“People either lie down and roll around on the ground because they want one so badly, or they walk right by and don’t even see it.” This is what antiques-restorer, tinkerer, inventor Brad Atkisson says about his current passion for building Gypsy wagons. “It’s like a cross between an armoire and a house. It’s just a big piece of furniture.”
Only it rides on a custom tandem axel and it weighs 950 pounds. “Which is light,” he says.
Brad and his son, Dave, have built a half dozen Gypsy wagons in the last few years. These wagons are suitable for freeway travel and, upon arrival in some idyllic spot, to live in. Dave successfully lived in his at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon all last summer, using a solar panel to run his computer and DVD player. He’d loll around in the evening watching a moose and her calf nose around, then in the morning drive 25 minutes down the canyon to his day job, painting houses.
Gypsy caravans, also called Gypsy waggons in the U.K., Romani caravans, living vans, or Vardos, trace their history to the early 1800s in France, according to caravan historian John Pockett. Wealthy travelers and itinerant salesmen used these wagons, as did musicians and performers who moved between fairs and circuses. Gypsies began using them in the mid 1800’s, and the fortunate newly-married Gypsy couple might hire a coach-builder to make a caravan for them to live in.
In the western U.S., we’re more likely to have seen a later relative of the Gypsy wagon – sheepwagons or sheepcamps, which are rustic and not designed for extensive road travel. They share the bowed top design with some Gypsy wagon styles, but the old sheepcamps typically contained only the essentials: a bed, stove, and benches with storage beneath. Gypsy wagons were homes built on wheels large enough so that they could be pulled by a horse over rutted roads. Inside, they offered the efficiency of a ship’s cabin: built-ins, retractables, fold-downs, a sleeping berth, and a stove. The wealthy travelers had them built with more frippery: elaborate wooden cabinetry, carved trim, painted vine-and-floral motifs in purple and red with gold-leaf detail, etched glass, beveled mirrors, hanging lanterns, and velvet upholstery. Imaginatively gaudy, some of them look like they were dreamed up by a circus performer on hallucinogens. Relentless adornment covers the interior and exterior of some caravans; there is no place for the eye to rest. This is part of their charm.
This Youtube video offers a four-part tour of such an historic wagon. Brad noted, “Some people in the Vargo subculture are extremely purist. They won’t even paint a floral design if it isn’t traditionally pure. Kind of like people are about their tartan kilts.”
How did Brad start designing and building the western version of a Gypsy wagon? “I was forever trying to build a better mousetrap,” he says. “It started with tree houses and forts. I still like building those things.” But when he and his wife Karen and three children began camping all over the mountains and canyons of Utah, he became intrigued with building rooms on the back of trucks. Then he built a camper and installed it on a trailer so he could park it at the site and be able to detach his truck to drive around. Then it became the notion of building a small cabin to pull behind a truck. This led him to the sheepcamp, then to the European style wagons with canted walls which offer expanded living space.
Brad’s background is in antiques repair. He did work for several antique shops, especially when they required new carvings, turnings, and appliqué. When he worked on some 17th Century pieces, he learned about joinery like lineal dovetails, used so that the tops of the furniture wouldn’t split when they shifted. And China latches. This prepared him for bridging the gap between an armoire and a mobile house. Where Brad’s contribution is to the functional/mechanical side, Dave’s is to the aesthetic design and color scheme.
The last few summers the peripatetic Brad and Karen have parked their Gypsy wagon, or caravan (since the term wagon generally implies something pulled by a horse) in Mormon Pasture, near Monticello, Utah, part of Heidi Redd’s 300,000-acre Dugout Ranch now owned by the Nature Conservancy. He “cowboys” for Heidi in the summer, and built a Gypsy wagon for her in her giant barn. “I like to take the idea of the Gypsy wagon and run with it”, says Brad. “A little old world and a little Twentieth Century.” This may include stacked Pullman-like sleeping spaces, cantilevered table tops, a television and DVD player, solar power, updated paint schemes from Dave’s particular color sense , capacious interiors, and a bowed Sunbrella fabric top. He developed a clever moveable frame system which allows the wagon height to expand from 7 feet for traveling to10 feet for living space. His current wagon is 12 feet long and six feet wide, squared to within 1/16 inch corner-to-corner so that the top moves easily up and down with a series of cables and a crank. It takes about 10 seconds and could be done wearing high heels.
Historian John Pockett’s website says, “When their owners died, Vardos were sometimes burned. This was because of a belief that the dead were bound to their belongings until their possessions were burnt, buried, or sunk.”
New website for Atkisson campers: gypsycampers.com or Atkissoncampers@hotmail.com