Steve “Shakey” Chadwick traded a load of oats for his first sheep wagon 50-some-odd years ago to the brother of an old Wyoming Army buddy named Frank Pexton.
Little did Chadwick know then the doors that charming little yesteryear tiny home of the prairie were going to open for him. Or that he’d become obsessed with a uniquely Wyoming thing. While there’s debate about where in Wyoming the sheep wagon was invented, nobody questions it was a Cowboy State innovation.
At first, the sheep wagon was just a cool place for hunters to stay. He and Pexton had been running a guide service together, and they needed places for their hunters to camp out comfortably, something a sheep wagon is perfect for.
They can be easily moved up and down the mountain as needed and didn’t necessarily cost a whole lot at the time, like an RV would. They also contained basically everything a person might need for a hunting expedition.
There’s a bed opposite the door, with a wood stove to keep things warm and cook dinner. There’s a tiny kitchen, which includes a table that slides out from under the bed. And there are plenty of drawers for storage under the bed to stash gear.
Before long, Chadwick had three or four more sheep wagons for his hunters, which he kept at sites on the mountain.
“Everywhere I went, I would see (a sheep wagon) and I’d ask for stories about them,” Chadwick said.
From that, he came to see them as “just a magnificent machine.”
Chadwick, though, wasn’t the only one who was interested in the wagons. As time went on, all of his guests always wanted to know more about them.
One fellow in particular, Charlie Holloway, happened to be with a national chuckwagon association.
“And he said, ‘You ought to have a show, like we do with our chuck wagons,’” Chadwick said. “That just planted a seed in my mind.”
That following winter at the annual meeting of the Wyoming State Fair Board, Shakey asked the board about having a sheep wagon show for that summer’s event.
To his surprise, they didn’t even need to be talked into it. They thought it was a great idea.
Wagons Of All Kinds Come Out
For that first show, Shakey brought all his sheep wagons down from the mountain, blew them out and cleaned them up.
A local radio station, meanwhile, announced the idea four or five times ahead of the show, imploring listeners to dust off their old wagons and bring them to the show for a chance at some fun prizes.
“We didn’t specify sheep wagons, so we got families (with) the original wagons they came to Wyoming in and homesteaded,” Chadwick said. “A lot of those wagons showed up. So, we still do that between the sheep wagons.”
That means in addition to the cool sheep wagons that come out from the barns and old homesteads of Wyoming, there are things like doctor buggies and sleighs as well.
“We’ve had all kinds of different things,” Chadwick said. “That first show, we had seven, eight, nine wagons and we had four or five regular wagons.”
In some years, Chadwick has run his sheep wagon show as a contest, with prizes for five categories ranging from untouched, as-is sheep wagons to fully restored and updated.
“Those are absolutely gorgeous,” Chadwick said. “I’ve got a lady out here, she has two wagons that she takes to the contest every time, and they’re just beautiful. They’ve been restored to original, but with modifications.
“And her last wagon, I helped her find this guy to do it, and I didn’t know how much it was going to cost, but she paid $24 — to have that wagon restored.”
Even Celebrities Like Sheep Wagons
Over the years, Shakey’s been told stories about celebrities who got interested in Wyoming’s sheep wagons.
Like Nicole Kidman, for example.
“People tell me stories while I’m at the fair,” Chadwick said. “I sit there from 8 a.m. in the morning and people come by and tell me their stories.”
Most of the time, they’re stories about old family heirlooms that are kept in the sheep wagons. Like the McGuffey reader that one lady’s grandparents had, or granddad’s first pair of store-bought boots.
But in this case, the story was all about how Kidman had come to Wheatland and, on a whim, bought a $34,000 sheep wagon.
“(Kidman) was here doing a movie or something like that, and she kept seeing the sheep wagons in these little towns,” Chadwick said. “And there’s always one sitting, you know, at Powder River and different places around, and I guess she finally put on the brakes and stopped at Wheatland and asked around.”
Chadwick was told the movie star had wanted one for her husband at the time, Tom Cruise.
“There’s a sheep wagon down there at the museum in Wheatland, and some ladies have one that was totally restored, all furnished, and she bought that one and took it to wherever,” Chadwick said. “That’s the end of the story for me, but it’s probably somewhere. Call her up, I’m sure she’ll tell you. Just leave a message or something. They’re real people, too.”
That $34,000 was not an outrageous amount for a cherry wagon, Chadwick added. That’s just the going rate now for one of the nicer sheep wagons.
And James A. Michener, Too
Stories about sheep wagons are the order of the day for the sheep wagon show each year at the state fair, Chadwick said.
“It’s their heritage, and they want to share it with people,” he said.
That’s attracted a trio of book writers recently, among them a state historian, who are working on a book explaining how people can identify who made any given sheep wagon and when.
The writers also collected anecdotes from everyone at this year’s state fair for their book, Chadwick said.
But interest in sheep wagons, and the Wyoming history that goes with them, isn’t confined to the Cowboy State.
“James A. Michener, you know him, he came to Wheatland, and he rented a barn off the Bar Two Ranch just south and west of Wheatland,” Chadwick said. “And he cleaned the upstairs out, insulated it, put air conditioning in it and hired three ladies to transcribe his notes from meeting people.”
Michener left every day to meet families up in the mountains and collect their stories, Chadwick said, including his friend Frank Pexton’s family.
“He came and met with Grandpa Lyle, and they are all in his book ‘Centennial,’” Chadwick said. “And the movie is 28-and-a-half hours long. It was a TV miniseries.”
Chadwick believes photos of Pexton’s wagon, which Chadwick got by trading his brother that load of oats 50-some years ago, are also probably in the movie as well.
“It’s an amazing movie, and Douglas and all the people around here are in the movie,” Chadwick said. “He spent several days with Grandpa Lyle showing them how they trapped the water coming out of the mountains and made the meadows and increased their hay capacity by 10 or 20 times.”
Lyle Pexton’s family came to Wyoming in 1906 to homestead, and he told Michener everything he knew about the government project that built a dam between two mountains to store up water.
“That’s how they got homesteaders to come out from back east,” Chadwick said.
Maybe Douglas Was Where Sheep Wagons Were Invented
Chadwick has spent a lifetime chasing down historic sheep wagons and either acquiring them to preserve them or encouraging others to do so.
While Rawlins often claims the invention of sheep wagons, Chadwick believes he’s found evidence that they actually started with A.E. Rice and Sons in Douglas.
“And I found A.E. Rice and Sons’ personal wagon,” Chadwick said. “It was on a ranch that my daughter had bought.”
He wasn’t able to acquire that particular wagon, but he knows where it is and who has it, and he’s been told it’s going to be restored.
“I’m not the one who’s going to own it, but that’s OK. It’s going to be restored, and that’s what I’m after. Let’s get these wagons out and restore them and save some history,” he said.
Chadwick’s sheep wagon show has been a vehicle for just that over the years.
“Lots of people who came to my show never brought their wagons,” he said. “But they came and saw the wagons here and then refurbished their wagons.”
Over the years, Chadwick’s sheep wagon show has grown, and it’s brought along new and different features. These days, there’s a steak dinner with live music, and there’s homemade ice cream and cakes. Sometimes there’s even a Dutch oven dessert cookoff.
But this last summer at the Wyoming State Fair is probably the last that Chadwick will be the one putting on the sheep wagon show.
“My knees are bad, and I’m trying to get to them this winter, so I’m just up in the air about whether I’ll do it or not,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “It’s just a lot of work when you’re 76 years old.”
The shows have brought him many fond memories over the years, though, and he hopes that they continue to be part of the Wyoming landscape, along with the sheep wagons that inspired them.
About That First Wagon For Oats
Some time ago, Chadwick returned the wagon he got from the Pexton brothers so many years ago for a load of oats.
“He’s been bringing it to the show every year,” Chadwick said. “And he tells stories about it.”
Like the time they put a new linoleum floor in it, and discovered all these old newspapers that had been used for insulation under the old floor.
“I don’t know what was in them, but a lot of these wagons have set for 50, 60, 70 years,” he said.
Down along the Platte River in Douglas, meanwhile, there’s a wagon Chadwick reluctantly agreed to sell to a gentleman who’d been in the sheep business all his life, but never owned a sheep wagon.
“He said, ‘The only one I want was from a neighbor out here,’” Chadwick said. “And damned if I didn’t happen to own that wagon. That’s the only wagon until here recently that I ever sold.”
Chadwick cleaned the wagon up and put it behind the Moose Lodge with a little candle and tablecloth in it.
“It was winter, so we built a little fire in it and that was their 65th wedding anniversary,” Chadwick said. “Today, he’s poured little slabs to put the wheels up on, and he uses it for a yard ornament.”
Chadwick is proud of that, as he is about all the history that he’s helped bring out into the light over the years, so people could polish it up for the generations to come.
“That’s the reason I did it, and it worked,” he said. “People got their wagons out and saved history.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.