Local wheelwright keeps lost art alive

Melvin Pitchford is what you might call "old country"

"I like the older country music," he says. "The older, the better."

His shop, Tomball Wagon Works, is keeping a lost art alive as the only horse-drawn carriage repair shop in the Houston area.

"I use modern-day equipment to do old-time work," explains Pitchford.

He often makes his own tools to get the job done, but they're repairs you may have only heard of while playing the Oregon Trail game. 

Nowadays, thousands of trail riders can call on him while making the week-long journey to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

"A broken wagon tongue, people break down and need a wheel fix,"  he says.

He's the closest thing to AAA for wagons, and stays busy year-round with building and restoring carriages from the wheels up. 

Starting in 1976, Pitchford hit the open road as a trail rider with his family for 25 years.

"The ride that I was on was the Spanish Trail, and it was a good family ride with people- the camaraderie, the friendship- it was just like one big family," he recalls.

Over time, he says his kids weren't available to ride every year, and he decided to open his shop in 1991.

"I just happened to have another friend of mine who bought a wagon and needed two wheels done and he said, 'I will be your guinea pig'."

His work is tough, gritty labor. He says it can take a full workday to make one wheel and six to eight months to build a wagon.

Local carriage companies rely on the self-taught blacksmith to keep their horse-drawn hearses and princess-themed rides in working order. 

At the start of 2020, his woodworking skills already have new orders on a 3-month waiting list. 

"It’s just been a busy year for wagons," says Pitchford. 

But he makes exceptions for trail ride emergencies, getting them back on the frontier in a click and keeping a decades-old tradition on track.