The meanness has faded from Jack Foust’s body, just as his brown hair has turned gray, just as the spring in his step has flattened to an aged shuffle.
“Honey,” Foust said, clenching his fist and leaning forward in his recliner. He calls everyone “honey,” or “sweetheart,” grown men, children, anyone younger than Foust, which is almost everyone.
“I was Golden Gloves when I was 12 years old. I worked the South Park Ranch in Colorado. I’ve busted broncs. I’ve ridden bulls.”
In the corner of his tiny living room, there’s a belt and holster that once belonged to the Cisco Kid. There’s a .45-caliber revolver loaded with bullets the size of a woman’s thumb. There’s a long pair of chaps and a horse halter.
This is what old cowboys do when age is on their trail, they hunker down with the things they love most and prepare for the unwanted visitor. They circle the wagons, which in Foust’s case, involves real wagons.
Foust, 87, hasn’t had a horse in ages, but the retired rancher, sawyer, chef and prize fighter turns out a wagon every couple of years. He does so out of habit and the comfort of being able to build something functional.
“Well, honey. I was about 5 years old and I went to work for a blacksmith. I kind of got familiar with wagons and I’ve been making them ever since,” Foust said.
His back yard in Spokane Valley’s hardscrabble neighborhood of Edgecliff is occupied by doctor’s buggies, a one-horse wagon and a coach, all of Foust’s making. The front of his property is encircled by wagon wheels, water pumps and cast-iron relics.
At the turn of the last century, more than 5,000 wagon and carriage makers existed in the United States, many of whom had methods that were exclusively theirs.
Foust has his own tricks for making his wheels last longer. The spokes run slightly concave from rim to hub and stretch into a flat circle under heavy loads. He has a secret nip and tuck for making his button-roll leather seats more taut. And there are deeper secrets, some he hasn’t even told his wife of nearly 63 years.
“I know about wagons,” Bulah Foust responded to her husband’s boast. “I was driving wagons before he was born,” which can’t be true.
“Mama,” as Foust calls his wife, is nine years younger than her husband, who swept her off her feet while working as a ranch hand in Freemont, Neb. He also calls her his “Angel.” She shares Foust’s drive to collect all things old.
Their home is packed to the rafters with stuff, which spills onto their back yard and into Foust’s shop.
Asked if he remembers what it was he collected first, Foust replies, “Mama.”
The shop is stacked with blocks of wood waiting to be shaped into sideboards or spokes. There are a half-dozen hickory spokes on hand, each with an end funneled like a giant pencil on Foust’s Shopsmith until they fit snugly around a wheel hub.
He likes building the wheels best. He likes thinking about the past when the roads were rough and he was tough enough to take the jarring bumps of the large wooden circles rolling through potholes.
He thinks of leaning over the sides of a single-horse wagon and grasping corn in his young fists.
“We did all our farm work with wagons,” he said. “And we would be a lot better off today if we were still doing it.”
A lot better off if he still could do it.