'Santa's workshop' evokes simpler season

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Saturday, November 24, 2007
— We buy holiday toys made of injected-molded plastics or high-tech electronics.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with those assembly-line toys, but there’s something about the holidays that evokes thoughts of simpler times.

Think Santa’s elves.

Think of the clink of nuts against bolts. Or the smell of hardwood when it’s drilled, sawed or sanded.

Those sights, smells and sounds are not all gone.

A workshop in Janesville continues to turn out handmade wooden wagons, sleds and wheelbarrows.

The Wisconsin Wagon Co. employs six workers. That includes owner Barb Ferguson, who does her share of the cutting and drilling and varnishing.

“It is Santa’s workshop.” Ferguson said. “That’s how we feel.”

Ferguson and her usually jolly elves work under the heavy wooden beams of a 130-year-old railroad depot on Laurel Avenue near the center of the city.

Nearly all the materials they use are from Wisconsin. Only the old-fashioned iron wheelbarrow wheels are handmade in northern Illinois, Ferguson said.

This workshop is no assembly line. Workers use hand and power tools to make every part of the wagons except the screws, nuts, bolts and wheels.

They shape the rest of the hardware out of stainless steel. The wood is red oak from up north. They silk-screen the “Janesville” on the side and varnish all the wood pieces, leaving a shiny coat.

“We do it all,” Ferguson said proudly.

That’s another one of the local raw materials—pride.

All the employees are retired. All are part time. Talk to them, and you feel their satisfaction in doing a good job.

John Dooley, 85, started in industry as a pattern maker for Hough Manufacturing and ended as personnel manager for Simmons Mattress. He’s the historian of the group.

Dooley will tell you how the standard-sized wagon conforms to the wagons made 90 years ago.

“The only thing we changed was the improvements, like putting stainless steel on it,” he said proudly.

Another employee, Linda Rufer, spent much of her working life in factories, so much so that she had an elbow replaced.

“This is much more fun, much more laid-back” than factory work, Rufer said.

There’s no specialization. Each employee can do all the jobs. They all seem to love the work, although Rufer said it can get tedious as she sanded about 30 identical wheelbarrow parts.

A highlight of the day is the 9:30 a.m. coffee break, when the toymakers “solve all the problems of Janesville,” Ferguson joked.

“We have a good time with each other, and I think the only reason anyone is here is because they want to be here,” said John Sarnow, a retired school superintendent.

The operation has at least one high-tech process: If someone wants a name or other wording on a wagon, the wood is sent to Brodie Trophy in Janesville to be laser-inscribed, which is much more precise and quicker than using a router.

Before each item is boxed, the toymakers gather ’round to inspect it, Ferguson said.

“We like to make sure it’s perfect before it goes out.”

At a glance

Facts about the Wisconsin Wagon Co.:

-- History—The Wisconsin Carriage Co. began making Janesville Ball Bearing Coaster Wagons and other sidewalk toys in 1915. The wagons originally came with a hand brake, because kids used them as self-powered vehicles, with one knee in the wagon and one foot on the ground. The wagons gained a national reputation and advertised in places such as the Saturday Evening Post. The company later became the Janesville Products Co. The factory closed in 1940. In 1978, Albert and Lois Hough were looking for a wooden wagon for their first grandson, and Albert sketched an old Janesville wagon at the historical society to produce the first of a new generation. The wagon became a business. An investment group from Michigan bought the company in 2000 but soon realized it couldn’t run it from long distance. That’s when Karen Ferguson of Janesville bought the company.

-- Products include four sizes of wagons, ranging in price from $48 to $396.

-- Other products include two sizes of wooden sleds, three sizes of wheelbarrows, a three-wheeled rider called the Toddler and a rocking horse.

-- Fun fact: The largest wagon, with a 24-by-50-inch box, is popular among summer vacationers on Fire Island, N.Y. No automobiles are allowed on the island, so people retrieve their luggage from the docks in wagons. The Janesville Wagon Co. has made 698 of the big wagons since 1983, nearly all of them for Fire Islanders.

-- For more information: www.wisconsinwagon .com or (608) 754-0026.

Last updated: 10:02 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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