One of the featured destinations of Union Gap, WA is our Central Washington Ag Museum, they are constantly updating and improving the museum. Most recently, they resorted a belly dump wagon. You can read about it here with the photos, or, we put the text below.
UNION GAP, Wash. — The table at the Central Washington Agricultural Museum erupts in laughter (as it often does) when any long-term project is discussed and someone references the infamous belly dump wagon restoration project of Dick Drew, the museum’s treasurer.
This project has been ongoing for more than five years and the guys never miss an opportunity to poke fun at the length of time it has taken. Luckily, Dick’s good nature allows him to withstand this continual ribbing and never take it to heart.
I’ve spent a decent amount of time at the Ag Museum since I began working with Eric Patrick, director of Union Gap Tourism. The level of passion and energy the people at the museum possess for their projects is contagious, and I was drawn to it from the start. But even with my regular visits, I had never seen this elusive belly dump wagon. In fact, I thought Dick had given up on it. I never asked, though.
I should have known better.
One Sunday afternoon in March, I received a text from Paul Strater, museum administrator, that included pictures of a magnificent circa 1910 antique belly dump wagon, restored to working condition. I hadn’t heard that it was even close to being finished, so this was a surprise.
By Tuesday morning I was at the museum, excited to see this major triumph in person and get photos. I walked out to the project to find Dick admiring his work. I had many questions, so he took time to explain the entire thing to me.
To start with, a little basic information. These wagons were used to haul dirt, gravel and supplies and were likely even used during the building of Rimrock Dam. A chain is used to operate the bottom, which swings out to dump the contents and then closes it back up.
The lumber on this particular wagon all needed to be replaced, but the extra-heavy boards required cannot be bought. The guys used the 1930s vintage sawmill on site and cut their own.
This part was easy compared to the wood wheels. Repairing wooden wagon wheels is a specialized process, and not many people still possess this skill. This is what held up the project the longest.
Wheelwrighting is a lost profession for obvious reason, but it’s still required at a place like the Ag Museum. So several of the guys packed up one Saturday and headed to the Eastern Washington Agricultural Museum in Pomeroy, where they had found someone willing to teach them the skill.
They caught on quickly and brought their newfound knowledge back to share with the others.
The most interesting part of this process was that the spokes on these wheels aren’t straight — they’re angled at 2 degrees, as is the hub. All of this takes special tools to rebuild the structure, and not the kind you can buy at a hardware store. The first step was to check out the tool collection inside the museum’s Magness Room, which displays more than 3,000 vintage and antique tools.
What they found was incredible. Several of the exact tools they needed for the project are right here on site! They’re so specialized that no one had really known what they were for until they were needed.
Dick and crew were able to reuse the hubs and spokes but had to rebuild the fellow, which is the wood outer area under the metal wheel. When they opened the hubs, they found that the bands had fallen off and were in pieces as well. These needed to be repaired along with the metal wheel.
This process starts with cutting the metal band smaller than needed, at which point they put it into a fire to heat it up and expand it. Meanwhile, they slide the heated metal tire over the wheel before hitting it with cold water to shrink it (quickly, before burning the wood).
This process is used on the bands for the hubs as well as the tire itself. Dick admits they tried to find a way to speed up the process, but found that in the end the only real way to get it right was to do it the old-fashioned way.
The wagon is now fully functioning, and Dick was happy to climb into it and show me how it works.
My research shows that there aren’t many of these wagons left, especially in restored, working condition. In my (possibly biased) opinion, this is the most impressive looking of any I’ve seen.
We took a short drive out to the back of the museum where the drive-thru route of farm equipment resides so Dick could show me his next project — a massive reaper (massive is an understatement).
I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. His excitement over the new project was palpable, but the jokes had already begun as I asked if his time limit is once again five years, eliciting a grin from Dick.
As we drove back to the office, he was animated, explaining, “The best thing about the Central Washington Ag Museum is that it’s like an Easter egg hunt. You never know what’s hidden in the 15 acres that might be your next project!”
And that’s why I love to hang out at the museum. I never leave less than excited with shared enthusiasm and stories to tell about what I learned that day.
Above all, this hard work is a benefit to the community and beyond, preserving items from our history that would be long lost if it weren’t for the dedication and skill of people like the impressive all-volunteer crew at the Central Washington Agricultural Museum.