Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Stagecoach Differences

“If I’d only known then what I know now.”  It’s a thought that many of us have probably uttered before.  In my case, if I’d had any idea of how diverse, complicated, and extensive the workings of America’s first transportation industry actually were, I’m not sure I would have jumped into the study so whole-heartedly in the first place.  Then again, it’s tough to not be captivated by something with so many mysteries yet to be solved.  As it is, the subject is faithful to regularly give up secrets, albeit slowly.  So, I find myself constantly immersed in this hunt for history; waiting in anticipation for what’s uncovered next.  Through all of the research, one of the things I continue to notice is the huge number of accurate but overly-generic references to so many of our country’s early rides. 

Case in point… Terms like road wagon, mountain wagon, freight wagon, spring wagon, and even the phrase ‘covered wagon’ are all common identifiers of American horse-drawn vehicles.  While the names seem to offer sufficient descriptions, there’s often much more information needed to paint an accurate image of each design.  In fact, one of the greatest challenges to understanding these (and other) basic classifications is that each of the names can refer to various types of transports.    

As confusing as the above examples might be, the term “stagecoach” can also be applied to a multiplicity of designs.  As a result, without a photo, it’s not always easy to correctly imagine what the title of ‘coach’ or ‘stage’ is referring to.  There were a host of four-wheeled creations that were used and labeled as a stage. 

In the absence of information, it’s often assumed that a reference to a coach must mean that we’re talking about a heavy Abbot-Downing-style Concord.  While these particular designs are iconic, it’s this type of mass generalization that can make it difficult to get an accurate perception of transportation in the Old West.  Yes, Abbot-Downing Concords played a very prominent role in a large part of the American frontier.  Likewise, so did many other commercial vehicles carrying both passengers and packages.  Some builders of these stages even borrowed the “Concord” designation to describe a coach that was considerably different than the legendary Abbot-Downing patterns originating the name.  Legendary builder, M.P. Henderson of Stockton, California, is just one of the vehicle makers that capitalized on the popularity of the Concord moniker by attaching it to their own mud coach designs. 

Labeled as being built by Lewis Downing in 1851, this Hotel-style Concord coach is just one of the variations that were produced in Concord, New Hampshire.

Throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s, there were numerous types of vehicles serving as stages in the eastern portions of the U.S.  At the same time, the collective hauling of mail, passengers, express packages, money, and gold was handled by an equally diverse group of transports in the West.  From coast to coast, these old wheels took on a variety of titles.  They may have been referred to as a Mud wagon, Stage wagon, Overland wagon, Celerity wagon, Passenger wagon, Passenger hack, Mail hack, Mail coach, Mail jerky, Western coach, Concord coach, Mountain wagon, or any number of other names that could (and usually did) vary in style and construction.  Making things even more convoluted, this overview of stage nomenclature doesn’t include all of the coach vehicles used for cities, hotels, and touring.  In still more instances, even covered farm wagons are known to have been occasionally used as a stage.  Due to trail/road conditions, vehicle availability, acquisition costs, serviceability, individual manufacturer styles, loads to be hauled, passenger requirements, or a multitude of other reasons, it was common to see a fair amount of diversity in commercial stage designs. 

While most stagecoaches in the American West were mounted on a suspension of springs or thoroughbraces, that observation could easily be where many construction similarities stopped.  When comparing side-by-side photos of these old vehicles, a particular set of wheels may – or may not – have a triple reach, single reach, lamps, full-length side springs, thoroughbraces, open top, enclosed body, raised driver’s seat, fixed rear boot, folding rear rack, foot brake, hand brake, roof rack, side curtains, round top, flat top, wood hubs, Sarven hubs, dodged spokes, drop tongue/pole, stiff tongue, bunters, 6 horse hitch, mule hitch… Whew!  Well, you get the picture.  It’s impossible to corral and strictly define a single group of features that encompassed every early stagecoach. 

This period image from the American plains shows 2 different styles of mud coaches as well as a smaller stage wagon.  One of the mud wagons is drawn by mules.

Working to get a better understanding of the variety of designs and regional distinctions, we’ve spent decades searching for and acquiring original, period imagery.  Looking through the collection of tintypes, daguerreotypes, CDV’s, cabinet cards, glass plates, stereo views, and even real photo postcards in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives, it’s easy to see the wide range of vehicles used as coaches throughout the U.S.    

To that point, I recently came across an old photo showing a pair of touring coaches in California.  While one is a typical open-sided design resting on a thoroughbrace suspension, the other is equipped with side elliptical springs similar to those positioned front and rear on a Dougherty wagon.  Also unique, the spring-mounted coach utilized a dual-block braking system on the rear wheels.  Specifically, I’m referring to the use of four brake blocks – one in front of and one behind each of the rear wheels.  I’ve seen this twin “brake-clamping” of the rear wheel before but, typically, it’s been associated with wagons doing heavy freighting in rugged, mountainous terrain.  Finding this configuration on a coach is akin to discovering yet another needle in a haystack.  Again and again, we’ve been fortunate to uncover a world of forgotten and lost details related to America’s first transportation industry.  Ultimately, these types of encounters not only help us avoid false assumptions but also provide a more complete picture of what was truly happening in the West. 


This small stage has been traced to service in the Angels Camp, California region.  While the maker of this piece is unknown, similar vehicles were made by a variety of builders – including M.P. Henderson and Abbot-Downing.  

When it comes to carrying passengers, stagecoaches weren’t the only means of commercial transportation.  Inside cities and larger communities, conveyances like omnibuses, Herdic coaches, accommodations, wagonettes, depot wagons, station wagons, and livery vehicles were a common sight at train stations and along community streets.    

So, ultimately, what’s the definition of a stagecoach?  Clearly, the look of these wheels can be incredibly diverse and different regions were known for using different designs.  Recognizing the need to first identify the type of coach, (touring, western, hotel, city, mud wagon, stage wagon, etc.) perhaps the most encompassing definition would include points like… a four-wheeled, commercial vehicle typically drawn by 2 to 6 equine (sometimes even oxen) and dedicated to hauling passengers, packages, and luggage with many also carrying money, mail, and gold.  For a longer definition of the design (reflecting more of its complexity), you can find details in Don Berkebile’s book, “Carriage Terminology: An Historical Dictionary.”   

Still more information can be gleaned from the articles and presentations of well-known stagecoach authority, Ken Wheeling.  He’s researched and written extensively on the subject for decades.  You’ll find a few of his coach articles in the following issues of “The Carriage Journal” – Summer 1993, Fall 1993, Winter 1993, August 2001, October 2005, October 2008, March 2009, and October 2016.  These are far from being Mr. Wheeling’s only writings but they do give a good overview of stagecoaches and the challenges associated with their study.

Have a great week!

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

From Wagons to Trains, Planes, & Automobiles

We hear a lot these days about the ‘transition’ team that America’s newest President is assembling.  The process marks an event that takes place at least every 8 years and sometimes as part of a 4-year cycle – depending on the outcome of a particular election.  When it comes to product innovation or industry transformations in the U.S., though, the sequence of events isn’t necessarily routine or predictable.  Such was the case for the massive transportation industry during the dawn of the 20th century.  At the time, many in the horse-drawn era found themselves surprised at the influence and excitement heralded by the new, internal combustion machines.  They couldn’t fathom a total transition to motorized power and, as a result, they were largely unprepared for the change. 

Overall, it’s an understandable perception.  With almost 200 years of this country’s history being dominated by horse-drawn vehicles, a sizeable number of folks had become hard set in their ways and felt things should remain the same.  Even so, it was a severely-limiting paradigm forming a lot of its own barriers to growth and success.  Generations had grown up using the products and had become financially dependent on the industry.  So, when a new, more advanced form of travel began to gain traction, the transformation was an unfamiliar and uneasy one for a large number of folks.  It was also one that required more capital for start-ups.  So, it’s not all that surprising that some found it a hard proposition to warm up to.  At the same time that so many were grappling with fears and resistance, others embraced and participated in the movement while still more waited to see what would happen. 

The early 1900’s amounted to a collision of worlds between horse-drawn and motorized transportation.

The study of this part of our history reminds me of the old adage pointing out that there are just 3 kinds of people in this world… Those that make things happen.  Those that watch what happens.  And those that wonder what happened!  Ultimately, those early days were a tumultuous time filled with rivalries, litigation, questions, and plenty of folks watching and wondering what the devil was going on. 

During the early 1900’s, there were hundreds of U.S. companies fighting for success in the newly-formed auto industry.  Ultimately, almost all of them failed.  Along the same lines, there were tens of thousands of horse-drawn vehicle makers and repairers struggling with their own perceptions of the horseless carriage.  For some, it was a fad.  For others, the vehicles were a luxury that would never be affordable.  Trade publications initially decried the evils of motorized transportation.  Salesmen missed no chance to deride the rubber-tired dragons whether they were gas, steam, or electric.  Associations banded together to see what might be done to slow or stop the acceptance of these new-fangled machines.  Articles were written discussing the noise, smell, cost, speed, power, unreliability, and other challenges associated with automobiles – some of those things continue to be a point of reference!

The earliest Flint wagons were adorned with scenic murals similar to those found on Concord stagecoaches.  Like many legendary brands, quality Flint wagons are now among the most difficult to find.

Even so, among the ranks, there were a number of legendary wagon makers that saw true opportunity in the ‘crisis’ that others perceived to be a direct threat.  Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing receives a fair – and deserving – amount of credit for recognizing the shifting tide.  There were other wagon makers, though, that are often overlooked in their roles related to motorized transportation.  Brands like Kentucky, Flint, Stoughton, Electric Wheel, Swab, Knapheide, Mitchell, Champion, and more were all active in their pursuit of various elements within the up-and-coming auto industry. 

Studebaker, for instance, not only designed and crafted cars, trucks, buses, and bodies but also built aircraft engines during WWII.  They had begun working on their own automobile in the late 1890’s, making every effort to continually reinforce their role as a transportation king pin.  After they ceased building wagons in 1920, they sold the related equipment and patterns while leasing their name to another powerful brand – the Kentucky Wagon Company of Louisville, Kentucky.  This move not only gave Kentucky another strong wagon brand to sell but provided a way for Studebaker loyalists to access original parts and maintenance on wagons that had been built in South Bend

Speaking of Kentucky (Wagon) Manufacturing Company; from their beginning in 1879, they were a force to be reckoned with.  Not only were they well capitalized but they were strong marketers producing tens of thousands of wagons per year.  During the 1930’s, the company was even more diversified as they took charge of Continental Car Company, producing a wide array of train cars.  The firm also made numerous early truck bodies and trailers, not to mention the manufacture and support of a full line of Dixie Flyer automobiles.  The direct descendant of Kentucky Wagon Company – Kentucky Trailer – has not only has survived but thrives as a dominant force in today’s trucking, specialty trailer, and body industries.  In fact, from commercial, medical, military, and government applications to motorsports, mobile broadcast production, moving & storage, package delivery, and enclosed auto haulers, Kentucky Trailer has been called, “the most innovative custom trailer manufacturer in the world.”

Kentucky has been a patriotic supplier to the U.S. Military for over a century.  

Kentucky Trailer produces a wide variety of custom work.  

In Flint, Michigan where much of the 20th century auto industry eventually found a home, the owners of Flint Wagon Works also launched a plan to build cars in the first decade of the new century.  This was done during the same time they were building wagons and the public was assured that they would continue manufacturing these vehicles just as they had since 1882.  Ultimately, the old wagon factory served as the origin of some of the earliest Buick and Chevrolet cars.

In Elizabethville, Pennsylvania, the Swab Wagon Company is still in business with the same name it carried in the 1800’s.  Like many others, Swab became actively involved in building bodies for early autos.  The company built their first fire-related vehicle in 1890 and, today, they specialize in the production of emergency vehicles for police, fire, and rescue needs as well as animal transports and utility bodies.  With roots to 1868, the brand is still family-owned and stands as one of the country’s oldest continuously-operated transportation manufacturers.

Located north of Hannibal, Missouri on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, Quincy, Illinois is home to a pair of extraordinary survivors from the early wagon industry.  One of the oldest businesses in the city today is Knapheide.  Established in 1848 as Knapheide Wagon Company, the firm is well-known for its truck and van bodies, utility beds, truck caps, and tool boxes.    

As evidenced by this 1891 patent, innovation and a strong quest for excellence were a big part of Titan International’s DNA from the beginning.

Another of Quincy’s amazing success stories has deep roots in the tire and wheel industries.  Tracing its foundations to 1890, Titan International began life as the Electric Wheel Company.  As such, the company was an early producer of innovative metal wheels, wagons, tractors, crawlers, truck bodies, semi-trailers, rubber tires, carts, portable motors, and numerous other products.  Today, the firm is a powerful mainstay producing tires and wheels for agriculture, construction, forestry, mining, ATV, and lawn and garden applications.  As such, they supply tires and wheels for many well-known brands like John Deere, Case, New Holland, Kubota, and Goodyear.

So, there they are.  Just a few examples of how America’s horse-drawn wagon brands worked to overcome the trials of changing times.  Like so many early auto firms, most wagon builders met their demise by or during the Great Depression.  Nonetheless, as we’ve shared in today’s blog, a number of survivors have built strong foundations in the modern transportation industry.  Truth is, I suspect there are more companies with roots to wagon and carriage-making still around today than those who actually started out building automobiles.  It’s certainly an interesting supposition that points to even greater resilience and marketing savvy than many of our country’s first auto makers.

From field and farm to the highways and back roads, America’s early horse-drawn brands took on an overwhelming challenge to re-make themselves with reliable and relevant offerings.  It’s a heritage that’s been well rewarded with proven products, disciplined management, and forward-thinking momentum.  Ultimately, it’s no real surprise.  After all, that same focus on excellence, achievement, and customer satisfaction is what drove America’s first wheels to such prominence in the first place.  

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Popular Western Vehicle Blogs

Exactly 4 weeks from today, we’ll mark 5 years of consistently writing and posting at least 1 blog per week.  It will total just over 270 times that I’ve sat down and wondered what part of America’s first transportation industry to share next.  Some weeks, the subject came easy.  On other occasions, I struggled – struggled to squeeze in the time and struggled to keep the diversity of topics fresh and pertinent.  Ultimately, there were days when I wondered if we could reach the 5-year milestone.  Even though we still have a few weeks to go, it’s good to see the goal so close.  So, as a bit of a reflection and nod to what continues to be an amazing research and writing experience, I thought we might look back at a few of the most popular posts to date.

Most of America's early wagon makers were small shops serving limited areas.

Some might feel that the older posts on our site would have inherently accumulated more traffic.  There’s a certain amount of logic to that line of thinking.  However, as I’ve reviewed the list of topics, it’s clear that some pieces have just naturally attracted more interest – regardless of the age of the post.  Case in point, several of my articles from this year have already risen to the top 10% in total views.      

As a general rule, there always seems to be a fair amount of interest anytime we’re focused on a particular vehicle type.  While many folks have their own idea of the perfect set of wheels, when it comes to our overall readership, it doesn’t seem to matter which type we focus on – farm, freight, ranch, coach, military, or business.  As long as the details are documented and the information is there, the traffic finds a way to the stories.  Our all-time, most popular posting was one I wrote back in 2012.  This particular piece wasn’t overly lengthy but it pointed out a number of ways that farm wagons are different.  It’s a message that we’ve shared for decades.  Unfortunately, some perceptions are hard to change and we continue to see how misperceptions not only degrade and oversimplify these old wheels but actually contribute to the demise of valuable history.  The truth is, no two of these workhorses will ever be exactly the same.  It might be variations in condition, accessories, features, or overall designs that create the contrast.  Or, it may be differences in the brand, age, completeness, levels of originality, or even the color and graphics that help set a particular vehicle apart.  Ultimately, every detail can be crucial when determining collectability, value, rarity levels, and overall provenance.

Stake rings were used for a multitude of purposes.  This photo shows the rings helping extend the support and height of the bolster stakes (standards).

The most popular blogs related to early vehicle brands (at least of the ones I’ve written) include Weber, Electric Wheel Company, Abbot-Downing, Moline, and Studebaker to name a few.  There are a great many more brands that we’ve yet to feature.  Some relatively unknown 19th century makes like Star, Whitewater, Kansas, and Jackson have also generated their fair share of interest.  

The early wagon and coaching industries were filled with larger-than-life personalities such as the Studebaker brothers in South Bend, Lewis Downing and J. Stephens Abbot of Concord, New Hampshire, early freighter and U.S. Senator, Alexander Caldwell (Kansas & Caldwell wagons), Peter Schuttler of Chicago, Henry Mitchell of Racine, the Nissen families in North Carolina, and so many more.  I’ve highlighted several of these legendary vehicle builders in my blogs.  At the end of the day, though, the craftsman that seems to regularly attract the most interest may also be the one whose history is among the murkiest – Joseph Murphy.  Established in 1825, the history of Murphy wagons is filled with hearsay – especially when comments are brought up about the giant freight wagons he allegedly built for use on the Santa Fe Trail.  The claims could be true but, to date, there has been a general lack of primary source evidence to back up the assertions.  It’s also regularly stated that Murphy was extremely quality-conscious with the manufacture of his wagons.  Just over a decade ago, we were able to independently verify that claim with the discovery of a number of original letters dating to the early and mid-1880’s.  Several of the notes were hand-written by Joseph Murphy and give explicit instructions on how and when to cut raw timber for use in his wagons.  The documents also lend some insight into the wood sizes and manufacturing needs Murphy’s business was experiencing.  We expect to have another opportunity in the fall of 2017 to share more about Mr. Murphy during a meeting with the Santa Fe Trail Association and National Stagecoach and Freight Wagon Association.  I’ll have more info on that conference as we get a little closer.  

Finally, we occasionally get requests to profile a particular topic.  Such was the case with an email we received back in 2013 asking about the inventor of the cast thimble skein.  It was a good question as the research makes clear that wagons used in 18th century events such as America’s Revolutionary War did not use cast skeins… someone please cue Hollywood to take note.

 The Wheels That Won The West® Archives house hundreds of original coaching images. The photo above features an Abbot-Downing Concord Coach used on the Good Intent stage line.

So, there it is – a brief list of highlights from the last 5 years of our blogs.  Do I have another 5 years of blogs in me?  Good question.  With increasingly challenging work schedules and vehicle projects, there may be a time down the road when we need to reduce the posting frequency a bit.  Who knows?  Maybe it will increase.  Whatever the case, we’re grateful for the privilege of overseeing so much history – and equally thankful to share time with you each week.  Don’t forget to stay in touch and pass along a few of your own stories.  We’d enjoy hearing from you.

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Sheep Camp Wagon Patents

Not long ago, I read a piece estimating that 80% of the world’s gold has yet to be uncovered.  It’s one of those thought-provoking assertions that helps remind us of how much opportunity still exists in this world.  In a similar way, I believe that the vast majority of what there is to learn about America’s first transportation industry has yet to be discovered.  We may know a fair amount but most of us still don’t have all the pages of the early trade publications committed to memory.  It’s a humbling reminder of the extreme depth of this subject and how far we have to go to preserve what’s left.   

Truth is, in order to save and properly share our heritage, we must first be able to recognize it.  The only way to recognize and fully appreciate this part of yesterday is to develop a more solid understanding of the vehicles, brands, parts, processes, people, challenges, innovations, and industry practices. 

Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any shortcuts to acquiring so much information.  As a result, over the last 20-plus years, I’ve chased more than my fair share of discarded history.  Along the way, I’ve logged tens of thousands of hours in the hunt for old documents, forgotten artifacts, and other unknown details related to wheels from the horse-drawn era.  It’s an obsession that’s taken me all over the U.S. in a continual search for answers.  And, yes, the efforts can seem a little crazy even to me at times.  Nonetheless, the process has allowed us to recognize, recover, and gather thousands of period artifacts and images.  Along the way, we’ve been able to help preserve and showcase a world of information – including the establishment of time frames pointing to evolutionary differences in wagons and early western vehicles.  In other words, every old wagon isn’t the same as another. 

Housed in our Wheels That Won The West® Archives, this early photo of a Sheep Camp wagon shows a divided front door.  This was a common design, allowing the lower portion of the door to be closed while driving.

Some of these character traits can even highlight ways that competition drove innovation – just as it does today.  For instance, did you know that almost every type of early horse-drawn wagon had multiple patents attached to its design?  There is one early style, though, that I’ve yet to find a single patent directly associated with… the chuck wagon.  Typically built on early farm, military, and mountain wagon running gears (any of which may have had its own patents), these rolling kitchens were truly custom creations for almost every outfit.  Studebaker Manufacturing Company in South Bend, Indiana did offer and produce a ‘Round-Up’ chuck wagon for use on ranches in the early 1880’s.  Even though it was equipped with Studebaker’s own version of a chuck box and pantry, it was merely a ‘ready-made’ chuck wagon and wasn’t patented. (Although the steel skeins on the running gear were).  It’s a different story for a wealth of other wagon styles though.  From farm, freight, and business wagons to military and even sheep wagons, each of these vehicle types had some connection to legally protected ideas. 

To that point, I recently uncovered what may be the only patents ever granted for Sheep Camp wagons – also known as sheep wagons and sheepherder wagons.  As far as I know, today’s blog is the first public notice of these patents in well over a century.  Each is a discovery we were fortunate to make and, likewise, each is another reminder of how we’re often required to adjust what we thought we knew about America’s first transportation industry.

The oldest sheep wagon patent I came across was applied for in January of 1899.  It primarily dealt with ways to keep the living quarters more comfortable from outdoor conditions.  More specifically, the patent describes construction features engineered to keep the wagon interior “absolutely wind-proof and dust-proof.”  Additionally, the design was complemented with a large hook mounted on the side of the wagon for holding harness.  When not in use, the hook was fashioned to fold flush and out of the way.

Filed in 1908, the second patent also came well after the commonly acknowledged creation of the sheep wagon in the 1880’s.  Yet, almost every feature listed in this patent seems to be a replication of elements that were likely already included on many sheep wagons.  It’s hard to see a substantial difference that would have allowed for a legitimate patent.  Even so, the legal proclamation was granted in 1909.   

This illustration is part of a Sheep Camp wagon patent that was granted in 1909.  

Like so many other sheepherder wagons, the 1909 patent calls for a bed to lie transverse to the length of the wagon box.  A pull-out table was located under the bed, side bunks doubled as seating and storage, an indoor stove was positioned near the door, the door, itself, was divided in half, and the rear window included a hinged and sliding sash.  Additionally, there were a host of other commonly-seen accoutrements listed in the patent. 

It’s possible that, with large national manufacturers like Studebaker, Stoughton, Mitchell, Milburn, Winona, Kentucky, and Racine-Sattley all taking an interest in Sheep Camp beds, the attention may have caused some to want to secure ownership rights on the most popular designs.  At this point, it’s hard to say.  We just don’t have enough details to know on what grounds this particular patent was submitted and granted.  As is the case in so many discoveries, the finding of one piece of a puzzle may help answer some questions.  At the same time, it can open the door to a whole new can of worms.

Today, Sheepherder wagons are still extremely popular.  From collectors and resort operators to private guest quarters, working ranches, and competitions, the custom creations have a way of providing a world of unforgettable memories in a truly ‘moving’ design.  

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Early Transportation Innovations

It seems to me that it might be easier to discuss the existence of the Easter bunny compared to the challenges of convincing some that America’s first transportation industry was full of innovation.  After all, antique horse-drawn vehicles are just raw and rudimentary efforts that are only slightly elevated over stone age tools, right?  Of course, that’s wrong but some perceptions can be hard to overcome.

Decades ago, when I began researching this subject, I came across a number of period materials outlining the size and complexity of America’s early transportation industry.  It was the first of many breakthroughs helping highlight the need for sufficient historical reports.  In the process, the discoveries opened doors to countless intriguing – and still untold – stories.  I’ll never forget the first time I accessed U.S. patent records related to horse-drawn wagons.  With thousands upon thousands of patents filed and granted in the nineteenth century, it was dizzying to see so much ingenuity occurring in what is often called ‘simpler’ times. 

Equally impressive, many of these ideas have served as foundational concepts for a wealth of advancements in the auto industry.  After all, horse drawn vehicles were the primary method of wheeled transportation in America for roughly 200 years and many of the most basic requirements remain similar today.  During the mid to late 1800’s and early 1900’s, numerous designs were created, adapted, and evolved for purposes of the day.  Some of those ideas have even become part of our most modern needs and activities.

So, with intellectual property being such a hot topic and well-known part of business these days, I thought we’d take a look at some wheeled ideas born at least a century ago that are still being used.

The Pop-Up Camper…

Surely, one of the great space-saving innovations of the mid to late 20th century is the pop-up camper.  It’s easy to tow, stow, maneuver, and use while packing a wealth of space for outdoor camping trips.  It seems natural that something so advanced would have been developed by modern minds focused on a shrinking world and the need for efficient, cost-effective, multi-purpose designs, right?  Well, not exactly. 

Believe it or not, these concepts were first engineered for and incorporated into horse-drawn wagons.  That’s right… Wagons.  Even in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, camping was a popular activity in America.  So, it’s fairly easy to find a number of patents covering variations of pop-up and adjustable camp transportation. 

 This patent for a pop-up wagon camper was filed more than a century ago in 1916.

  Developed in the early 1890's, this patent for a wagon camper shows tremendous similarities to modern RV's. 

While not a pop-up design, the McMaster Camping Car (wagon) was one of America’s first true RV campers.  It was patented in the 1880’s, included a host of home-style comforts, and was actually used on excursions within Yellowstone National Park.  I wrote a blog on this ultra-rare vehicle some time ago. 

The Refrigerated Truck…

From beverages and perishable foods to medical needs, refrigerated trucks and trailers are a very common sight today.  Incredibly, it’s an idea with roots to horse-drawn wagons and dates to as early as the 1870’s. 

This beverage cooler was designed for horse-drawn wagons. It dates to the early part of 1879 and incorporates block ice and ventilation fans for optimum refrigeration.

Mobile Scissor Lifts…

In today’s worlds of manufacturing, construction, maintenance, and repair, the convenience of mobile scissor lifts continues to play a vital role.  More secure than simple extension ladders and having an expanded work space, these rolling scaffolds are equipped for a multitude of uses.  Even so, it’s a concept that’s been a part of American life for well over a century.  In fact, the 1904 patent image below clearly shows the benefits of having an adjustable platform on wheels.  

  Submitted to the U.S. Patent office in 1904, this unique scissor-lift concept has become a valued part of life in the modern era.

Built-in Tailgate Steps…

Those 21st century ‘step’ additions to the rear bumpers and tailgates of pickup trucks must be an overdue idea, right?  I mean, climbing into the back of a truck bed can be hard on the back and knees, especially if you’re carrying a load.  Well, back in the 1890's, the challenge was the same for our ancestors.  As a result, having a collapsible step attached to a wagon’s end gate (tailgate) was an equally important idea to some folks.  Take a look at the patent image below. 

 Two Wisconsin men are credited with this nineteenth century patent featuring a built-in step to the back of a wagon box.   Filed with the patent office in 1896, the idea has been emulated in modern pickup truck designs.

It seems that the old adage about ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same,’ still has a lot of merit.  As such, the early innovations I shared above are just a few of the ideas initiated during the world of wagons that have found their way into modern life.  Twin axle steering control, fixed axle steering, leaf spring suspension, bead locks for wheels/tires, run-flat tires, convertible tops, vehicle fenders, dump bed designs, automatic brakes, and so many other concepts that were drawn up in the horse-drawn era remain as pertinent ideas today. 

No matter how deceivingly simple it may appear, America’s first transportation industry and the specialized needs of wagons moving west created a world of innovation.  It’s a legacy so strong that we're still benefiting from ideas born in the horse-drawn age.    

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Buck Taylor & The American West

Okay… remember last week?  I spoke of a lengthy interview I’d had with well-known actor and artist, Buck Taylor.  In the process, I warned you that this week’s write-up would be considerably longer.  In that regard, I won’t be disappointing you.  Fact is, the word count is more in keeping with a lengthy feature article.  In the process of writing this piece, I found myself facing the dilemma of cutting information or separating the interview into two separate blogs.  Ultimately, neither of those options felt right.  It didn’t seem appropriate to overly truncate the conversation or chop it into sections.  There’s just too much information to pass along – everything from his heroes in the movie industry to upcoming paintings, advice from his dad, current projects, what he does to relax, and, of course, Gunsmoke.  Hopefully, it is of interest.  It was certainly an enriching time for me.  So, here goes…

It was a full-time job keeping notes while Buck Taylor shared stories from his extensive art and film careers.

Over the decades, we’ve been fortunate to uncover a wealth of transportation history tied to the American West.  From personal letters written by legendary wagon maker Joseph Murphy to early western imagery and more than one wagon dating to some of the wildest days on the frontier, we’ve celebrated a number of remarkable finds.  As many know, it’s almost always a surprise when these types of special pieces show up.  These forgotten fragments not only enrich our lives but also give a more complete image of the Old West.  How much more is still waiting to be found?  Who knows?  I may never come across another rare set of wheels, one-of-a-kind chuck wagon photo, old wooden advertising sign, or early set of military harness.  Even so, I think the best part of searching for history is the opportunity to meet folks from all walks of life in all parts of the country.  It’s encouraging to share so much common ground with so many good people. 

So, when I got the chance to interview an actor with connections to some of the biggest western dramas to come out of Hollywood, I wasn’t going to miss out.  With film and television credits dating from every decade since, and including, the 1960’s, Buck Taylor has deep ties to the American West. 

Several years ago, my youngest daughter met Buck and told me, “Dad, I like him.  He has kind eyes.”  It’s an insight that struck me and I never forgot it.  In fact, it’s one of those bits of discernment that reminds me how females often have the advantage over us guys.  More than once I’ve noticed how the sensitivity of a lady can pick out things that we crusty males may overlook. 

At any rate, as I spoke with Buck, I found him to be someone who made me think more about the people around us and the brief, but memorable, moments we share in life…  Someone still seeking to grow and be the best he can be at his craft, whether painting or acting...  and someone who remembers the power of encouragement – just as he received that same support from one of his teachers while he was in elementary school. 

As of this writing, Buck is 78.  Yet, he moves with an energy and alertness that belies his age.  When I asked about his early art skills, he quickly recalled how, in the fourth grade, ‘Mrs. Young’ encouraged him to develop his talent.  Like so many teachers, she saw something in the boy that was raw but ready.  Ready to be shaped and become all it could be.  As he talked about those early days, I asked when he first knew he enjoyed painting.  He said he was around 4 years old when he began to paint.  He quickly followed up, though, saying it’s a passion he really didn’t have a choice in.  Emphasizing that point he said, “It’s always been something I had to do.”  I’ve heard that type of comment from creative folks before.  God puts things in us that just have to come out. 

As it turns out, Buck wasn’t the only one in his family with a penchant for painting.  He mentioned that his aunt was a fashion illustrator for newspapers and his mother’s father was an oil painter.  His father, Dub Taylor, was an artist in his own right as one of Hollywood’s most talented and memorable character actors.  When it comes to inspiration for his own paintings, Buck was open about his faith, giving credit to God. 

 Entitled 'Home On the Range,' this is one of Buck Taylor's newest offerings. 

Highlighting his own experiences as well as events straight out of the pages of history, the paintings hold a wealth of stories.  The basis for many of those stories was cultivated from an early age. He described his growing-up years as “fascinating.”  As a boy, he remembers being on major movie sets with his dad and the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Ben Johnson, and so many other notable stars.  Seeing such elaborate productions with everyone playing different roles, young Buck enjoyed seeing imaginary worlds come to life.  As he was continually exposed to those western sets, horses, wagons, stagecoaches, and a world of movie icons, he was unknowingly being groomed as one of the American West’s most notable ambassadors. 

From John Wayne and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo to Jack Palance in a host of features, Buck was influenced by numerous actors.  One that he mentioned multiple times in the interview was Burt Lancaster.  Even at a young age, Buck said he wanted to emulate Burt; swinging from cliffs and swashbuckling his way into the hearts of theater-goers everywhere.  He dreamt of capturing the energy and excitement of his on-screen heroes.  Reinforcing that thought, he mentioned that in his early film days he did a fair amount of stunt work, often enjoying that more than acting. 

According to Buck, it took 6 days to shoot a single episode of Gunsmoke.  With credits on 174 of those episodes, that’s a lot of time in the saddle - so to speak.  From other serial westerns to more modern shoot-em-ups, he’s played his share of bad guys as well.  Still, he confided that his personality on Gunsmoke is much closer to “who I really am.”  That character, Newly O’Brien, was always polite, respectful, and focused on doing the right thing.

 "Over the years, Buck Taylor has shared numerous artistic tributes to his friends and fellow actors from Gunsmoke."

One of his favorite acting experiences was the shooting of “Cattle Annie and Little Britches.”  Among others like Rod Steiger, Scott Glenn, and Diane Lane, it starred one of his greatest heroes – Burt Lancaster.  Filmed in Mexico, Buck said that the cast actually camped and lived together for 2 weeks prior to the start of shooting.  They wore the same clothes they would be filmed in later and had a true opportunity to ‘get into character’ while also getting to know each other before production began.  In his words, “It was a great way to start a film.”

His latest movie appearance is a flick entitled, “Hell or High Water.”  I haven’t seen it but it has received good reviews from a number of sources.  Roughly, the film outlines the challenges of a family trying to make good in the world while other forces are intent on taking away their hope and property. 

I asked Buck to share the best advice he ever got from his dad related to acting.  He immediately replied, “Make sure you look the part.  Dad always said that acting was 10% talent and 90% looking the part.”  Anyone who’s ever watched Dub Taylor at work knows he was a master at ‘looking the part.’  It’s a reference that reinforces the importance of an actor bringing a character to life. 

I saw this same desire to re-create history literally leap out of Buck as I shared a few of our period chuck wagon photos with him.  As he looked at the images, one old photo included a group of well-worn cowboys.  With their horses as a backdrop, they had gathered around the centerpiece of the roundup – the chuck wagon.  As Buck surveyed the group, he pointed to one of the cowboys and exclaimed, “That’s who I want to be!”  There was a light in his eyes that reminded me of times when I was a kid picking out someone in a movie that I wanted to be.  In this case, Buck’s pure and reactionary thoughts reflected how truly committed he is to having his art imitate real life. 

Buck examined an early roundup scene digitized from an original photo in our Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

Having such a busy schedule of film projects, art shows, and promotional appearances, I asked him to share his favorite form of relaxation.  He described his house in Texas.  Sitting on a bluff facing west, overlooking the Brazos River, he verbally painted a scene with him sitting alongside his wife, Goldie, who he credits as being the love of his life.  He said he enjoys watching the sun go down and seeing God paint another masterpiece in the sky.  In fact, as accomplished as he is, Buck was even more complimentary toward his wife of 21 years; admitting that she’s both smarter and a better rider than him. 

As we talked, he shared some thoughts about one special painting that he’s yet to start but has been contemplating.  His description was as vivid as his art.  The colors, contours, and mood on the untouched canvas were easy to visualize.  He asked me to imagine four equine tied up outside the Long Branch saloon.  One, he said, is a mule, two are saddle horses, and the other is hitched to a buggy.  As he described the scene, it was clear that the idea was rich with symbolism.  He mentioned that the setting takes place at night and said that we can see the oil lamps burning through the windows of the saloon.  “Oh, yeah,” he said, “and it’s softly snowing.”  As he continued the description he shared that the painting doesn’t literally mention who’s inside but, as you look at it, you realize there are some special friends just beyond the door – Matt, Festus, Doc, Newly, Miss Kitty, and Sam, the bartender. 

As he opened up about the painting, I saw a transformation take place.  There was that light in his eyes again; an excitement and real connection to the piece.  Likewise, his description made it real.  I could see it.  In fact, I could practically feel the cold air and then, walking toward the building, a brief pocket of warmth beckoning me closer to the door.  As the small flakes floated down, they left a light dusting on the ground while simultaneously conforming to the shape of the saddles and contrasting against the black, folding top of the doctor’s buggy.  The entire scene was one of calmness and tranquility.  There was beauty and richness in this quiet reflection on an otherwise ordinary sight.  There was also an element of finality to the art; a dénouement of lives well spent and character duly rewarded.

Lastly, I asked him if anyone ever refers to him as “Walter?”  It’s his given name but, I’ve never heard anyone reference him that way.  He looked away during the question and as I waited for an answer, he became uncomfortably quiet.  Then, he looked straight at me, tightened his lips, and lowered his head.  I waited, not knowing what to expect.  Then, slowly looking up, he feigned a scowl and sternly said, “NO!”  As I wondered how to respond, a smile spread over his face and we both laughed, sharing in the joke.  This Hollywood star has worked and been friends with some the biggest names on the silver screen.  He’s traveled extensively, been lauded with awards, and holds immense talent.  Still, he carries a down-to-earth, very approachable personality with a quick wit and engaging sense of humor.  In a word, he’s real.

One thing had become even more noticeable to me as I wrapped up the interview.  It was the very thing my daughter had mentioned years earlier… the strength of his ‘kind eyes.’  I saw them as countless people would walk up, listening while we were talking.  As he noticed each person, he asked to be excused so he could take interest in them.  Many had their own stories and Gunsmoke memories to share.  Each time, I waited my turn to continue the interview.  It dawned on me that it would be hard to know how many lives Buck and his fellow actors have touched from that one show. 

The interview took place in the middle of his art exhibit at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri.  During my flurry of questions, there was a moment when a child could be heard crying.  Buck raised up and stepped in her direction, clearly concerned and ready to assist if needed.  At that point, it occurred to me that Buck Taylor isn’t really an actor at all.  After all, an actor has to practice his lines and rehearse a role.  Yet, Buck is just who he is.  A true cowboy, military veteran, and western hero; not playing a role but, more often than not, just being himself.  While I waited for him to return from a visit with another fan, I drifted back to a Saturday evening at my grandparent’s country home.  It was summertime.  The rhythmic chorus of cicadas, crickets, frogs, and an occasionally whippoorwill filled the warm night air.  The sky was clear.  I had never seen it so full of stars.  I could smell the dust blowing off the dirt road in front of the house.  In my mind’s eye, I stepped up on the front porch and peered through the old multi-pane windows.  There, in the living room, another episode of Gunsmoke was coming to a close.  On the floor was that 9-year-old boy I used to be.  As the credits rolled, I watched the kid push himself up and look back at his grandpa.  They made eye contact and both smiled; each fully content with the time they shared, company they kept, and memories they were making.  These are the ties that bind, the core of a nation blessed with freedom and the reason so many have given so much in defense of this land.    

Ultimately, we’re all a reflection of what we do with the talents, experiences, and opportunities we’re gifted with.  We have one chance in this life to make a difference.  One chance to leave an endearing legacy.  My personal thanks to Buck (and others) for stepping away from the importance of business and limelight of celebrity to make one more memory.

After appearing in hundreds of television and movie productions and finishing more paintings than I can count, it would seem that the man has made an indelible mark on the spirit of the American West and creativity in general.  When I asked him how he wanted to be remembered, he responded as if his elementary school teacher, Mrs. Young, was still talking to him.  He shared a bit of advice that he said he’s always tried to adhere to… “Never quit and never give up.” 

Well said, Buck.  Well said. 

Buck Taylor’s western art can be found in countless homes, businesses, and organizations around the world.

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC