PROVO — When Matt Burch bought his first antique wagon, he would not have believed that 10 years later he would have 21 of them. In the barn behind his unassuming American Fork home, Burch keeps a dying tradition alive by building and restoring horse-drawn carriages and wagons that would otherwise fade quietly into dust.
Burch and his father both grew up working with horses, and when the pair decided to purchase an old wagon and fix it up, Burch discovered his passion.
"It was just, 'OK, that would be kind of neat to get,'" Burch said of their first wagon, "and then it just snowballed into 21 carriages and wagons, and then handcarts. And now we're doing everything — funerals, weddings, parades, anniversaries. You name it, we've done it."
Burch said at first, neighbors and friends would ask to borrow his wagons or have him bring one to an event. He got so many requests that he realized he could make a business out of it. Today, Burch and Sons sometimes has five or six jobs in a week.
One of the most common requests Burch gets is for his 102-year-old horse-drawn hearse to be used for funeral processions. Burch searched for six years before finding an antique hearse that could fit a modern casket.
"It's probably my most favorite thing to do," Burch said. "It's really awesome to send off an old cowboy that way."
Burch recalls how moved people are when they see the horse come down the road pulling a hearse, with cars lined up behind it.
"It's going to be my last buggy ride too," he said.
Some of Burch's wagons were built from the ground up, but many are originals that he has restored to working order.
"The thing that I really love about restoration of wagons, it takes such a skill," Burch said. "Not only are you a wheelwright, a blacksmith, an upholstery guy, you are a painter, you work with leather, and just all of these skills put together."
Some of these skills he learned from his dad, some things he researched on the Internet, and he even has contacts in Amish communities who share their expertise. Much of his knowledge, however, came from trial and error.
Building the wooden wheels for the wagons and carriages is one of the most challenging parts of a restoration.
"Wheelwrighting in itself is just such an art," Burch said. "People look at a wagon wheel and they don't really know the complexities of what goes into it, because a quarter of an inch off and the whole thing will fall apart. It's that technical."
Burch searches far and wide for parts, tools and even entire wagons. Many of the parts need to be built.
"Original part wagons from the 1800s you're not going to find," he said. "You'll be lucky if the metal survived."
The wood gets replaced and the metal is cleaned and restored, but they are all kept as close to historically accurate as possible.
As much as Burch loves to build and restore the wagons, his favorite part is sharing them with others. The satisfaction comes in seeing the joy that his wagons and carriages bring to people.
Every year, Burch volunteers to bring one of his wagons to a retirement home that specializes in Alzheimer's patients. He says you can see the residents light up when they get to ride in a wagon and be reminded of the old days.
He also is happy to share the craft with his wife and their four sons.
"Every one of my boys knows how to harness a horse," Burch said.
They all know how to get the wagons set up and how to work with the animals. Everybody pitches in to do maintenance and take care of the six horses the Burch family owns.
"I'm hoping that one of them will catch a passion and we'll just turn (the business) right over to them," Burch said.
The number of people who have the interest and know how to work with these relics is dwindling, and Burch is happy to keep it alive.
"My wife and everybody else thinks I was born way too late," he said. "I could give up electricity, I could give up cellphones."
For Burch, there is nothing like riding down the street in a horse-drawn wagon, and he hopes that soon he can give up his day job and focus on building and restoring them.
"A wagon, it's part of history," Burch said. "It's my love, and eventually that's all I'm going to do."