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How Dorothy Survived the Tornado

Dorothy nearly died on March 13, 2021. That Saturday night, seven tornadoes touched down in the Texas Panhandle, including at least two that stormed the rim of Palo Duro Canyon State Park. One twister blew through Los Cedros Ranch, home of Cowgirls and Cowboys in the West. That’s Dorothy’s home.

The tornado sucked Dorothy out of a shed and tossed her out into a pasture, rolling her over several times. Dorothy is old, and the tornado just about killed her.

Thankfully, Dorothy survived—just barely. A 94-year-old man named Wayne made sure of that.

Dorothy is a 19th century Studebaker chuckwagon.

Splinters in the Rubble

Seventeen years ago, Phyllis Nickum Golden bought an antique wagon from Wayne Snider, a local chuckwagon craftsman and the proprietor of Wayne’s Wagon Works. She used it on a weekly basis at Cowgirls and Cowboys in the West, her tourism company, where she introduces a regular stream of visitors—many from out of state and some from out of the country—to the stories and traditions of the Panhandle. 

In addition to horseback riding along the rim of Palo Duro Canyon, Golden also hosts private chuckwagon breakfasts, dinners and more at her ranch. These are a vital part of her business.

Then the tornado tossed her beloved, vintage chuckwagon across the ranch.

“My barn and headquarters and windmill took a direct hit,” Golden says. Her ranch house and horses were spared, but the wagon wasn’t so lucky. “In the rubble, we found the chassis of our beloved 1800s chuckwagon. We found the frame out in the pasture, with pieces strewn over a mile away.” 

The cast-iron frame withstood the violent winds, but the wagon’s time-aged wood components just splintered. Along with her employees and neighbors, Golden began picking up the pieces. Literally. “There were just hundreds of pieces, splinters of wood, from an inch long to four feet, but the only thing left was the chassis and wheels,” she says. “The force of that tornado was just amazing.”

That’s when she called her old friend, Wayne Snider. The proprietor of Wayne’s Wagon Works, Snider is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on chuckwagon restoration and repair, and just happens to live here in Amarillo. He’d sold her the wagon initially, and Golden reached out to him first. 

She wasn’t hopeful. “I said, ‘Wayne, I don’t know if you can use all these pieces as parts for other chuckwagons, but they’re yours.’” Golden figured some of the undamaged parts could be used for another of Snider’s restoration projects, finding new life in an old vehicle. 

Snider had other ideas. “The next day he called me and said, ‘Well, Marvin [Carr] and I think we can put this chuckwagon back together,’” Golden remembers. Marvin Carr is Snider’s assistant and a craftsman himself, handling the work that’s too physically taxing for Snider.

“And they did it,” Golden says. “They looked at all those pieces and knew exactly what they were. They put it back together.”

Barely two months later, Snider returned the restored chuckwagon back to Cowgirls and Cowboys in the West, just in time for the first chuckwagon event of the season.

She hadn’t named the chuckwagon before, but upon delivery, Carr suggested they call her Dorothy. Because she survived the tornado. Golden agreed.

“It’s pretty miraculous,” she says.

 

True Craftsmen

If you’ve ever seen an authentic chuckwagon at a local ranch, museum or private Western collection, chances are good Wayne Snider has had his hands on it. He’s lived in Amarillo since returning from World War II, and spent decades working for Gulf Oil. From 1952 to 1959, he managed the Gulf Oil service station on Old Route 66 near Ninth and Bell, across from what is now the Thomas E. Creek VA Medical Center. After that, he spent a career as a petroleum wholesaler—otherwise known as a “jobber”—for Gulf Oil.

Snider is also one of the longest-tenured members of the Will Rogers Range Riders. He joined the club in 1954, and in 1965 helped restore a chuckwagon for Range Riders events. Over the years, he ended up repairing and restoring that wagon multiple times. The process hooked him. By the 1980s, he was buying and selling wagons as his career wound down.

He retired from the oil company in 1991 and immediately started a new wagon business. That old Gulf Oil station was no longer in use, so 15 years ago, Snider bought it and turned its three garage bays into his workspace. Today, Wayne’s Wagon Works buys, restores and sells antique wagons to original condition. Since 1991, Snider has repaired more than 150 vintage chuckwagons. They can be found across the nation, with sales in 27 states, from California and Oregon to North Carolina.

It’s not just chuckwagons, either. On a hot weekday in June, Snider points to a wall inside his office featuring framed photos of almost all of the vehicles he’s restored. “There’s a military wagon. That’s a hearse. That’s a stagecoach in Billings, Montana,” he says.

Nearby, Marvin Carr is cutting wood to restore a 102-year-old toy wagon. “This is the first toy wagon we’ve ever done,” says Carr, who retired a couple years ago after 50 years of truck and trailer parts sales at Tow Brothers Equipment. “The guy called and said, ‘I’ve got a wagon I want restored and painted.’ We were expecting a chuckwagon,” Carr says with a chuckle.

But they immediately got down to business, taking the antique, child-size wagon apart and inspecting its pieces. Typically, they reuse all the hardware and any wood pieces that remain in good condition. When necessary, the duo replaces warped or splintered wood. Then they repaint the wagon’s parts using specialty outdoor paint designed to withstand the sun and outdoor conditions.

“It’s $140 a gallon, usually green and red,” Snider explains. “It’s made for outside so it doesn’t fade. It’s hellacious good paint.”

Carr does much of the woodwork and assembly, while Snider still sands and preps the wood, handles sales and more. “We just put [the wagons] back together so they look good and they work,” says Snider.

Age has begun to catch up to him, he admits. “Hell, I’m 94 years old and I’m getting where I’m feeling it,” he says. But after spending a few weeks at home during the pandemic, Snider realized the shop activity was good for him. “I knew if I didn’t go to work I was gonna die. So I went back to work.” That good humor, experience and effort has made Snider one of the foremost authorities on chuckwagon restoration in the United States. “There isn’t anybody close,” he says. “It takes a real, true craftsman to build these chuck boxes.”

A Dying Breed

Dorothy arrived at Wayne’s Wagon Works with little more than its original chassis. One of the wagon’s bolsters—the cross beams that support the wooden bed—had broken off. The wooden box and wagon floor had been destroyed. The metal brake handle had snapped. The wooden barrel rack was gone.

A few pieces remained, though. “The wooden plank seat the driver would ride on was intact,” Golden says. She estimates less than 50 percent of the original vehicle was usable.

“When that tornado sucked ol’ Dorothy out from under the shed, it rolled her out in the pasture and just wiped the top part out,” Carr says. He and Snider hammered the metal pieces back into place, repurposed wooden topboards from a vintage John Deere wagon, cut and painted new sideboards from tight-grained poplar wood, and replaced the splintered pieces of the wood floor. They added new bows on top.

While a few hinges and the lid of the original wooden chuck box survived, Carr and Snider had to rebuild most of it from scratch. But after weeks of cutting, straightening, reinforcing and reassembly—along with a fresh coat of paint—they took Dorothy home.

Golden was thrilled and relieved. “Our events are historical. We tell them the history of the West. We tell them the history of the cattle drive and the horse, the Comanches, Palo Duro Canyon,” she says. “Of course, the history of our land includes the chuckwagon. That item itself was the cornerstone of the Western cattle drives and ranching work, so when people come for a chuckwagon event, we are able to show them. That’s what we do.”

Now, when she regales guests with the history of the chuckwagon, she also talks about folks like Wayne Snider, whose histories are just as colorful. “He’s loud and fun and a hard worker. He’s a character. He’s a dying breed,” Golden says.

There aren’t many chuckwagon craftsmen around these days because there just aren’t that many chuckwagons that made it to 2021, around 140 years since the vehicle’s heyday (see below). Wayne Snider is one of the few such craftsmen left.

He gave life back to Dorothy. “It’s solid as can be,” Snider says. Perhaps surprisingly, so is he. Snider and his business are still rolling. His passion for wagons like Dorothy—and the traditions they represent—ensure it.

The Food Truck of the Old West

“He was so important in the origination of the chuckwagon,” Phyllis Nickum Golden says before an event at Los Cedros Ranch. She’s talking about Charles Goodnight, the best-known rancher in local history—maybe even Texas history—who’s occasionally known as the “father of the Texas Panhandle.” 

A legendary Texas Ranger, Goodnight turned to cattle after the Civil War, gathering feral Texas Longhorns into a herd and driving them to a New Mexico Army base with his business partner, Oliver Loving. Eventually, he and various partners would extend their cattle-driving territory from the Panhandle into Colorado and Wyoming. In 1876, Goodnight and John Adair founded the JA Ranch in Palo Duro Canyon, the first ranch in the Panhandle.

During his first cattle drive, Goodnight decided to add a gear and cooking box to the back of a standard wagon, already a workhorse on the frontier. “The [original]
wagons were designed to carry 50 bushels of grain,” Marvin Carr says. “A bushel of grain weighed 60 pounds. That’s standard.”

In adding the box, Goodnight invented the chuckwagon. “It was the food truck of the Old West,” says Golden. This mobile cookstation became the centerpiece of any cattle drive and the gathering place of life on the trail. 

A century before it transformed the life of Wayne Snider, this simple idea transformed how cowboys, loggers and others lived and worked in the West.