, smoothed with hand planes and spokeshaves.
We deviated from traditional methods by using plywood for the deck, sides, roof and panels to produce a cheaper, yet stronger, wagon. Our materials list included one 4-by-8-foot sheet of quarter-inch oak plywood for the panels, four sheets of three-eighths-inch AC-grade fir plywood, and one sheet of three-quarters-inch CDX-grade plywood for the deck. The plywood floor and sides were bound in a hardwood frame so that all the edges would be protected. The overhanging front roof shields the driver from bad weather, and was well worth the challenge of executing a compound curve out of plywood (we had to cut the plywood into strips).
Early in the construction process, we observed the wagon box tilting excessively whenever we added cargo inside the back or passengers at the front. We discovered that the old springs scavenged from the antique delivery wagon couldn’t handle the wagon box’s weight — about 500 pounds when empty. Bailey Spring and Chassis in nearby Essex Junction, Vt., made us four new springs. These new springs stiffened the suspension, stabilized the ride, and lifted the wagon box to a good height so the driver could see better over the horse.
Every horse-drawn wagon needs some way to hitch up animals. This type of cart can be outfitted with either a center pole for two or more horses, or a pair of shafts for a single horse. I decided to use shafts, because I thought driving a single horse would be easier in city traffic (and I was right). We also mounted rearview mirrors at the front corners of the roof to give the driver a good view of goings-on behind the cart. A basic electrical system is powered by a car battery and operates the rear flashers and a dome light.
The cargo hold has decent headroom, with a ceiling height of just less than 5 feet at the center. The lid of the driver’s bench seat is hinged to provide even more storage space.
Some of the delivery wagon’s decorative details are my interpretation of the ornamentation in John Thompson’s original drawings. These include a wheat carving on the little square door into the cargo hold behind the driver’s head. The Good Companion Bakery graphic on the outside of the wagon box was designed and hand-lettered with brushes by my brother-in-law for an old-fashioned look consistent with the cart’s historic design.
Working Animals and Drivers, Unite!
We get many admiring and appreciative comments about our delivery wagon from friends and neighbors. Bobby, our horse, has no trouble trotting 1.5 miles to the City Green with a full load of loaves, pastries, produce and meat. He eventually overcame his apprehension about two things he never encounters on our farm: pedestrian crosswalks and railroad tracks.
Although Bobby learned to manage city streets and traffic quite well, the unpredictable behavior of motorists around our slow-moving rig was stressful for both Bobby and me. We’ve had enough near misses in traffic to satisfy my adrenaline cravings for a long time. Our bakery cart still hits the streets for special occasions. For regular service as a weekly transport, though, we’ll await a time of more leisurely traffic, when a few more horse-drawn wagons join us on the road and we’ll be the norm — not the exception.
Erik Andrus operates a bakery on Boundbrook Farm near Vergennes, Vt., with his family, Bobby the horse and many other working animals. Read more about them and inquire about purchasing a custom horse-drawn vehicle from Andrus at Good Companion Bakery. A version of this article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Small Farmer’s Journal.