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Texas USA

Making of a Coach

Photographer Tadd Myers’ Portraits of the American Craftsman spotlights stagecoach maker in Paradise

It was 2007 and Jimmy Wilson’s mentor told him he was ready.

Jay Brown—Wilson’s father-in-law, owner of Jay Brown Stagecoach Works, and maker of sixty stagecoaches—asked Wilson to take over the business. “Jim-boy,” Brown told Wilson, “I’m tired of making stagecoaches. I’m gonna let you have the orders.”

Wilson felt the rush of pride and responsibility Brown’s decision gave him; he had been learning the craft for years alongside Brown, who first fell in love with stagecoaches when he drove one for a hold-up scene in a Wild West show at Six Flags Over Texas. Not long after, Brown was coincidentally asked to do restoration work on one. Brown began studying the history of stagecoaches and working on his own designs; he eventually was asked to build one. Brown would describe it as “a hobby that got out of hand.”

Not for long. It soon was a full-fledged business. Wilson had been helping his father-in-law in his spare time for decades, first building buckboards (four-wheeled wagons pulled by a horse, like on The Rifleman) and finishing his own coach in 1992. “You have to make every piece and part,” Wilson says. “There are no stagecoach parts at Home Depot.”

Over the next twenty years, while keeping his day job doing custom millwork, Wilson “tooled up,” stocked his own shop, and helped Brown as much as possible. When he took over making the coaches, he quit his day job, of course, as it takes many months to build a single coach.

The wheels are still built by Amish tradesmen, but everything else today is handmade by Wilson. He makes a Concord, or western-style, stagecoach: “the Cadillac of coaches.” Once the wheels are ordered, he begins the ironwork to construct the running gear (the base of the coach). It’s an exacting process of assembling for fit, then disassembling to prime and paint, then reassembling.

Next he makes the leather straps that cradle the body (the cabin area) on the running gear. It works better than springs for shock absorption (the idea came to a stagecoach designer watching a baby carriage on a bumpy sidewalk). The body is constructed either out of fiberglass for durability or wood for authenticity.

Once the body is built and painted, he completes the interior upholstery work (usually leather). The painting and pin-striping artwork on the wheels, running gear, and body are the final touches before the coach is “born.”

Wilson built two stagecoaches for Wells Fargo last year. They were Brown’s best customer, and when he passed away in 2011, the company signed a contract with Wilson. He’s working on his fifth coach now, waiting on his next order. Hollywood is always a possible customer—Brown’s coaches have been seen in movies like Maverick and Night at the Museum.

Wilson says he takes great pride in how “square and true” his coaches ride. “On level ground, you can pull that coach with two fingers,” he says. “Jay always stressed that. Square and true.”