Gary Stull traveled far to arrive at Wagonwheel Ranch
At first glance, Gary
Stull is almost a parody of a cowboy. Dressed in chaps, jeans and boots,
and wearing a cowboy hat as he works in his shop near Cape Fair, he looks
the part. But if you look closely, you’ll see Gary is no actor.
Slightly bowlegged, he’s got a weathered look to him and if you
look at his hands you’ll instantly see he’s no weekend western
wannabe. Chafed, scarred and rough, these are the hands of a man who has
worked hard most of his life.
Stull has built wagons and wheels for nearly 30 years.
Gary is one of handful
of people in the country who make a living building and restoring horse
drawn wagons, something he’s done for nearly three decades. Gary’s
life has been a long search for a calling, a search that, despite a life-threatening
illness and personal loss, has led him to a life rebuilding the past.
A native of Illinois,
Gary earned a degree in forest products technology from Southern Illinois
University in the early 1960s and went to work for the Kimball Furniture
Company in Indiana and Alabama where he researched materials and new ways
to make furniture. Later Gary started his own furniture company in Montgomery,
After moving to a
farm near Montgomery, Gary began building expensive, mahogany reproductions
“I was building
furniture by myself, one piece at a time and was happy as I could be.”
About this time Gary and his family were also raising and showing horses
and traveled to shows nearly every weekend. Along with his business, Gary
was consumed with horses.
In the mid-1970s Gary
came across the burned up hulk of a miniature wooden wagon in the parking
lot of his local lumberyard.
It turns out the wagon,
a half-scale covered wagon, had been accidentally set on fire. The lumberyard
owner gave the wagon to Gary to get rid of it and he rebuilt it by salvaging
the iron parts, replacing all the charred wood and remaking the canvas
top. Gary and his two young sons bought a pair of ponies to pull the wagon
and began taking it to parades where it was a big hit.
started asking, ‘Can you repair this wagon and can you fix this
wheel. So I started doing this work on wagons while I was making furniture,
never thinking it would turn into a business,” says Gary.
In 1981 Gary and his
wife, Kathryn, sold their farm in Alabama and moved to Ash Grove, Mo.,
to be closer to his parents in Arkansas. His reputation as a wagon builder
followed him and before long that part of the business eclipsed furniture.
spokes of a wagon wheel at his shop near Cape Fair.
By 1988 Gary worked
full-time building wagons and wheels for a growing list of customers from
all over the United States. He also became a regular at the annual Silver
Dollar city crafts festival where he was known as the Wagon Man.
But Gary’s life
didn’t always progress so smoothly. He says the year 2001 was one
that nearly killed him, literally. In the spring his wife of 32 years
died unexpectedly. Three months later Gary was hospitalized with a rare
illness that nearly took his life. Gary went to see doctors for recurring
ulcers, but what they found was far more grave.
Doctors told Gary
he had developed an extremely rare form of ulcer that completely destroys
the lining of the stomach. His doctor told him the only treatment was
removal of his stomach, an almost unheard of procedure.
Following his surgery,
Gary began a long struggle. No one, particularly his doctors, knew how
to help him learn to live without a stomach. Eating was difficult and
his body began wasting away.
“He looked like a 93-year-old, crippled man,” says Cyndi Stull,
Gary’s new wife and the women who helped care for him.
Cyndi worked for Silver
Dollar City for many years and knew Gary and his wife through their involvement
in the crafts festival. Cyndi and Gary became reacquainted after his illness.
It’s hard to believe looking at him now, but at one time Gary weighed
nearly 300 pounds. “He looked just like Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza,”
Cyndi began researching
his condition and learned he was essentially malnourished and needed vitamin
and mineral supplements to provide nutrients usually processed in the
stomach. Slowly he began to improve, though he will never be a heavy man
again. “Now I call him Stick Man,” says Cyndi.
Today Cyndi and Gary
are married and he credits her with saving his life.
a miracle and a blessing from God that I’m here today and I have
her in my life,” says Gary.
Today the couple are partners in Stull’s Heartland Hitchwagons,
the business they moved from Ash Grove last year, where Gary lived for
21 years, to near Cape Fair a short distance from Table Rock Lake. Gary
built a new shop on land they call the Wagonwheel Ranch.
and Cyndi Stull are developing their Wagonwheel Ranch into a retreat
center where guests can learn traditional crafts and homespun arts.
Gary can rebuild a
100-year-old wagon or build a completely new one from scratch including
the wheels which he makes from hand including turning his own wooden spokes
on a lathe. About half his business is restoration work and half new wagons.
He makes nearly every kind of wagon from buckboards and Springfield wagons
to covered wagons and chuck wagons.
Gary and Cyndi travel
to large western shows, like Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming, throughout
the year and set up shop demonstrating his skills. The couple sprinkle
in a lot of history and storytelling in their demonstrations.
“We put on a
show and give them some history and show them how it was done,”
Gary says. “It’s not rocket science to build a wheel, but
it does involve some physics and geometry to get a serviceable wheel.”
A new venture for
Gary and Cyndi is building a bunkhouse for guests at their Wagonwheel
Ranch. Next year Gary will begin teaching people how to build a wheel
or an entire wagon. The bunkhouse will be available for Gary’s students
or to families or groups wanting a quiet place for a retreat. Cyndi, an
Missouri native, will offer visitors some of the experience she’s
gleaned from living in the Ozarks including gardening, cooking and other
Gary is amazed at
the journey he’s taken to arrive at Wagonwheel Ranch. It wasn’t
always an easy one, he says, but he’s certainly glad he made the
For more information
about Heartland Hitchwagons and the Wagonwheel Ranch contact Gary and
Cyndi Stull at 373 Fossil Cove Rd., Cape Fair, MO 65624, or call (417)
538-2380. Visit them on the Web at www.ozarkswagonman.com.