by Rona Mann / Photos by A. Vincent Scarano

It all started 20 years ago with “Dutchy,” a draft horse, but…let’s not put the horse before the cart.

Actually it began in earnest perhaps 50 years ago when young Mike Ward was growing up in Ashaway, Rhode Island. As a little boy he always loved horses, but also was intrigued by carriages, “the first real means of transportation in the United States,” the now-57 year old adds.

With time, many kids outgrow their childish interests, but not so with Mike Ward. His love of, and fascination with carriages always remained strong. So when his then-wife presented him with “Dutchy,” he knew instantly he had to have something for the horse to pull. That’s when he bought his first carriage. “It became a disease,” he said with a smile, but with a good deal of veracity behind it. Because collecting carriages – seriously collecting them – is no different than seriously collecting stamps nor coins nor Hummels. It’s infectious.

“At first I didn’t know much about carriages, but my friend, Jim Cherenzia got me into it. I started going to Martin Auctioneers in Lebanon, Pennsylvania…that’s when I began to learn.” Ward learned well as he now possesses 35 carriages, each totally individual in style and history and all purchased from collectors. As Mike likes to say, “Each carriage has a story,” a story he is quite willing to share with those who express interest. Martin Auctioneers was the perfect place to begin an education as they have more than 40 years experience in dealing with horse drawn vehicles and equipment and are considered the carriage auction leader throughout the USA and Canada. Each time Ward went to Lebanon, he was overwhelmed by the large selection of coaches, carriages, and sleighs. If he weren’t hooked before, he was now!

Think of most every movie you ever saw where there was a carriage, and Mike Ward probably has one like it in his Fields of Dreams Carriage Museum. Remember  Oklahoma! and the “Surrey with the Fringe on Top?” Ward’s got one of those! A doorless, 4-wheeled, two seated vehicle fashioned in the late 19th century and in perfect   shape. Although a surrey may have a variety of tops, Ward’s does indeed have that famous fringe. Why you can almost hear Gordon MacRae singing!

On his Fields of Dreams property where Ward also maintains a successful tree farm and landscaping business, he built an Amish style barn two years ago which serves as the museum for his beautiful carriages. Here, the collector and the curious, the visitor and the aficionado will also find six Abbot and Dunning Wells Fargo carriages. These distinctive red and gold stagecoaches were deemed the finest passenger vehicles of their time, built by a world famous company with its factory located right in Concord, New Hampshire. And who hasn’t seen those famous covered wagons in films such as Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Hombre, Wells Fargo, and virtually hundreds of TV westerns.

Although “Dutchy” is no longer, Mike Ward currently owns eight Shire horses. The difference between the draft horse (draught in the UK) and the Shire is primarily one of size. Sometimes called a “work horse,” it is bred to be a working animal performing hard tasks like plowing and farm labor. Yet they are gentle giants because in spite of their size, they possess a docile temperament. The Shire is a massive breed of draft horse, pulling extremely large amounts of weight. Also mild mannered, the Shire is still considered the biggest and strongest.

Mike Ward proudly points out that he, along with Jim Cherenzia and his Shires pulling a carriage built in Poland known as a black and red Roof Seat Break, climbed to the top of Mt. Washington. How long did this extraordinary and unusual feat take? “Five hours up and just one and a half down,” Ward smiled. “They closed the auto road so we didn’t get in the way of others.”

To Mike Ward his carriages are not unlike paintings or objets d’art. “I consider each a work of art, not just a means of transportation.” As if to illustrate this point he introduces the Yellowstone Coach made by Abbot and Dunning in the 1800s. “There are only 17 of these left in the world, and I have one of them,” Ward says. Painted a distinctive bright yellow, these six-horse carriages were used in the 1800s to transport visitors throughout Yellowstone National Park, hence the name.

Ward also has on display a Washington Landaulet, the only carriage with an adjustable seat. Used by public figures in formal processions the landaulet was used in Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession in Washington, D.C.

One of the most intriguing carriages is the hansom cab, built by Hixson Johnson in Bridgeport and used as a taxi in New York City. “The driver sits in the back,” Mike says. “Way up in back.” He illustrates this by climbing high up onto the seat located outside- the cab. From here he is able to open and shut the doors for his “passengers.”

Ward next shows off another Roof Seat Break, one of only three left in the world. It was used by President Eisenhower in 1955 when he visited the Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire. Finally, and perhaps his favorite, a Wells Fargo mail coach circa mid 1800s. “It’s never been restored,” Mike said. “And it never will be,” he adds resolutely.

Ward is going to remarry this July. When asked if his wife-to-be was ready to play second fiddle to all these carriages, he paused. “At first she didn’t know what to make of it, but she’s used to it now. She knows how I am.”

And how Mike Ward is, is this: he’s a man who lives in the present day; yet he is a man who keeps looking over his shoulder gazing at his carriages, watching them being pulled throughout the old West, transporting people, goods, and mail, ferrying Presidents and fancy people. It is surely a time gone by, but a time Mike Ward will never let be forgotten because just over his shoulder is U.S. history.

For more information on Fields of Dreams Carriage Museum: [email protected]