Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mitchell Wagon Company Closes in Racine

One of the most prominent names from America’s early western transportation industry is ‘Mitchell.’  Building countless farm, freight, ranch, stage, business, and family vehicles, Mitchell was a well-known brand on the American frontier.  So successful was the firm that, in its 75th year alone, it produced 1.5 million dollars in business.  A handful of years later, the company sold to a group of eastern investors who changed the name from the Mitchell-Lewis Wagon Company to the Mitchell Wagon Company.  So, if you happen to own a ‘Mitchell-Lewis’ wagon, you immediately know it will be over a century in age.  As a bit of background, the ‘Lewis’ portion of the brand was added after founder, Henry Mitchell’s son-in-law, William T. Lewis, joined the firm in 1864. 

Even with the fanfare attached to the sale to eastern capitalists, within just a few years, the big wagon factory at Racine, Wisconsin fell silent.  Capturing that moment, in August of 1917, “The Hub” published a notice outlining the ending of an era at Racine.  As noted in the articles below, John Deere ultimately purchased the rights to the brand.  Industry directories in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives show that Deere continued building the Mitchell brand in its own factories through the late 1940’s.

Here’s the August, 1917 article from “The Hub.”

“The Mitchell Wagon Co., of Racine, Wis., which was founded in 1855, has ceased to exist, as it was liquidated on July 14.  All stock and much machinery has been sold to Deere and Co., for its plant at Fort Smith, Ark., and the buildings have been taken over by the Mitchell Motors Co., where automobile bodies will be constructed.

Deere & Co., have assumed the obligation of the Mitchell Wagon Co. to its customers to replace defective parts on wagons sold during the last year.  Arrangements are also being made to supply wagon parts from the regular Mitchell patterns to Mitchell customers throughout the country.  Correspondence with reference to Mitchell wagon repairs should be addressed to the John Deere Wagon Works, Moline, Ill.

The Mitchell Wagon Co. was founded by Henry Mitchell in 1855 and a few years later his two sons, Henry and Frank, and two sons-in-law, William T. Lewis and Calvin T. Sinclair, became associated with him in the great industry.  The factory buildings covered 20 acres of land. 

In 1910 the Mitchell Wagon Co. merged with the Mitchell Automobile Co. and automobiles and farm and spring wagons were manufactured.  Three years ago there was a dissolution, one syndicate taking over the automobile plant and the other the wagon plant.  All of the men who were interested in the original company, excepting Frank L. Mitchell, have passed away.”

Some will note that the article above dates the company’s inception to 1855.  This is a reference to the company’s beginnings at Racine, Wisconsin.  The actual start of the firm is tied to the year 1834 at Fort Dearborn (Chicago).  Henry Mitchell moved his business about a decade or so later to Kenosha, Wisconsin and then finally to Racine, Wisconsin.  Adding a bit more detail to the August sale report above is this earlier piece from June of 1917...

“The directors of the Mitchell Wagon Co., Racine, Wis., have decided to discontinue the manufacture of wagons and have disposed of the greater part of the wagon stock which it was their policy to keep constantly on hand.  The wagon business has been carried on by a separate and distinct corporation since the reorganization of the Mitchell Motors Co., two or three years ago.  The wagon company is in sound financial condition and the decision to discontinue manufacturing is a result of present conditions in the wagon trade which have convinced the owners that it is not advisable to continue.  Mitchell wagons have been among the leaders in high grade farm wagons for about 70 years.”

This high wheel, Mitchell wagon is part of Doug Hansen’s personal collection.  It retains an impressive amount of original paint and is an extraordinary surviving example of the brand. 

Clearly, as the years rolled by, the investors in Mitchell could see the writing on the wall.  Times were changing and advancements in farming and the automobile were affecting the way folks looked at horse-drawn wagons.  Even so, where the business didn’t make sense for some, it proved to be a smart opportunity for others.  John Deere already had multiple wagon factories with plenty of capacity.  The purchase of Mitchell allowed Deere to further capitalize on the legacy of a powerful brand without adding significant overhead costs.  Similar manufacturing and marketing tactics took place a few years later when powerhouse brands like Peter Schuttler, Studebaker, Bain, and more were sold to other wagon makers who continued marketing those heralded labels from their own factories.  Today, these efficiency practices are replicated with factories often producing multiple brands of products – whether they be cars, boats, food products or any number of other goods. 

The original Mitchell logos on these sideboards are accompanied by signage for the selling dealer as well.

On another note, a few weeks ago, I encouraged folks to write in and share about some of their latest projects and happenings.  I’m happy to pass along a few of those emails today...  Texas Cowboy, Glenn Moreland, is in the midst of restoring a 2-seat, mountain hack built by Hesse and Son from Leavenworth, Kansas.  He’s also in the process of bringing a buggy built by Hynes Buggy Co. of Quincy, Illinois back to life.  As a bit of a side note, our research shows that the Hynes Buggy Company was established in 1869 and went out of business on October 31, 1914.  Glenn shared that both pieces are from a local ranch that was settled over a 100 years ago.  They’ve been in a barn for the last 70 or 80 years.  Great to hear from you Glenn and congrats on what we know will be quality restoration work. 

This image of a Yellowstone Touring Coach shows the original number and lettering uncovered during conservation work being done at HWWS. 

Elsewhere, Doug Hansen and his team at Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop are working on an original Yellowstone Touring Coach.  While engaged in the conservation and restoration efforts, the crew found a fair amount of original paint under multiple layers of re-paintings from years gone by.  Equally significant, they’ve also uncovered the original maker marks from the legendary firm of Abbot-Downing in Concord, New Hampshire.  It’s always good to see valuable history uncovered and preserved. 

This photo of the Yellowstone coach shows the seats and top removed as the coach undergoes a blend of conservation and restoration efforts.

Underneath years of repainting, the team at Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop found the original maker marks from Abbot-Downing on this Yellowstone coach.

Finally, we’d like to congratulate Jerry Maclin, the new owner/collector of both an original, high wheel Peter Schuttler and also a high wheel Bain wagon we had on-site.  Both vehicle brands carry tremendous heritage and each will date to the earlier 1900’s.  As many know, our ‘For Sale’ inventory is always changing and the website listings are rarely inclusive of all the vehicles we have available.  Don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you’re looking for something in particular.  From original Conestoga sideboards to a rare turn-of-the-century high wheel, Schuttler with 42 inch bolsters, we’re committed to both collecting and selling pieces with distinction.

Jerry Maclin is the new owner of this 93-year-old, high wheel, Schuttler wagon.

Stay tuned!  We have even more discoveries and details on early wagons and western vehicles slated for future blogs.  In the meantime, give us a shout if you have a special project or set of wheels you’d like to share.  It’s always great to hear 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, June 15, 2016

More Early Vehicle Discoveries

Last week, I shared a little about authenticity in early horse-drawn vehicles as well as the importance of tying those wheels to the correct time period.  Little did I know that I was about to come face-to-face with several exceptional examples of that message.  Each piece was another reminder of the importance to keep our eyes open as we travel.  With all that’s been found over the decades, I believe there’s still a lot to be uncovered – and, as you’ll see – among them are some great pieces to study.

This past month, I’ve been on the road a fair amount and, in that time, I’ve had an opportunity to stop by Doug Hansen’s shop in Letcher, South Dakota twice.  Even so, my average span between visits there is more along the lines of once every five or six years.  One of the most impressive parts of a trip like this is that there is always a host of history to take in.  You never know what you’ll run across in the shop or, for that matter, during any trip away from home. 

This Weber Damme wagon will date to the 1860’s and offers a truly rare look into farm style wagons from that era.

While I was in South Dakota, I had the privilege of seeing an extremely early Weber & Damme brand wagon.  Established in 1861, Weber & Damme (W/D) is one of a number of legendary St. Louis makers with lengthy histories.  In fact, the W/D shops were located just a short distance from both the Luedinghaus/Espenschied and Gestring wagon factories. 

The condition of the W/D wagon was far from exceptional but it was understandable since the vehicle will easily date to the very early 1870’s and more likely be from the 1860’s.  Yes, that is a very objective and supportable timeframe.  In fact, the iron and woodwork have so many clues pointing to this period that this could actually be one of the first wagons the company built.  I doubt there is an earlier survivor from this firm.  The through-bolted construction includes extra hound irons on a banded reach, 54 inch rear wheels with a 1 ½ inch tire width, extra wide floor and lower sideboards, wider point bands on the hubs as well as heavily worn fore sections to the circle irons.  The more I looked at this rolling artifact, the more it seemed the piece could have been built during or just after the Civil War.  While it was not originally equipped with bow staples (those on it had been added later), the overall wagon is largely reminiscent of many that would have traveled overland with pioneer families looking for a fresh start in the West.  Even though it wasn’t in the best of shape, it was still standing and functioning – a remarkable reminder of everyday transportation 150 years ago.

This NOS Stoughton sideboard shows the power of color and art in attracting early wagon buyers to the brand.

Pristine designs and vibrant colors dominate this hand painted, century-old piece of transportation history.

As amazing as it was to see such a rare, early piece, I was also intrigued to see elements from a wagon that was a half century newer than the Weber-Damme.  Many readers of this blog share a passion for collecting anything related to old wagons and will understand the term ‘New Old Stock’ (NOS).  Finding period pieces that were never used, whether it be a set of wheels, a doubletree, spring seat, or even sideboards is a rare treat for any collector.  Even before I had arrived at Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop, Doug told me in a phone call that he had a “little” find he wanted to share with me.  In my mind, I figured he had found a special buggy tag or maybe even an old sign.  I soon found out that my expectations were too small.  When I rolled onto the shop grounds, there were NOS sideboards for not one but, TWO different Stoughton wagons sitting just outside the office.  Wow!  They were beautiful.  Stoughton dated their beginnings to 1865 when the Stoughton, Wisconsin factory was actually home to the T.G. Mandt wagon.  When Mandt decided to take his patents and name elsewhere, the Stoughton shops began producing the “Stoughton” brand.  The sideboards were treasures that Doug had just acquired and they were quite a study in originality.  Yes, I’ll admit to shamelessly coveting the sideboards and ‘No’ they aren’t for sale – I already checked! 

As incredible as it may seem to find NOS sideboards for a two-horse Stoughton wagon, this set for a one-horse Stoughton is truly an all-but-impossible find.

Even though these sideboards are backlit by the sun in this photo, it’s still easy to see the impressive nature of such a connection to our past.

While in Letcher, I also had the opportunity to tour Dvonne Hansen’s leather works and antique saddle collection.  What a treat!  Both areas show extraordinary depth and creative ingenuity.  In fact, with a lifetime of leather-working experience, Dvonne is a true artisan.  Her schooled hands and keen sense of design are seen in countless pieces throughout the buildings on her grounds.  Not only is her work widely sought-after but, Doug (son), often calls on her expertise with special coach, carriage, and wagon projects.  We were privileged to have her help securing period leather for use within the conservation work done on our stage wagon earlier this year.  A special thanks to Dvonne for taking time out of her day to educate this Arkansan on so much history.

Dvonne Hansen stands in the doorway of an early school house on her property.  It houses dozens of period saddles and other western artifacts she’s meticulously curated.

On the trip home from South Dakota, I made a few more stops and ran across still another amazing find... a complete, new old stock Columbus brand wagon.  Columbus is an International Harvester (IHC) brand that many will recognize as the mid-priced alternative to a Weber wagon.  Like Weber, the Columbus brand also pre-dates IHC’s ownership of the company.  Staring at the crisp edges on the wood, the bright, unworn paint, and stenciling that looked like it had just been applied, I was taken aback.  From Doug Hansen’s shop to other stops along the road, it’s been quite a while since I took a trip and saw this much original history just waiting to share its secrets.

Unlike the painted New Stoughton logo, this NOS Columbus wagon uses a pre-printed transfer, called a decalcomine.

This image of the Columbus wagon gives a good idea of the paint condition.  I would estimate that the wagon still has 99.9% of its original paint.

With all that I’ve reported here, there were even more finds on the trip after I left South Dakota... including an 1880’s-era Studebaker Mountain Wagon and an early 1900’s Peter Schuttler logging wagon.  It was a lot to take in but, again, a powerful reminder that there are still a number of discoveries waiting to be made.  The study of each helps us better understand transportation history and pass along proper interpretation of each part. 

While I was traveling, I received several emails and hope to pass along even more wagon-related happenings in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, thanks again for your visits.  It’s always good to hear 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, June 8, 2016

Historically Accurate Wagons

I count it a privilege each week to share with an ever-widening group of folks interested in America’s first transportation industry.  As part of that stewardship, we appreciate your weekly visits and regularly work to highlight a broad range of wood-wheeled history.  This week, I’m focused on some mistakes occasionally inflicted on this subject; innocent-seeming blunders that can go the extra mile to harm the preservation of history.    

Case in point... For decades, I’ve watched America’s modern television documentaries and dramas delve into areas requiring the appearance of wood-wheeled wagons.  This past week, I saw it again; not one but two, recently-produced network programs touting the significance of early American history – yet using wagons vastly inappropriate for the time period shown.  This might seem like a trivial mistake but these types of oversights and indiscretions have helped to continually build a perception that early wooden wagons are overly simplistic, irrelevant, and generic creations. 

The problem with such a universal, one-size-fits-all approach is not only that we lose touch with the innovative genius and design standards that paved the way for other accomplishments but we also lose contact with entire segments of America’s movement west.  I’ll talk more about that in just a bit.  In the meantime, suffice it to say that inaccurate representations of transportation history are a destructive disservice leaving many of our nation’s most relevant wheels – and stories – snubbed and forgotten.      

Any old wooden wagon used as a visual prop for a major communications event – i.e. authoritative documentary – will not suffice any more than any old gun, saddle, train, town, pair of boots, or set of clothes is appropriate.  These vehicles were individuals that could vary greatly depending on the era, brand, user, and segment of the country.  

Early American wagon designs varied by era, brand, features, user, and region. 

There are easily dozens – perhaps even hundreds of obvious differences (depending on the era) – between a wagon used in one timeframe/region of the U.S. compared to another.  Certain design features and technologies weren’t even used until a particular point in time.  In other words, every part of these vehicles had a beginning.  So, if a television program is showing an American wagon being used in the 1700’s, there’s no excuse for including a running gear with cast skeins.  Even if the timeframe being covered is the very late 1700’s, we’re still decades ahead of the first use of cast skein technology.  From the way the vehicles were painted to the individual features and overall designs shown on the box, running gear, and accessories, the differences are real.  Because of that, it’s increasingly evident when shortcuts are taken and the homework hasn’t been done for a particular program. 

Okay... Back to the loss of American history that I alluded to in the second paragraph above.  Can anyone show me one of the purported 200,000 wagons that legendary St. Louis wagon maker Joseph Murphy made?  How about one of the hundreds of giant, Jackson freight wagons used in the West?  How many Studebaker Roundup wagons have been forgotten and left to rot – perhaps all of them?  How many original, high wheel, drop tongue Owensboro brand wagons have you seen?  Yep, they built a lot of them – and they were of a different design than most are familiar with today.  Would you recognize a legendary Espenshied brand wagon if you saw it?  Why is all of this important?  Beyond the responsibility to show yesterday as it truly was is the need to respect and save our wheeled past for what it is.  Much of the Old West was dominated by major vehicle brands.  Even though these wheels were extremely popular most of them are virtually impossible to find now.  In fact, every day, the last vestiges of the legendary brands that carried our 19th century heritage are withering away.  Why?  Because, it’s impossible to actively save valuable history if we don’t recognize and share that significance when we see it.  Then again, it’s hard to ‘see’ something if it's continually promoted as a rudimentary, inconsequential prop.

Reinforcing that point, if all segments of history are equal, then why don’t we just save one early computer and allow everything else to fade away?  That way, 200 years from now, everyone will know exactly what a computer looked and worked like – no need to confuse anyone with details, right?  Okay, you can see the ludicrous nature of that example.  I realize that I’m mostly preaching to the choir.  Hopefully, though, there might eventually be a television or motion picture producer that stumbles across this blog and comes to the realization that an entire, massive industry has been largely misrepresented for the better part of the last century. 

Kuddos to so many of you already promoting accurate western vehicle history and perceptions.  You’re doing a valued service for current and future generations.  I see that kind of authenticity in a lot of places and it’s a tremendous benefit to folks all over the country.  So, keep up the good work and send us an email showing your involvement in cookouts, competitions, school functions, shows, benefits, and the like.  We’d enjoy the opportunity to share your passion and respect for America’s wheeled history within this blog as well.

Take care and have a good 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, June 1, 2016

Bettendorf Steel Gear Wagons

In February of 2013, I profiled several patents that International Harvester Company (IHC) had taken out on a steel wagon gear.  As unique as the designs were, though, they were far from being an exclusive idea.  Some readers may be asking, "What does this have to do with America’s early western wheels?"  Believe it or not, metal gears were introduced to U.S. markets at least as early as the Civil War.  Metal wheels, even earlier.  So, following the history of our first transportation industry, we’ll occasionally look at the background of other metal wagon gear makers – hence the topic of this week’s blog. 

Since IHC wasn’t formed until 1902, they were clearly not the first to explore opportunities with metal gears.  Initially, the interest in metal gear designs was a product of weaknesses found in wood.  After all, timber had a tendency to check (crack/split), was not always well-seasoned, could include imperfections such as knots, would shrink and move with shifts in environmental conditions, was highly subject to rot, weathering, insect damage, etc.  Wood was also in high demand.  In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, it was a prominent raw material for an endless array of industries.  As a result, the more desired hard and soft woods needed for wagon-making were not always plentiful; especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Trade publications from those timeframes regularly discussed real and feared shortages of quality wood stock.  As a result, the continued development of metal gears and wheels became a focus for a number of firms.

Even with the advantages of a metal gear – such as manufacturing consistency, efficiency, strength, durability, and resource availability – the designs were never well accepted by many wagon buyers.  They did, however, meet with more success as a farm truck.  By their nature, farm trucks were highly utilitarian.  They were typically sold with lower and wider wheels and seemed to fit a broad range of needs on the farm.  As such, they were marketed as being ideal for hauling fruit, baled hay, wood, wheat, and livestock while also serving well as a city dray, sheep wagon gear, spray truck, or logging camp wagon. 

 This rare, surviving card from the Bettendorf Axle Company was used to promote their steel wagon and truck gears.

One of the early companies dedicated to the use of metal in wagons was the Bettendorf Axle Company in Davenport, Iowa.  Dating to 1895, the firm was founded by William Peter Bettendorf and his brother, Joseph.  Like many others born during America's Industrial Revolution, William had a knack for ingenuity.  In fact, by the time he was in his early thirties, he was a seasoned entrepreneur and inventor.  Among his wagon-related innovations were patent applications for a pressed steel, riveted wagon gear filed as early as 1891.  The May 1893 issue of “The Hub” includes a few more details and I thought I’d pass most of that article along this week...

The Bettendorf Hollow-Steel Wagon Axle

“Radical departures from old methods and forms are not uncommon in these days of advancement in the vehicle industry, but it is seldom that one so marked as that shown by the Bettendorf hollow-steel wagon axle is presented.  In this there are the combined axle and sand-board and combined bolster and stakes for the front, and a combined axle, bolster and stakes for the back as shown by the illustration.

The Bettendorf hollow-steel axle is made of No. 11 mild sheet steel of the best quality, care being taken to secure first-class material.  Two sheets are used in the manufacture of an axle; one is pressed into shape to form the front and another the back, when they are firmly united and constitute the completed article.  This is a rough description of their method of construction, which is as follows, more in detail:  The metal is first sheared to shape from the flat sheets; the shearing is so done as to leave plenty of metal for the ends of the axles and for the formation of the stakes to be turned up.  During the same process of shearing, holes are punched in the sheets for riveting them together.  The sheets are then shaped in a hydraulic press to the form required for the front and back of an axle, flanges being turned over for the bed of the bolster and the flat side of the stakes.  These fronts and backs are then placed together, and while held under a hydraulic pressure of 300 tons to the square inch, are riveted in a manner original with Mr. Bettendorf, and also secured by patents.  By this method of riveting, the metal is drawn from one of the sheets through the hole in the other sheet and flanged over its entire circumference.  This obviates the necessity of using separate rivets and causes the fastenings to be homogenous parts of the whole.  The union of the two steel sheets is thus almost as perfect as if they were welded, the axle being the only part left hollow.

The machinery by which these axles and bolsters are manufactured was specially designed and built by Mr. Bettendorf.  It consists of hydraulic presses, gas heating and welding furnaces, hydraulic forge and steam hammers, all adapted peculiarly to the purpose and rendering the manufacture of the axle simple and economical...

Every operation is conducted with cold metal, except the welding of the bearings and bending of the stakes...

At present, the manufacture of only 3 ¼ x 10 inch axles, with narrow track, will be undertaken.  This covers the standard sizes of wagons in common use.  Other sizes, however, will be manufactured hereafter, as the demand warrants or the condition of trade requires.”

The Bettendorf Steel Wagon Gears were touted as weighing less and being more durable than wood running gears of similar strength.

William Bettendorf’s early career included stints at Moline Plow Company, Parlin & Orendorff Company, and Peru Plow Company.  In the midst of his day-to-day work, in 1885, Bettendorf was granted a patent for a metal wheel.  By 1886, he had secured enough financial backing that he and his brother began manufacturing the wheels in greater quantities than what had been possible while at Peru.  This new firm was ultimately referred to as the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company.  Bettendorf continued to refine both his inventions and the machines that built them.  So enamored was he with product development that by the mid-1890’s, he established another business referred to as, the ‘Bettendorf Axle Company.’  It was this company that built the steel gear wagons with hollow, self-oiling axles, a pressed steel seat, and special steel reinforcement on the box.  By 1905, the company was sold to International Harvester Corporation which continued to market the brand as the “New” Bettendorf Steel Gear Wagon. 

Bettendorf Steel Gear Wagons were typically equipped with wood wheels while their farm trucks were fitted with steel wheels.

By the way, if you haven't signed up to receive this weekly blog via e-mail, just type your address in the "Follow By E-mail" section above.  You'll receive a confirmation e-mail that you'll need to verify before you're officially on board.  Remember - IF YOU DON'T VERIFY - you won't receive the emailed blogs.  So, make sure you check the email confirmations and verify.  If you don't receive a request to verify your email address, you might check your spam filter as it may have flagged the correspondence.  Once you've verified, you'll receive a notification email every time we update the blog.  Please don't hesitate to let us know if we can be of assistance.  We appreciate your continued feedback and look forward to sharing even more throughout the year. 

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.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Memorial Day 2016

For many, this coming weekend will offer a respite of sorts; a time to enjoy activities with family and friends, do a little traveling, cookout on the grill (or in Dutch ovens), or just relax with an extra day off.  It’s a special time in our busy schedules where we pause and pay our respects to so many who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country. 

This year, Memorial Day in America is on Monday, May 30th.  Whatever we find ourselves doing, the day and weekend are reminders that we have a great deal to be thankful for.  Part of that appreciation is in the remembrance of what freedom has cost.  It is of incredible value and we’re blessed to have so much liberty in this nation. 

During this springtime commemoration, we honor our fallen heroes.  After all, we live in the Land of the Free because this God-given soil is also the Home of the Brave.  We’re able to count our blessings because so many others counted the cost and paid the price.  To the families of those brave men and women, we say, ‘Thank You.’  We remain grateful and salute the devotion and vigilance of all of our armed forces and servicemen and women.

May God Bless each of you and your families.  

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.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Summertime Vacations & Old Wheels

Summertime is just around the corner and with school activities wrapping up for many, there are countless vacations being planned.  It’s the time of year that reminds me of several trips we took with our kids.   Even though we tried to ensure that every retreat included elements for everyone, I’m still accused of planning those getaways in the vicinities of early vehicle collections.  Okay, I may be a little guilty but the reality is that there are numerous examples of period wagons and coaches scattered all over the U.S.  So, our trips to Washington D.C., Mount Rushmore, Pikes Peak, Ft. Worth, Nashville, St. Louis, Kansas City, and even Disneyland always managed to have a stop or two to take in some wood-wheeled wonders. 

One of the most rewarding parts to traveling and viewing vehicles in other parts of the country is that you can see a lot of different features and configurations.  Fact is, specific areas often had particular designs and ways of doing things that aren’t seen elsewhere.  Once you begin to notice those details, it becomes easier to recognize regional styles.  It’s another part of the authentication process that’s crucial for collectors. 

Last week, I shared a few details about an original stage wagon we were conserving with the help of Doug Hansen and his team.  While I was at the South Dakota shop, I had a chance to walk through Doug’s bone yard of wheeled relics.  As we passed by one piece, he mentioned that it was an Indian wagon.  It's a term you don't hear too often but, still yet, the legacy is an important part of Old West history.  These wagons were sold to the U.S. Government as part of provisions made available to American Indians.  While this particular set of wheels happened to be a Studebaker, there were many other brands that also built these wagons.  Competition for the contracts was fierce and sometimes resulted in legal actions when a bid was lost. 

I took special interest in the piece for several reasons.  First, even though there were thousands of these wagons built, they are rarely identified today.  Second, these vehicles can easily date to the 19th century and that construction timeframe is becoming harder to find outside of a collection.  Third, some of today’s most legendary and elusive brands were known to have built these wagons – Caldwell and Jackson being among the most difficult to come across.  So, running across this kind of history in a South Dakota pasture was a bonus I wasn’t expecting.  It’s yet another reminder that you never know what you’re going to see or where.  As a result, it’s best to stay vigilant and take plenty of photos and notes.  Scarce pieces can show up when least expected and aren’t always immediately recognized.  Thorough documentation can be especially beneficial years later when more insights are known about a particular brand or design. 

While heavily deteriorated, this Indian wagon gear is a rare find.  The mountain wagon design is equipped with steel skeins, a clipped gear, tire rivets, bolster iron extensions, and an overlapping reach.

I’ll share a little more about these wagons in a later blog.  My main point here is to encourage watchfulness when you travel.  While millions of America’s earliest wooden vehicles have disappeared, many are still out there.  As an example, in the past two weeks, my travels have allowed me to see dozens of different designs – and even more individual pieces.  Almost all of them were a surprise to find.  Some of the most logical places to run across early wagons and coaches are in museums.  Even so, there are some truly amazing survivors in private collections.  Without a little guidance, though, it can be tough to know what pieces are where.  Joining organizations like the American Chuck Wagon Association, Carriage Association of America, and the National Stagecoach & Freight Wagon Association can be very helpful.  Networking opportunities within these groups can open doors to rare pieces that are seldom seen. 

Ultimately, if you have a vacation on the horizon and time to squeeze in a stop or two focused on early vehicles, do your homework.  Every part of the U.S. has its own share of rare and remarkable parts of yesterday.  My bet is you can weave it into your time off without any other family member knowing you planned the whole trip around these visits – or, at least I wish you better luck than I’ve had!  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.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Preserving History

At some point, most collectors have been asked the question – “Why do you collect the things you do?”  There can be any number of reasons but, ultimately, it’s fairly simple; we all tend to gravitate toward the things we like.  Beyond that, collectors also typically look for pieces that increase the quality and noteworthiness of their compilation.    

When it comes to antique, horse-drawn vehicles, there are at least a handful of characteristics I like to see.  In particular, I look for higher quality features that enhance the condition of the piece.  Coupled with significant originality levels, desired rarity, provenance, and completeness, each has a way of setting an individual vehicle apart from the crowd.  The overall depth of a collection can also reinforce its significance.  To that point, recently, we were fortunate to expand the diversity of our collection to include an original California stage wagon. 

The conservation work done on this mountain stage wagon was focused on preserving the original look and legacy of the vehicle’s history. 

Deaccessioned from a museum, this western stage will date to the late 1800’s.  The smaller, do-it-all design was geared for shorter runs over the rugged terrain between mining communities.  Supported by 1 1/2 inch steel axles, Sarven hubs, and 1 3/4 inch springs, the configuration carried lighter loads of passengers, mail, packages, and gear.  Highlights of the pattern include a triple reach, covered rear boot, footbrake, side curtains, heavy brake beam, and period correct tongue.  From top to bottom and everything in between, it was engineered for strength, fleetness, and flexibility.

Over the last several months, the stage has been at Doug Hansen’s shop in Letcher, South Dakota for a little TLC to bring it back to operating condition.  At the same time the reconditioning was taking place, we wanted to preserve the original, as-used character and hard-earned patina. 

In fact, throughout the conservation efforts, we worked closely with Hansen’s team to both maintain and protect the historic integrity of the vehicle.  As with virtually any century-plus-old set of wheels, some pieces were missing or broken and needed repair.  The work process went so far as to use timeworn materials wherever possible.  In several places, we were able to employ aged wood and even period leather left over from the restoration of another old California coach.  So, today, those parts of yesterday live on in this stage wagon.  It’s just the kind of serious attention to detail and period-correct conservation that helps perpetuate authentic history for generations to come. 

From features to function and purpose to place, stagecoaches came in all sizes, shapes, configurations, and capacities.  Some of the most recognized designs are the heavy Concord coaches built by Abbot-Downing or the lighter mud wagons or even touring coach styles built by a number of manufacturers such as M.P. Henderson of Stockton, California.  Even so, there were many other types of stages serving both remote towns and popular destinations.  All of these wheels have a way of reinforcing the rich history of America while showcasing the true depth of our nation’s first transportation industry. 

Anytime we can help save and share another part of the Old West we pay tribute to those who came before us while serving as good stewards to those who come after.  After all, the process of collecting is always bigger than ourselves.  It’s about preserving time and sharing a historic way of life.  As such, it has a way of bringing people together who may have been worlds apart – just the way the original coaches did so many years ago.  

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.