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JAUNTS / Ventura County

Rides Back in Time

Father and son restore wooden horse carriages, and a bygone way of life.

November 05, 1998|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The clip-clop of tandem horses pulling a shiny white wagon with polished wooden wheels is familiar now to the residents along the tree-shaded roads of rural Oak View.

It's those horse-and-buggy guys, John Morgan and his son, Pat. A stone's throw from the Ventura River, they restore, repair and build carriages inside a cavernous barn that feels like a time warp to visitors.

Although they don't tout it much, they also offer carriage rides. For an hour, they'll drive the curious over the back streets of Oak View, under sprawling oaks, past homes and fields, always in view of the mountains that ring the Ojai Valley.

"Some of the young kids today have no idea about horses and carriages," said Morgan, 63, on a recent afternoon ride with a young couple in the back. "All they know is crash and burn cars."

Piles of Projects

For the $60 trip, Morgan will pile as many as 10 people into the rebuilt "wagonette," drawn by his two horses, Ben and Dan--registered Morgans, of course.

His passengers are often from local bed-and-breakfast spots, and he tells them about the Ojai Valley, or points out landmarks that even the locals might miss.

To give the horses a rest, he pulls up in front of a yard with a little roadside gravestone bearing the engraving "Here he lies, all cold and hard, the last damned dog that pooped in my yard."

"There really isn't a dog there," he said, a fact that the homeowner sometimes rushes out to reassure passers-by.

The relaxing five-mile ride--the seats are cushioned and Morgan has installed a varnished oak canopy over the rebuilt carriage--swings by an alpaca farm, loops through the creek-side oak groves of Rancho del Rey and detours around a cul de sac of stately homes. He takes a short hop onto Highway 150 but sticks mainly to Burnham Road, finally returning to the barn on Riverside Road.

The ride is fun, but it's here at Morgan Carriage Works that visitors are really enthralled. Although it's hard to count exactly, about 80 carriages are crammed inside the barn in various states of repair. They literally reach to the rafters.

"We think we're the biggest on the West Coast," said John Morgan's wife, Connie, who also helps run the place.

Nearly 100 years old, an elegant royal blue carriage with wicker seating and hickory wheel spokes stands fully restored, having undergone the Morgan touch. Behind the passenger seat, a hidden seat folds open for a groomsman, servant or perhaps a mother-in-law, Morgan joshed.

Next to it is an enclosed black storm buggy, circa 1900, made by the Studebaker company. The front window pops open and the side windows slide down inside the doors should the passengers want a breath of air.

The Morgans never know what will appear at their doorstep--like the yellow and black buggy that arrived not long ago from New Orleans in the back of a half-ton pickup. An Idaho man wanted it restored for horse shows.

Sometimes the old-timers arrive in barely recognizable form, upholstery shredded, wood falling apart. A winery hauled in an old beer wagon for restoration that needs all the oak siding replaced.

The projects they take on average $3,000 to $10,000, and some, like the beer wagon, will be considerably higher. Some take months to complete.

For most restoration jobs, the Morgans meticulously take the carriage apart, stripping parts, reconstructing woodwork and then painting it with an industrial enamel. Outside, in the "graveyard," are piles of old buggy parts.

Help From the Amish

It's a lost art, they say. So it's not surprising they turn to Amish craftsmen back East for some items, like wheels, whips and harnesses, that are still made from scratch the old way.

"I talked to them three times today," said Morgan. But it's really not that easy dealing with the Amish, who eschew modern electrical conveniences like cars, telephones and fax machines.

He talks to them through a middle man who serves as kind of an answering service, delivering messages and faxes.

If you think there can't be much call for carriage specialists these days, think again.

"I've got a year's worth of work backed up," said Pat Morgan. The clientele includes a couple of show business celebrities--he won't name names--who have a penchant for the old buggies. Sometimes he gets calls from Hollywood studios for repair work. Once it was the TV show "Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman."

One restoration job came from Santa Paula. The two-seater mountain wagon, neglected for decades in a barn, had been driven by the owner's grandfather in 1886 to take his new bride from Carpinteria to Santa Paula.

The growing popularity of competitive carriage driving on the West Coast is keeping the Morgans busy too. Pat Morgan competes and has the ribbons to show for it.

That helps in the carriage-building business. "We've driven horses; we know what you have to have," he said.

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