A couple of Thursdays ago at Blue Ox Millworks, some of the cats were sacked out in the sunshine and others inside the office by crackling wood stoves. Bluto, the golden-eyed, bear-faced dog, flopped like a giant, piled-up rug on some unevenly stacked timbers in the yard. Birds were talking. The air was still.
At the blacksmith shop, someone hammered on metal, tink-tink-tink-tink. In the yard, a blue beast of a tractor, three-quarters of a century old, rumbled to life. And inside the cavernous main workshop, Blue Ox master craftsman Eric Hollenbeck and master woodworkers Enrique Ayala and Cesar Murillo conferred over a partly finished, ornate hearse — a replica of the original that carried President Abraham Lincoln's body on the final day of the funeral procession's two-week, 1,654-mile train journey in April and May of 1865. (1)
Different hearses carried Lincoln's body in the cities visited by the funeral procession. His final hearse, of which there is only one known existing photo, was drawn by six black horses and carried him to Oak Ridge Cemetery. It was built in Philadelphia in 1857 for St. Louis livery operators Lynch & Arnot, for $6,000 — nearly $200,000 today. Before Lincoln, it had carried the bodies of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, the first general to die in the Civil War; and both a Missouri governor and senator. A decorative middle panel was made for Lincoln that included 36 stars, one for each state of the Union, upside-down torches and a silver medallion with the president's initials, "in memoriam" and "May 1, 1865" engraved on it. The hearse burned up in a livery stable fire in 1887 that also killed three men and 200 horses. (2)
Hollenbeck designed the hearse using the historic photo, an old newspaper account and the dimension of the back wheels from an 1865 bill of lading. The photo was shot at an angle, which Hollenbeck had to correct for in order to scale the rest of the parts. (3)
The main frame is maple, like the original, except for the redwood window frames. The decorative pillars were made with carved wood molds cast in melted-down aluminum scrap, then gold- and silver-leafed by Allpoints Signs and embedded with black cabochons that Blue Ox's lapidarist cut from Brazilian onyx. (4)
Cody Drury, one of a dozen combat veterans who helped build the hearse at Blue Ox over the past nine months as part of a new veteran's program, says the work has restored his sense of purpose. "My job was to kill and destroy," he says. "At this place, I get to use the diligence I learned in the Army to create."(5)
The hearse is now in Arizona, where Tombstone Hearse and Trike Co.'s Jack Feather, a Vietnam veteran, will paint it and attach the chassis, wheels and axles built by another Vietnam veteran, Jay Jones, in Kentucky. On May 1-3, the hearse will star in the 150th anniversary commemoration of Lincoln's funeral, in Springfield, Illinois.