JANESVILLE MESSENGER -- Dan Peterson spent his 36-year medical career mending people’s hearts and bodies. The rural Janesville man still builds and fixes things, but now he works on horse-drawn carriages.
And he’s finally building his first carriage since talking his wife, Susan, into moving to a farm on Polzin Road in 1980.
“I have done repairs on carriages and have replaced brakes on competition carriages, but only a few people in the U.S. can survive economically making carriages,” Peterson, 71, said. “Most high-level carriages come from Poland. In fact, the brakes I am installing on my carriage I ordered from Poland. It is much cheaper to buy a finished carriage at auction or at a dealer than to make it yourself.”
But fate played a part in him tackling such a project from scratch.
“I got involved in making this carriage because two years ago I went to an estate auction in Pontiac, Illinois,” Peterson said. “This man had made and restored carriages. I had no interest in buying anything. During the auction, the auctioneer went into a room where there were about a dozen newly made, wooden wheels in classic wheelwright technique. They were stunning. Normally, these wheels would cost $500 each. I bought a big pair for $105 and a small pair for $110. So, after a few months looking at them in my shop, I decided, ‘Hey, go nuts, make something useful and beautiful.’”
“I am a somewhat ‘kinky’ woodworker,” Peterson said, explaining it this way. “I have saved saw logs from our woods for 30 years. We mill and dry them and I especially like wood with dramatic grain, knots and irregularities. The upstairs inside of our studio barn is paneled in cherry from our woods, and some is kinky.
“I am using this wood, oak and cherry, for the carriage,” he added. “It requires special attention to whether a panel will go goofy after installed. I think it will be fun, especially for me. There also are panels on both sides from zebra wood veneer that you can’t get any longer.”
It’s simply the latest pursuit for a man who seldom slows down.
“I encouraged my wife to move to a farm near Janesville … she was skeptical,” Peterson said about a property that has ranged in size from 50 to 80 acres. “We redid the whole place and raised kids, cattle, sheep and horses, keeping only the horses after our children grew.”
The Petersons have raised 56 foals, starting with draft horses.
“We went on to Percheron draft horses crossed with a thoroughbred, and in the next generation, Warmbloods, like Oldenberg, Swedish Warmblood and Hanoverian,” Peterson said. “I do my own hay harvesting and depend on helpful neighbors for everything else.”
Horses and busy country life are nothing new for Peterson, who grew up on a dairy farm near Alexandria, Minnesota.
“My grandfather came to Rockford from Sweden in about 1890,” Peterson said. “He was a teamster, which meant he had a team of horses and hauled freight. He moved with his wife and kids to Carlos, Minnesota, in 1914 and started farming there. My father eventually took over the farm, and I grew up there with horses my dad had.”
Peterson attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry. He went to Stanford Medical School, followed by two years at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
“I planned to go back to Stanford but got interested in working in a smaller community and came to Janesville in 1977,” he said, joining Riverview Clinic (which in 1991 merged with Dean Clinic of Madison), where he worked in internal medicine, cardiology and critical care, retiring in 2014.
And that’s allowed him to devote even more time to his longtime activities on the farm, where the couple started collecting carriages in 1990.
“We had these nice driving horses and needed to have a job for them,” Peterson said. “About that time we went to the Villa Louis carriage competition in Prairie du Chien … I was hooked. I was working one day and asked Susan to go to an auction south of Milwaukee. She came back with three special, expensive carriages. The best one is a Brewster panel boot Victoria built in 1905 with detailed information about orderer, address, color, upholstery, etc. They (Brewsters) were the Ferrari of 1905.”
The Petersons also have competed in horse-drawn carriage competitions several times a year.
“We do pleasure shows consisting of several classes judged on driving skill, speed and accuracy through obstacles and appearance,” he said. “We also do CDEs (combined driving events), which are similar to eventing for ridden horses. One phase is dressage, the second a cones competition and the third a marathon.”
The couple, who recently returned from a show in British Columbia, Canada, have traveled a lot, meeting some famous people along the way, including Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth of England.
“He started the sport of combined driving about 1975,” Peterson said. “Susan and I met him three years ago when we went to the Windsor horse show. We sat next to his groom at dinner. She verified that five days a week he showed up at the stable at 7 a.m., not 7:01 or 7:02, to drive his team of four ponies for an hour. He was 92 at the time.”
Peterson belongs to the Dairyland Driving Club, an organization dedicated to support horse driving enthusiasts in Wisconsin, and the couple hosts many social gatherings.
“We set up pleasure drives in state parks and private venues,” he said about the club. “We endorse and support driving competitions, we have a distance driving category, we support Old World Wisconsin and driving events like Wade House in August and Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien in September.
“Our carriage barn/studio was planned specifically to support horse-related events as well as musical events such as concerts,” he said. “Last year we had a driver proficiency event sponsored by the Carriage Association of America to certify safe carriage drivers. We have had six musical concerts, from classical piano duets to a collection of holiday treats.”