Iowa Wagon Builder
Iowa Wagon Builder

Iowa Wagon Builder

by Loretta Sorensen

If you ask J.R. Pearson, a northwest Iowa farmer, how he developed his wagon-making skills, he’ll tell you it all sort of happened because he’s always “tinkering around in the shop.”

However, what he nonchalantly describes as a way to stay occupied and pass time, has led to some unique and interesting projects, such as the hearse he built in 2000.

“I went to pick up some wood supplies from a friend, Loren Schrier,” J.R. says. “We started talking about horse equipment and one thing led to another.”

During that conversation, J.R. shared his curiosity about building a horse-drawn hearse.

Iowa Wagon Builder

“Loren thought that was a great idea. He wanted to be involved in the project,” J.R. says. “I found the undercarriage from a hearse in Brookings, SD. The spindles still had the factory name stamped on them, so it wasn’t used very much. But the wood was all rotten so that all had to be replaced. Loren and I worked together on it over about a year and a half. I did the undercarriage and he did the body. It’s all made out of solid walnut that we cut in the area and planed.”

Neither J.R. nor Loren had a set of plans for the hearse. J.R. used what he had already learned about making wagons to build the vehicle one step at a time.

“We used some detailed drawings we found and just made things up as we went. We made it a little bigger than the original hearses,” J.R. says. “Modern caskets wouldn’t fit in an old hearse because they’re too wide.”

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The men took advantage of empty space in one of Loren’s buildings to house the hearse during construction. They were well aware that it wouldn’t fit through the main door of the building when it was finished. When they were ready to take the vehicle out of the building, they had to build 40-foot ramps to bring the hearse to the rear door of the building and bring it out.

“It was almost like a birth,” J.R. says. “About 30 people gathered around to watch when we brought it out. They’d heard about it and everybody was curious to see how it turned out.”

Iowa Wagon Builder

“Beautiful” and “interesting” are two terms J.R. hears often when people see the hearse.

“Loren worked with a lot of the glass,” J.R. says. “The sides are plate glass and the curved glass is like what you would see in cabinets. Loren’s wife did the staining and varnishing.”

J.R. used brass plated trim on the hearse. He had the plating done in Arizona. By the time the project was finished, he was pretty pleased with it.

“It was kind of ironic,” he says. “Just a few days after we finished it, the woman who did the upholstery for us lost her grandson in an accident. She asked us if we’d use the hearse at his funeral, which we did.”

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Since the hearse was built, J.R. has used it in four different funerals. He has used a team of his Belgians to pull it.

“Quarter horse teams would work on it too,” he says. “We used an Oliver tractor on it for one funeral. The guy, our neighbor, collected Olivers.”

The wheelbase of the hearse is about 66 inches and it’s about 12 feet long. The hearse itself weighs about 800 pounds; with a 200-pound casket it gives a team plenty to pull.

“The tires are rubber over steel rims,” J.R. says. “Every piece of wood in it is brand new. It was definitely a challenge, but it turned out beautiful. I doubt that I will ever build another one, but it all worked out great.”

Iowa Wagon Builder

Iowa Wagon Builder

The term “hearse” is derived from the French word “hirpex,” which meant rake or harrow. In ancient times, the term was used to describe what was either a wooden or wrought iron framework erected over the coffin to hold funeral candles or family banners during the funeral service. With the rows of upended spikes holding the candles, it very much resembled an inverted rake or harrow.

Over time, the “herse” (original spelling) grew larger and more ornate. As grave yards were further and further away from churches and towns, the “herse” was placed in a wagon. By the 1600s, horses were used to draw the wagon.

In Colonial America, coffins were usually transported in a farm cart or wagon. In larger communities, a special black wagon carried the coffin. Over time, a small, closed vehicle with little or no ornamentation was used for the coffin. Often, the end of the kite-shaped coffin slid up under the driver’s seat. The driver was dressed in black and the bereaved family and mourners followed on foot in a deliberately slow march to the cemetery.

By the late 1700s, a distinct form of American hearse had evolved. Typically, the sides of the vehicle were open and trimmed with black, fringed drapes through which the coffin could be seen. A single horse pulled the vehicle. The roof of the vehicle was decorated with small wooden urns. In between funerals, the vehicle was housed at the local livery stable.

The style of the vehicles had changed little by 1850. It was about that time when larger and more ornate horse-drawn hearses were being built. The pre-Civil War hearses were rectangular and had glass sides and rear windows. Some had large, oval-shaped windows on the sides. Tall black plumes were also used on the top of the vehicle. The number of plumes signified the station of the deceased. Poor individuals often had no plumes.

Following the Civil War, hearse styles were updated nearly every 15 years. The 1870s style included a delicate oval shaped body with curved glass which was referred to as a “Clarence front” at both the front and rear. Drivers were now separated from the body of the vehicle and sat atop a goose-neck frame that had tall carriage lamps on either side. Decorative rails and wooden urns adorned the roof of the vehicle and drivers donned a black stovepipe hat and swallowtail coat. A matched team of black horses draped with black netting (for a maximum depressing effect) were often used to pull the hearse.

In the middle 1880s, a larger rectangular style hearse with a hip roof came into use. The roof held five wooden urns. Within 10 years, six or eight columns were used on hearses to support a smooth “mosque deck” roof. The ornamentation on the roof was eliminated. Plate glass was fitted to the sides and carved wood drapery panels were often used. Heavy fringed and tassled drapes framed the center window and the term “funeral car” was used to describe the vehicle.

A number of firms built hearses. An 1898 issue of “The Casket” listed firms such as United States Carriage Company, National Wagon Company and Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company as one of numerous firms offering hearses.

Modern undertakers would prefer to use the term “funeral coach” for the vehicle that bears the body. However, the ancient term remains the common way to refer to a funeral vehicle.

Research source: American Funeral Vehicles 1880-2003 – Walter M. P. McCall

Iowa Wagon Builder