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Idaho craftsman gives new life to sheep wagons

Published November 19, 2012 5:05 pm

Niche market • "It's a memento of the West," restorer says of work.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ketchum, Idaho • When Tom Hale agrees to restore an old-fashioned sheep wagon, he has agreed to restore a piece of western history.

"It's a memento of the West," he said. "This is part of Idaho's history."

Weaving pieces of history into a contemporary design is just one of elements Hale enjoys about his favorite hobby. The Ketchum resident is a seasoned construction worker and former ski instructor. But for the past 10 years, he has spent his free time restoring sheep wagons under the business name Rocking T Sheep Wagons.

Hale works out of Sun Valley but his clientele ranges all throughout Idaho, Montana, and California. He's the first to admit that his work appeals to an extremely niche market, but he's also not trying to make a living off of it.

"There are only a handful of guys who do what I do," Hale said. "It's just something that is a ton of fun and I really enjoy doing it."

Sheep wagons have been used by herders since the late 1800s. The wagons operate as the bedroom, living room, kitchen and dining room all in one small space.

The wagons tend to have a smaller frame, so Hale — who towers nearly 6-foot-1 — said the first thing he does is make each wagon roomier. He extends the bows to make for headroom inside a rounded canvas ceiling. He then extends the wagon box to install a queen-sized bed.

Hale also insulates each wagon just in case someone would like to live in it during the winter.

"People who have wagons really like them," Hale said. "I did one wagon for a lady who is an artist in Stanley. And even though she has a cabin, she lives in her wagon all winter."

Since he first started, Hale has restored 20 different wagons. The average price of a basic restoration ranges from $5,000 to $6,000. However, some of his renovations have totaled as high as $30,000.

He can add custom woodwork to the wagon's outer frame, build a wrap-around patio or install solar windows depending on the client's budget.

"The most fun I had working on a wagon was over the top," Hale said. "I put in cabinets, a stereo system and it had double-leaded glass for the entire end of the wagon."

Hale said working on a wagon allows him to be the artist, designer and construction worker all at once. It also gives him a chance to work in his shop during the colder months.

"You're in a shop where it's warm during the winter in Idaho," Hale said. "That's the trick to doing construction in Idaho."