Apollo couple puts life into keeping horse-and-buggy business alive

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When Bill Wolfe brings his horse-drawn hearse to a funeral, he hopes the event will feel as prestigious as John F. Kennedy's or as honorable as Princess Diana's.

If it's a wedding, he drives a white, pumpkin-shaped carriage -- the same design as Disney's "Cinderella's Coach" -- to offer a fairy-tale feel.

Whether for a somber or joyous occasion, Mr. Wolfe's business, Wolfe Dream Carriage, aims to keep a tradition alive by providing horse-drawn transportation.

For Mr. Wolfe and wife Doris, a horse and buggy business -- or post-retirement hobby -- seemed natural. Mr. Wolfe, 63, of Apollo, is a retired excavator who used to race a horse-drawn carriage. Ms. Wolfe, 57, grew up around horses and knew how to train them.

"She was an avid rider. I was an avid driver. This is what we like doing. We're a team," Mr. Wolfe said.

Their business, which attracts most customers through word-of-mouth, is now in its 10th year.

Once an event has been booked, the couple transports the animals and necessary equipment, provides decorations, and drives the buggy and passengers to their desired destination.

The preparation isn't always a breeze, though.

"Every horse-drawn vehicle gets pulled out and cleaned, the harness gets polished, we take the horses and tie them here to get bathed. Doris even ties me between them and hoses me down," Mr. Wolfe said with a laugh.

The Wolfes own more than 20 carriages and buggies, or "toys" as he refers to them, and eight horses that are trained to pull the weight.

If you want a specific buggy, he's probably got it. He has 19th-century antiques, vis-a-vis carriages where passengers face one another and covered wagons. He has fixer-uppers, a Heinz Co. bobsled and a coal dump wagon that dates back to 1860. He even has a horse-drawn lawnmower.

"You know how ladies collect shoes and purses? I collect buggies," Mr. Wolfe said.

The Wolfes work year-round and have a wedding or funeral nearly every weekend in the summer. While winter is generally slower for business, the Wolfes are completely booked during the holidays.

At Pittsburgh's Light Up Night every December, Mr. Wolfe's horses are dashing enough to rival any Dancer or Prancer.

He has four teams of horses that are trained to pull carriages: Abby and Gabby, black Friesians; Ginger and Snap, brown Tennessee Walking Horses; Thunder and Lightning, white Percheron/Arabian crosses; and Diamond and Jewel, gray Dutch harnesses.

For most weddings and funerals, the charge is about $600. There is no transportation fee for any event within a 50-mile radius of the Wolfes' home.

For police officers, veterans and other servicemen and women who have died in the line of duty, everything is provided free of cost.

Bill Rusiewicz Sr., director of Rusiewicz Funeral Homes, has used Mr. Wolfe's hearses for many funerals, including those of Lower Burrell Police Officer Derek Kotecki, who was shot and killed last year, and his own daughter, Kristen Rusiewicz Dunn, who died of cancer at 41.

Mr. Rusiewicz said his daughter loved horses, so he appreciated having a horse-drawn hearse for her funeral.

"It certainly made it extra special. It was the most appropriate," he said.

The Wolfes drive the buggy, each wearing black top hats and tailcoats. If it's a funeral, Ms. Wolfe wears dark sunglasses so no one can see her tears.

The horses have been trained to keep calm in any situation, especially military funerals. The horses stand still during a 21-gun salute because Ms. Wolfe trained them using a tape recording of sirens, explosions and other noises that would normally spook animals.

"They are bomb-proof," said Mr. Wolfe.

And so are the Wolfes. As long as people keep requesting their services, they don't plan on a second retirement anytime soon.

"It's majestic. There's something about horses that is an eye-catcher," said Ms. Wolfe. "It just works."

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Emily Petsko: epetsko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.


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