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Wells Fargo stagecoach model builders

Stagecoach-building family crafts a legacy

Everything is handmade at a family-owned workshop that turns out wooden stagecoach models for Wells Fargo.

July 26, 2016

A family-owned business in California is keeping Wells Fargo’s iconic symbol and its own traditions alive through handmade stagecoach models.

From their shop in the small town of Menifee, California, brothers Robert and Jorge and mother Maria Cortes hand make every “Museum Exclusives” stagecoach for Wells Fargo. The company uses the models to thank customers or recognize team members.

The family makes about 1,800 stagecoaches a year in small, medium, and large sizes. The small (roughly 4 inches tall) and medium (about 5 inches tall) make up the bulk of the orders. The large is 6.5 inches tall.

Visitors to the Wells Fargo History Museums also can purchase a model or call 415-396-6408.

‘There is much to carve’

The Corteses have been crafting the models for Wells Fargo since the company discovered their artistry in the early 1980s.

Oscar Cortes Sr. first launched the family business in Chile in 1949, making model replicas of the Old West. Fascinated and inspired by the region and its folklore, he spent hours researching photographs and historic details to make his models historically accurate.

In 1976, his son Oscar M. Cortes Jr. brought the business to U.S. — continuing the art he’d learned from his father and making wooden reproductions of stagecoaches, wagons, and other scenes from the Old West sold to collectors and the general public.

The Cortes family loves to tell the story of Oscar and Jorge arriving in Los Angeles for the first time, not knowing a word of English and with a large satchel filled with wood carvings, tools, and a dream: to celebrate with wood the history of the American West.

“My father would tell me all the time I work very good in wood,” Oscar said in one of his first U.S. newspaper interviews as his fame grew (he once made a stagecoach scene for the actor John Wayne). “He’d say, ‘My Oscar, you need to work in the United States. There is much to carve there.’”

Michael Carrillo, who handles the “Museum Exclusives” product line for Wells Fargo Historical Services, is glad Oscar continued his father’s tradition, which eventually led to the work with Wells Fargo that now constitutes nearly all of the family’s business.

“Everyone wants a stagecoach,” Michael says of the models’ popularity. “The cool thing is that it’s a family business, and all the work is done by hand here in the U.S. I don’t know anyone who has ever received one that wasn’t excited and who didn’t marvel at the detail.”

Danielle Bouharoun, a private banker with Wells Fargo Private Bank, sent one of the models to a new customer in Nashville, Tennessee. “He runs a large trucking company and mentioned how much he loved our stagecoach, so I wanted to surprise him with a gift,” Danielle says. “He was deeply moved as it connected our company’s history and brand with his interest in transportation. It now occupies a prominent place in his office.”

Oscar M. Cortes
This undated photo shows company founder Oscar M. Cortes Jr. with carvings celebrating the Old West. His sons and wife still put his signature on every stagecoach model.

A family’s craft

The Cortes stagecoaches are the clear favorite among Wells Fargo’s memorabilia. Robert says each stagecoach involves 100 different parts and takes several days to complete.

While each stagecoach is made by hand, the Corteses produce each size in groups and make the parts in bulk, using tools Oscar made specifically for the tasks.

Robert manages the shop and helps Jorge create and assemble the stagecoaches; Maria assembles, too, but is the family’s painting pro. She’s painted the “Wells Fargo & Company” name and other details on the models for so long she doesn’t need a guide.

“I put all my passion in the painting and staining because I want everyone who receives one to think the work is very good quality,” she says.

Adds Robert, “When somebody sees a finished coach, I want them to see the art and the talent that went into making it. I don’t want them just to see a block of wood on wheels. I want them to actually see the cradle and the stagecoach itself.”

“To me, the thrill is to take a rough block of wood, create a stagecoach, and know someone will hold and treasure it.”

He says he loves to handle the basswood and visualize what it will eventually become.

“To me, the thrill is to take a rough block of wood, create a stagecoach, and know someone will hold and treasure it for life,” he says. “That’s why we do what we do, and we hope our children will continue the tradition.”

Jorge says he often thinks of his father while he works. Each finished stagecoach carries the “Oscar M. Cortes” signature.

“This work is part of the legacy of my dad and in memory of my dad who taught all of us to do this,” he says.

Contributors: Steve Kline
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