The Wheels Just Keep Turning
Fall 2020 By Brian D’Ambrosio Photography contributed by Brian D’Ambrosio
Working on his own at Livingston Anvil Works, Jem Blueher is something of a rebel. Backed by the might of aged, gritty equipment, he restores rare horse-drawn vehicles, tools, and machinery through rigorous application. Perhaps not surprisingly, he also hates to throw old-fashioned stuff away. There is an original wooden buggy body that he uses as shelf space attached to one of the shop walls. He’s surrounded by the tonnage of 20th-century industrial machinery, as well as sets of German and Japanese cannon wheels, various boxes of wooden slats, reconditioned tools from the 1850s and the shells and fragmented scraps of old touring coaches.
“I think the interest in restoration started when I used to do small repair jobs with my stepdad,” said Jem Blueher. “He’s an old cowboy from Great Falls, and when he was growing up it was all was horse-drawn and the equipment was old. We’d pick up old wagons and do restoration on sheep wagons and covered wagons. It was a lot more fun than the electrical engineering work I was doing.”
Raised in Livingston, Blueher started working in restoration while in his mid-20s. A mixture of self-resolve, adaptability, and external economic forces pushed him along his life’s path. “I’d went down to Denver and there were huge layoffs of the engineering work force and a massive amount of experienced people around, and it was hard to get work,” he said. “I took some engineering temp jobs for a few years, and I hated being inside. I went AWOL in Alaska as a river guide and then back to Colorado and worked in the mountains as ski instructor and river guide. Then it was back to Livingston, working with log homes. My stepdad got sick and I helped him out with that (restoration work). We manufactured teepees and canvas goods.”
Perhaps all that can be said about Blueher’s conversion to business is that there were many self-determined factors at work that gradually and steadily led him to this current moment.
“Most of my learning came from conferences, talking to blacksmiths and taking clinics,” Blueher said. “I tracked down people who did upholstery, those people are becoming less and less.” Indeed, from sheep wagons and chuck wagons to covered wagons and stagecoaches, to buggies, carriages, sleighs and even Civil War-era cannons, Blueher can unwrap the mystery of refurbishment through bold trial and error and by locating adequate explanations from sources whose knowledge is often difficult to access.
When a problem or glitch leaves his head spinning, Blueher reminds himself that restoration work is rife with the sort of issues that evoke no simple answer. The vagaries of experimentation and patience clear his head and center his focus.
“Often I don’t know how to get to the end of the project,” said Blueher, 52. “So you start trying different things and you get it done. It’s about not being afraid to start and to go for it.” In Blueher’s world, true freedom of self-employment cannot be an aimless drifting in the realms of casualness or the unsystematic. Such liberty of labor has to be compatible with study, resolve, and perhaps most importantly, knowledge.
“I get to do hands-on research and that’s cool,” said Blueher. “I’ll see when it was made and tracking down the serial numbers and looking into the blacksmith stamp. I was working on an English-style enclosed coach and pulled out its upholstering, which was wrecked and mouse-ridden, and there was an old calling card of the original owner. Somehow it was a descendant of royalty in Europe and the family ended up as a Confederate family who ran their home as a hospital in the Civil War. The estate is still in the same family.”
As with most occupations, parts of it are fulfilling and other parts are dreary. “I love to have any excuse to play on the forge,” he said. “I love building bodies and the wheelwrighting. Sandblasting is not fun or glamorous, but it has to be done. Stripping paint is tedious. But then I’ll start building again and that’s where it starts to get exciting.”
Livingston Anvil Works has shipped covered wagons to Florida, Georgia, Michigan and other states, though most of his orders came from the West. Sometime ago, he even shipped a pair of covered wagons to Japan. His clients range from private collectors and dude ranches to those wishing to preserve family heirlooms. Currently, Blueher is immersed in refurbishing an Abbot-Downing Yellowstone Touring stagecoach, which he concedes is a “big project,” even by his standards. The last time he worked on one of similar vintage, he put in close to 700 hours – nearly four months of labor.
“It’s as much about bringing things to life as it is keeping to the old tradition,” he said. “Tearing things apart, you are constantly learning from he old tradesmen just by re-engineering.”
While the businessman in Blueher has a vision of reality which is clear, the sentimental artisan within holds a perspective on life that is more balanced. “It’s hard to part with them, just like a baby. When I drop it (a carriage or buggy or other restoration) off, it always feels weird. When they are driving off with it, I’m always wondering if it is tied down well enough, and I hope they take care of it.”