Wagon Making in Southern Arizona

by James E. Sherman and Edward F. Ronstadt,
with quotations from the memoirs of
Fred Ronstadt, pioneer wagon maker


Reprinted from the Tucson Corral of the Westerners 
The Smoke Signal   Number 31, Spring 1975


Part II: Fred Ronstadt

Fred Ronstadt was born in Las Delicias, Sonora, on January 30, 1868, the son of Fred A. Ronstadt, a German mining engineer and district prefect (a combination mayor and police chief) in every district of Sonora at one time or another, and Margarita Redondo Ronstadt, a cousin of Mrs. Winnall Dalton. At the age of 14, young Fred Ronstadt was an ambitious lad, but unsure whether his calling would be in the world of laborers and craftsmen or in business. This is what Fred Ronstadt had to say about it:
My parents finally compromised on sending me to Tucson where Mr. Winnall Dalton and his brother-in-law, Adolfo Vasquez, were operating a carriage shop. The carriage and wagon industry was a major one in those days and my parents decided that I could do well in that line. Mrs. Dalton was my mother's cousin, and I was to live at their home while serving my apprenticeship. While waiting to come to Tucson, I was placed in a wagon shop in Magdalena with Don Manuel Martinez. He was a man who was supposed to be a good mechanic. Don Manuel had a contract to build a concentrating drum out of six-inch thick mesquite planks. He placed me to rip mesquite logs about ten feet long by twelve inches thick with a hand saw. This job lasted several weeks and was excellent exercise for my right arm. One day, Don Manuel stayed away from the shop most of the day. He came in late that afternoon well illuminated with mescal. He proceeded to cuss the woodworker he had left in the shop, throwing the tools around and storming around everything and everybody. When I went home that evening, I told my parents about it and asked them not to let me go to that shop again. My father told me how I should learn to tolerate those episodes common to some of the best mechanics. He told me to go back to work. I started out but decided to think it over for awhile. I sat down on a large stone which had been placed around the corner of the house where it was shaded from the sun. I had only sat there for a few minutes when my father spoke to me. He had evidently observed my dejection and told me to come back to the house and forget about going back to Don Manuel's shop. A few weeks after that, my father started with me for Tucson, where I would serve an apprenticeship in the wagon shop of Dalton and Vasquez. [map]

The carriage and wagon shop of Dalton and Vasquez was located in the 300 block of Meyer Street only a few doors north of Conn's livery stable. The wagon and carriage trade at that time and for many years after was a major industry in the United States. The shop that Dalton and Vasquez had was a plain frame building, but what it lacked in buildings and equipment was made up by skill in the art. Mr. Dalton was a man of culture with an excellent background and was an artisan of rare skill. Mr. Vasquez was also a splendid blacksmith and mechanic. They had with them a very fine painter and finisher by the name of J. A. St. Onge. The carriages made in their shop were works of art, made principally of second growth hickory, yellow poplar, Norway iron and hand forgings. They were trimmed and painted like the finest furniture. After leaving our wagon and horses at Conn's stable we came to Vasquez's and Dalton's shop. They were both young men in their early thirties. Mr. Dalton wore a full beard, light brown in color, and Mr. Vasquez had only a heavy mustache. Both were handsome specimens of manhood. I thought it strange that they should be wearing working clothes, particularly Mr. Dalton, as he had a very distinguished personality. I knew from hearing it at home, that he had come from a very high-class family in California and that he was well educated and spoke several languages. Mr. Dalton was a real gentleman by breeding and education. His Spanish was pure without a trace of accent, which I thought was remarkable, knowing that his father was English. I only had one day of leisure after my arrival. My father took me around to purchase a few things for me. I was outfitted with the regulation dark blue heavy flannel shirts for work near the forge, as well as heavy overalls, and heavy work shoes. On the second day I went to work as a helper for Mr. Vasquez. I was not altogether green. My experience of a few weeks in Don Manuel Martinez's shop in Magdalena served me in hand. There is little to tell about the work. It meant ten hours a day of hard grinding and hammering red hot iron, taking wagons apart for repairs, putting parts together, drilling, and filing, etc. The shop life was interesting but was the same one day as the next. I had three years of that without any pay. The fourth year, I was paid eight dollars per week and my board and room. The fifth year, twelve dollars per week and room and board. By that time I was getting efficient in my trade and ambitious to try different work - heavy machine forgings and railroad shop work. (see note 3)

In 1888, I decided to go to California and establish myself in Los Angeles in the carriage making business, believing that Los Angeles would be a much better field to improve in my trade. I sold my shop lease and what material I had on hand, gave my mother enough money to run the house for sixty days, and with $49 in my pocket, I undertook the trip. I bought a scalper's ticket and took the train. At Colton, California, Henry Dalton, brother of Winnall Dalton, met me and made me stay over and asked me to go with him the following morning in the baggage car. In addition to his many endeavors, he was the baggage master on a local train from Colton to Los Angeles. I had with me, on my arrival in Los Angeles, several letters of introduction from Mr. Winnall Dalton and had no difficulty in getting a room at a house that was owned by Doña Eloisa Sepulveda. The rent was $2.50 per week.

The house was a two story, frame one located on lower Main Street almost across from the old Mission church at the plaza. I started to look for a job in the carriage shops and while I was promised the first opening in two of the leading shops, I had to wait. Los Angeles in 1888 had a population of about 40,000. Tenth Street was the edge of the city and the heart of the retail business was on Main Street between the Pico House and the Baker block where Spring Street started. All the street cars were then being drawn by horses. A cable car line was being built on Spring Street and an electric line was being built on Second Street as an experiment. The Bradbury block was the first five-story building. The public library was then located on Main Street and it was there that I would rest my legs in the reading room almost every day after making the rounds of the shops. Since my capital was so limited I had to live with a fifteen cent breakfast and a twenty-five cent dinner. I took a trip to Santa Monica on the steam railroad and another trip to San Pedro. One day, an old friend of our family, Don Chalo Ramirez, came to see me and told me that my father was very low and wanted me to come back to Tucson. At this same time a letter came from Tucson saying that the man to whom I had sold my shop lease had discovered that he was not equal to the demands of the blacksmithing trade and was anxious to sell out even at a loss if necessary. It was then that I decided to return to Tucson. 1 had paid my way from Tucson to Los Angeles and lived there for a month without adding anything to my $49, and I still had $12 left. Henry Dalton got a pass for me from Los Angeles to Yuma and from Yuma to Tucson I bought a ticket for $12.85 after borrowing a dollar from a man that I knew. When I arrived home, in Tucson, I found that my mother only had a five dollar gold coin. I had left a few accounts due me for collection with my friend, Rufino Velez, and fortunately he had collected some of them. I repurchased the lease to the Dalton and Vasquez shop and went back to the old routine of repairing and building wagons.

A few weeks later Rufino Velez, an accountant and money broker, came to my shop and handed me a fistful of $20 gold pieces, $300 in all. I asked him what it was for and he said, "I know that you are buying your materials from hand to mouth and paying outrageous prices for it. Use this $300 to get a supply from jobbers in the east and don't worry about the time it will take to pay it back." I had been paying the local material suppliers $3.00 for a wagon reach, 50 cents for a two-inch wagon spoke, and similar prices for other materials. I had price lists from St. Louis and Chicago houses, a 2" x 4" oak reach, 10 feet long was 35 cents, two inch spokes, oak select were 15 cents each. The local railroad freight was high, but after adding it in, I still saved over one half of what I had been paying. This gave me a real boost and helped me to make contacts with supply houses and obtain a line of credit.

In 1892, at the expiration of the Vasquez lease, I had to turn the building back to the owner, Mr. Adolfo Vasquez. I had to find a new location and had the mistaken idea that it would have to be in the same district as near as possible to the Vasquez Shop. Felipe Villaescusa, a merchant and wagon dealer, had a small vacant lot back of his new store. The front of Villaescusa's saddlery and harness shop was on Meyer Street at the end of Jackson. I rented Villaescusa's vacant lot on Main and McKenna and built a small shop out of rough 14 ft. x 12 in. pine boards with a roof made of shakes. To obtain the lumber, I made a wagon for Tom Wilson, who had the only lumber yard in Tucson at the time. I had no tools so I made a deal with Albert Steinfeld, at that time manager to L. Zeckendorf and Company, to build them a hardware delivery wagon in exchange for a bellows, anvil, drill press and other tools amounting in value to $250, the price of the wagon. That was the first real hand-made delivery wagon that Mr. Steinfeld had for his store. They used it for many years and I made several more for them over a period of ten years as the Zeckendorf-Steinfeld business grew. I built wagons for the dry goods department, others for the furniture, and some heavy express delivery wagons for the wholesale beer, liquors, groceries and hides. My shop on Main Street in the rear of the Villaescusa store was not a success. I found myself running behind in my bills and decided to let Villaescusca take the lumber building in lieu of cancelling the unexpired time of the lease. I sold the tools to pay all my bills and decided to apply for a job in the railroad shops and work for wages until times would change. While I was waiting for a job, I made a delivery wagon for Allison Bros., grocery merchants. Mr. Charles Etchells, whose large wagon shop was on lower Congress, allowed me to use his shop tools to make the Allison wagon. I also did forging for Gardner, Worthen and Goss, the original Tucson Iron Works. They would pay me four dollars for a ten hour day at the forge. That was good pay in those days. I also played flute and clarinet three evenings per week for a dancing school at Reid's Opera House, three hours at a dollar per hour. I had a class of music sight-reading, twice a week at five dollars per month for about twenty boys, which brought in $100. With all this I was really making living expenses until a man named Steve Sexton, who had done good work for me in my Main Street shop came to talk to me. He told me that Jimmy Moss, the horseshoer, owned a good-sized vacant lot on Maiden Lane, the site now occupied by the Fox Theatre. At that time Congress Street narrowed west of Stone Avenue [photo] and with Maiden Lane [photo] formed what was then known as the wedge, from Stone Avenue to Meyer Street. Jimmy Moss had his horseshoeing shop in the west corner of the lot and was willing to lease the rest of it for $10 per month. Sexton proposed to help me put up the shop shed and pay half of the lot rent if I would furnish the lumber. He would do the woodworking on wagon repairing for his own accounts if I would do the iron work. A number of my friends and old customers assured me of their patronage if I would make another start. So in 1894, I made a deal with Knox Corbett to make a lumber delivery wagon if he would let me have the lumber for the shop. The wagon was used until auto trucks came into service and it was sold to some ranchers southwest of Tucson. I found it at the Las Delicias ranch southwest of Tucson when I bought the ranch in 1930. (see note 4)

One Monday morning Steve Sexton failed to show up at the shop. Jimmy Moss told me that Sexton had gone hunting with a friend, both had been drinking heavily, and Sexton had accidentally killed his friend while taking the shotgun out of the wagon. This trouble unbalanced Sexton and he was hardly ever sober after that. He was a big man with a dangerous disposition, ready to quarrel with his customers over anything. I had to tell him that we could not go on with our partnership, but he would neither sell nor buy. The only thing that I could do then was to make an offer for his part of the shop and wait for him to sober up and go home to consider it. In about a week he sent me a note to come to his home. He was sober and sick. He apologized and told me that he would take any amount smaller than what I had offered him. I paid him the same day, and he moved his equipment to the Scribner shop located on the corner of Congress and Scott. One day Sexton sent for me. I found him lying on his workbench in a pitiful condition. I had him taken to St. Mary's Hospital by the county and a few days later he died.

In 1896, Rufino Velez offered to lend me an additional $300. With the money I bought a 100 foot lot from Mr. Hittinger on the corner of Scott and Broadway, later to be the site of the Roskruge Hotel. I financed the shop building that I erected there by building a wagon for Tom Russell who did the foundations and walls. I built a wagon for Thomas Wilson Lumber Company for the lumber needed, and another wagon for Worthen, Gardner, and Goss for the roofing iron. Some of my friends thought that I was making a mistake moving from the centrally located Maiden Lane. Mr. Royal A. Johnson told me that I was moving almost out of town, but I could not see how, since my new location would only be a short one-half block from the corner of Congress and Scott and only four blocks east of the Maiden Lane location. The town was building toward the east then. As soon as the shop building was finished I moved in, and my trade not only followed me, but new customers flocked in. I had to hire more helpers and work overtime to keep up. The first twelve months my blacksmith work averaged better than $1,000 per month. My expenses were $300 and the cost of materials approximately $300, so that I was making $400 per month net. This was better than anything I had expected. I made my first vacation trip to San Francisco. I took a month off and Rufino Velez went with me.

The second year of my new shop at Scott and Broadway [photo] I installed a steam plant and machines to do most of our heavy work by power. We had a power blower and drill press, a power trip hammer, and a power band saw for sawing and shaping wagon woods from heavy oak and hickory planks. About 1897, Mr. Winnall Dalton returned from Sonora where his mining adventures had collapsed. His family was in California. He had bought a house in Los Angeles with the idea of living there permanently, but after losing about $20,000 in his last mining deal, he decided to try no more. He said that he would prefer to stay in Tucson if he could find a permanent position. While he did not ask me for a place, I surmised that he would take it if it was offered, and he appeared happy at the prospects of a job. After accepting a place in my shop in 1899, to run the woodworking department, he went back to Los Angeles to dispose of his home and bring his family back to Tucson.

Rufino Velez loaned me $3,000 to put up the store building on my lot and I gave the job to Quintus Monier to go ahead on a plan that we had already developed. I had started the building in November and Monier expected to have it ready by the end of February of 1899. In January of that year I decided to go to Los Angeles to see what wagon agencies, other vehicles, and farm implements I could secure. I was anxious to start early to take advantage of the spring trade, the best of the year, as well as to discourage another merchant who wanted to get into the same line. At that time Tucson had only one merchant in the line of business, F. J. Villaescusa. Since he had a monopoly there was room for at least one more business of the same type. In Los Angeles I had a very good friend, George Scovel, in the wagon material business. He was a blacksmith like myself who had gradually developed a large business selling wagon material all over California and Arizona. With Scovel's help I made contacts, acquired a line of merchandise and returned to Tucson.

The business continued to grow and the next problem was to get a larger place. About 1900, 1 bought a lot, 100 feet x 120 feet, from the city on the corner of Broadway and Sixth Avenue. [photo] The military plaza had been subdivided, creating a park and the sites for the Carnegie Library and Armory. Lots were to be sold at public auction. A controversy developed by a question of whether the municipality actually owned the military plaza. Dr. George Martin filed a homestead location on the plaza, built a lumber shack at the site, later to be occupied by the Santa Rita Hotel, moved into it and dared the city to dispossess him. Others followed the idea of Dr. Martin and several shacks appeared overnight at different points in the Plaza. In the meantime the matter was taken to the courts and payment on my lot purchase was suspended until the court would decide the city's legal right to sell them. While waiting for this, I built a corrugated warehouse on the rear of the lot and made good use of it. The legalities were finally settled, a new building was constructed and in 1901, we moved in. We had a much larger storeroom on the corner, 40 feet x 100 feet. Here we had the offices [photo] [photo], the stock of harnesses, hardware, and carriage and buggy accessories such as whips, lap robes, horse blankets, horse medicines, sponges, chamois, etc., and many items used by horsemen and ranchers. We also had a few samples of buggies and implements. The second floor over the storeroom was the repository for buggies and carriages. [photo] The basement under the storeroom was the implement and surplus stock room. The shop room to the west of the storeroom was separated by a heavy brick wall and fireproof doors. Here, in the basement, we had the hardwood material. [photo] On the balcony in the shop room, the stock of wheels and white materials were stored. The shop was fitted with four downdraft blacksmith forges, power hammer, and power machines for iron work. Also benches were available for two woodworkers along with power saws, a planer and other needed woodworking machines. The second story room over the shop was used for a harness and saddlery shop [photo] and a paint shop. We had a dust proof varnish room, a carriage trimming department, and a long porch on the south side for drying the first coats of paint on the vehicles. We did all kinds of repair work on wagons and implements, made forgings for machinery, repairs of iron work or buildings and later we added a machine shop for lathe work and general repairs on pumps and engines. Our specialty was carriage building. We made ice wagons, dray trucks, express wagons, delivery wagons, of all sizes and types, road wagons, buggies and carriages for pleasure driving and public service.  (see note 5)

PHOTO ALBUM

Go to Part III: The Art of Wagonmaking

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This section created by Jan Neill

Last updated 11 September 1997