A couple years ago, on a warm summer day, Sedan rancher Lyle Woosley invited retired rancher Dan Hurwitz to check out an old horse drawn relic half buried in two different locations on his ranch. Lyle knew that these pieces were remnants of an old beer barrel wagon from the years of his grandfather’s ranching, and he knew that Dan liked dabbling in the rebuilding of wagons. Thus began a most interesting exploration of wagons and Montana history that goes all the way back to a young Julius Lehrkind fleeing Germany as a stowaway to America around 1860, and the Woosley family homesteading in the east Bridger foothills, all in the exact same era.
In the unraveling of this history, several players are so essential that the story would not have unfolded without them.
Julius Lehrkind just happened to have completed a brew master apprenticeship before leaving Germany and making his way to Montana. According to family legend, he picked Bozeman because he liked the quality of the water and the easily accessible barley produced by nearby Dutch farmers. An immense lager brewery was built on North Wallace Avenue, complete with a malting house, wells, and cork-lined refrigeration rooms. As successful as he was, he opened other brewery and saloon businesses around Montana, and built an extraordinary home next to his Bozeman business known today as the Lehrkind Mansion B & B. But prohibition eventually reached Montana, too, forcing the closure of the brewery in 1919. Julius Lehrkind died just a few years later at age 79, perhaps from despair at the loss of his great enterprise.
Harlan Olson is a modern day professional rebuilder of vintage horse drawn vehicles with his business, High Country Horse Drawn, located right across the Bridger Range from Sedan. His first teacher firmly believed the best teaching model was to “screw up first”, so Harlan’s on-the-job lessons about the feel of wood, the types of wood, the qualities of wood, and the capabilities of wood, never left him. After collecting ancient odds and ends along with an old driving horse from an insistent friend, Harlan started developing his childhood passion of restoration and turned it from a hobby into a full-fledged business.
The missing link among these people is an immense beer barrel wagon that possibly got its start at the Akron Selle Gear Co. before ending up in Montana. The clue is the stamp on a heavy metal step on the front running gear of the wagon, saying “Selle Gear.”
Julius Lehrkind needed specialty wagons designed to haul kegs of his beer to taverns and bottlers. The federal tax structure of the day made it difficult for brewers to do their own bottling, so beer was sometimes transported by keg to bottling plants such as the Lehrkind bottling plant in Livingston. Locating their brewery and bottling facilities near the Northern Pacific Railroad was evidently a carefully laid plan. Four draft horses pulled these barrel wagons loaded with some 35 barrels to deliver the product to customers across town and across the state.
Then tax laws changed, enabling the piping of beer directly to nearby bottling plants. Soon motorized vehicles and trucks were becoming part of the beer transport industry. Sometime in the late 1800s–early 1900s, the horse drawn barrel wagons were being retired by the Lehrkind’s Genuine Lager Bozeman Brewery.
Evidently Henry Woosley found himself a bargain. He picked up one of the wagons with what must have been some very stout draft horses of his own, and drove the big rig home to Sedan over Battle Ridge on a narrow, steep, dirt road. Once home, the top barrel-carrying part of the wagon was dropped off in a typical farm “boneyard” at the edge of a hay meadow. Lyle Woosley’s best guess is that that massive wheels and strong undercarriage were used another 30 years carrying loose hay in a hayrack. Then, some 70 years ago, the worn out wheels and undercarriage were dropped off in another forgotten swamp.
Back to summer in 2014: Lyle Woosley and Dan Hurwitz, with the use of shovels, picks and a skid steer, were able to salvage four fourteen foot long hardwood beams, most of the “leaves” of the heavy springs, some of the wood of the massive wheels, the four inch wide steel rims, and the immense steel hubs big enough to straddle.
The remains were delivered to Harlan Olson, who expressed interest in taking on the restoration. One wonders why Harlan was not just willing, but eager, to take on something as huge and challenging as a turn-of-the-century broken-up weather-decayed beer barrel wagon. He said, “It is unique. It is a rediscovery, excavated right out of the dirt of a Montana ranch. I just wanted to see it rebuilt.”
With the generous help of the Bozeman Lehrkind family, the barrel wagon went through several years of painstaking restoration. Interestingly, when the steel was removed from the hubs, the complicated inner wood hubs were still in perfect condition with one exception, protected all those years by the steel so expertly crafted to cover them. The profile of the driver’s seat looks odd as it perches precariously high above the empty rack. This was a necessity, according to teamster Dan Hurwitz. “Imagine backing that vehicle up to a loading dock, maneuvering those four horses ahead of you and looking back over the top of three layers of stacked barrels at the dock location.”
The painting is another job, all unto itself. The barrel wagon, with its five coats of paint, shiny as a mirror, is expertly trimmed with delicate pin striping. Harlan says, “When that vehicle leaves here, we want it to be special, and to have others recognize it as special at first glance, even if they are not quite certain why.”