Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Headlights for Horses?

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably come to realize that it’s anybody’s guess as to what each week’s topic will cover.  In fact, if you ask my wife, she’d probably say that’s just the way my attention deficit mind works; bouncing from one point to another.  The reality is that the overall category of western vehicles is so large there’s a world of information rolling around out there.  With that said, I doubt anyone could have imagined the focus of today’s blog. 

Between the travel and extensive amount of research we’re able to pack into each year, I’m fortunate to be able to explore countless early vehicle designs and related accessories.  Today’s post, though, may push the boundaries of what most of us might consider believable.  With that teaser as a backdrop, you might want to file this one under the “You Gotta Be Kidding Me” segment of horse-drawn vehicle history. 

Not long ago, I was reviewing a century-plus-old sales pamphlet we have in our Archives.  It was promoting the “Richards System of Electric Lighting for Horse Drawn Vehicles.”  Sounds basic enough.  Upon further inspection though, this piece isn’t referring so much to lights positioned on the vehicle as it is to lights placed on the draft animal.  Yep, we’re talking about hanging lights on horses.

Proclaimed as “Shadowless, Scientific, and Satisfactory,” this vehicle headlight was worn by the draft animal and promoted by The Richards Horse Headlight Works in Bethel, Connecticut.

Before we snicker too much, these folks did have a good point in that the traditional method of placing lights on the vehicle – behind the horse(s) – did make it tough to always see the terrain ahead with sufficient clarity.   According to the sales piece, the answer to this lack of sight was to move the light ahead of the animal.  The biggest challenge to this solution seems to be the stability of the light as well as the potential for dramatic shadows to dart back and forth in front of the horse.

For those who may be wondering – Yes, this idea was patented!  Applied for in the spring of 1906, the patent was awarded in early 1908 to Mr. E.L. Richards of Litchfield, Connecticut.  The introduction of the patent states that…

“…it has been attempted from time to time to provide a means for carrying a lamp so that the rays of light will fall directly in front of the horse, as for instance by fastening it to the breast collar or shafts; but it has been found that a very great amount of motion and jarring was imparted to the lamp when carried in such positions.” 

The description goes on to proclaim…

“… This device is readily applied to the horse when occasion may demand, and may be readily removed, and will when in position fit the neck securely but not uncomfortably, and hold the lamp from vibration...”

Patented more than a century ago, this “headlight for horses” was designed to provide greater visibility for night time operation of horse drawn vehicles.


Ultimately, the idea was built on a three-fold premise; it was to be worn by the horse, unobstructed by the horse, and be carried in the “most steady manner.”  In spite of what were surely the best intentions, there’s no evidence that the concept ever caught on.  That said, the notion is so unique that any surviving examples may have trouble being recognized today.  Perhaps this post can help someone identify and preserve another extremely rare – and different – fragment of America’s first transportation industry.  

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

National Stagecoach & Freight Wagon Assoc. Meeting

We recently received an email from the National Stagecoach & Freight Wagon Association.  These are great folks with a wonderful heart for western vehicles.  This summer, their annual meeting will be in West Yellowstone, Montana.  The event will be commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the last horse-drawn stagecoaches used in Yellowstone Park.  As part of the event, the group is also actively searching for fellow owners/managers/curators of vehicles used in the Park prior to 1915.  Below is a poster they forwarded and asked us to share.  From the vehicles to the guest speakers and special events, it sounds like a great time and we’re pleased to pass the information on.   For registration information and other details, you’re invited to visit

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Western Vehicle Wheels

Most modern day wheelwrights will tell you that the complexity of wooden wheels can be deceiving.  I mean, they look simple enough – just some pre-cut, shaped, and measured wood fitted together and bound up with steel bands.  Can’t be that much to it, right?  Wrong.  The subject is so deep that 19th and early 20th century practitioners had multiple, regularly-issued publications devoted to covering the continual challenges, designs, and intricacies of the craft. 

Like other areas of a western vehicle, an early wooden wheel can be divided into the three primary areas of wood, paint, and metal.  That’s the end of the simplicity.  So, if you were hoping you’d learn all there is to know about wooden wagon and coach wheels from this week’s blog, you’re about to be disappointed.  As with so much early vehicle history, there’s too much involved in this field of study to treat it lightly.  That said, the first step to fully appreciating any subject is to better understand its depth.  So, hold on.  We’re about to dive head first into an extensive and complicated trade.

The complexity of early wagon wheels is reinforced by numerous 19th and early 20th century patents vowing improvements on previous designs.


Have you ever wondered why hub lengths, hub diameters, hub bands, spoke positions, and spoke fittings are sometimes different?  How about the design of felloes – What dictates their size and why are some wheels engineered with bent felloes and others are cut?  With cut felloes, why are there ‘usually’ only two spokes per felloe?  Have you ever seen a wheel with one spoke per felloe?  Yes, it happened.  In fact, it had several purposes and it could be a clue pointing to a particular maker. 

Ever found yourself wondering, “What are the advantages and disadvantages of the different styles of wheels?”  Do you know the differences between Warner hubs, Sarven hubs, Shell band hubs, Compressed band hubs, Iron Clad hubs, Archibald hubs, and regular ol’ wooden hubs.  These details are important as they represent a significant part of any early vehicle’s personality and provenance.  Clearly, there’s a lot going on beyond the surface of an old set of wheels.  Hence the popularity of period publications like The Blacksmith & Wheelwright, The Spokesman, The Hub, The Carriage Monthly and numerous other early books and periodicals. 

The Blacksmith & Wheelwright was a well-known trade magazine for U.S. vehicle builders during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

Wooden wheels also need the correct pitch, gather, dish, size, fit, strength, elasticity, and resilience.  In other words, while different wood types, sizes, and shapes are used in particular areas, the whole design must be properly positioned and balanced to run free, true, strong, and durable.  Reinforcing these standards, most period builders boasted of how little draft was required to pull their wagon.  Of course, none of this overview gets into the equally complicated topics related to the various cast and steel skein designs, roller bearings, steel axle spindles, or other types of surfaces the wheel boxings (inner wheel casings) were fitted to.

One of the more prominent wheelwright shops in the U.S. is Hansen Wheel &Wagon Shop in Letcher, South Dakota.  According to Doug Hansen, his team will build, repair, and sell more than 100 sets of wheels in the course of a year.  From stagecoaches, cannons, carriages, and hitch wagons to farm, military, and chuck wagons, it’s a commitment that requires a solid understanding of the vast technology in so many wooden wheel designs. 

Likewise, early builders recognized that wheels were the literal foundation of a vehicle and, as such, were specifically engineered to retain the right support and performance for the entire piece.  That dedication to quality appeared in a variety of forms; each recognizing that no other part of a western vehicle is more vital to the whole than the wheel.  From tire and spoke rivets to bolts, dowels, bands, channels, and a seemingly endless array of patents, every wooden wheel is full of innovation, purpose, and expertise.  It’s literally ‘the way they rolled.’ 

We’ll dissect the wheel in more detail in a later blog but felt this overview would be a good first look at some of the complexities involved with early wooden 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. Once that's done, you'll receive an email every time we update the blog.  Please don't hesitate to let us know if we can be of assistance. We're looking forward to your visits each 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, April 1, 2015

Collecting Wood Wheeled History

Since I publish this blog on the same day each week it’s inevitable that, as the years pass, some postings will land on Christmas, New Year’s Day, the 4th of July, and other notable dates.  This week, the blog post happens to occur on April 1st.  In the U.S., most know that as “April Fools’ Day.”  The 24 hour timeframe is frequently filled with innocent tomfoolery and other gags played on unsuspecting souls.  Rest easy, I’m not planning any tricks today but, it did seem like a good time to talk about things that can cause us more than a little chagrin with early vehicles.  Maybe, by sharing some of these stories, we can help reduce unfortunate experiences down the road. 

Caveat Emptor

One of the environments that can sometimes invite regrettable events is that of an auction.  While these events can be enjoyable, getting caught up in the atmosphere of competitive bidding has left more than one person with a serious case of “buyer’s remorse.”  Years ago, I was at a sale and ran across a man who had just bought what he had hastily assumed was an original, framed John Deere sign.  He had won the piece in aggressive bidding, only to discover the advertisement was a much cheaper (and common) modern day print.  The last time I saw him, he was trying to unload the short-lived prize for almost anything anyone would give him.

A similar story from another sale centers on what appeared to be a mint condition spring seat for a major wagon brand.  It had gotten my attention as I surveyed the different items scheduled to run through the ring.  Upon closer inspection, though, the seat was not exactly what it appeared to be.  The paint was not original but had been completely re-applied with slightly better than average attention to detail.  For those not focused on the intricacies of originality, it carried the feel of a rare find in premium condition.  The reality was that it was nothing more than a partially restored seat with non-original paint and semi-adequate stenciling.  Yep, someone bought it and paid a hefty sum.  The only explanation I could imagine for the final price being so high was that at least two bidders felt the seat was truly original.  Those instances are hard to watch.       

On a related note, it always surprises me to see a post-1900 vehicle portrayed as an 1800’s piece with no supporting documentation.  Instead of immediately accepting what may well be an honest belief about a set of wheels, it’s important to know the vehicle is being properly represented.  Countless wood-wheeled wagons were built well into the 20th century and some brands were never built in the 19th century.  Reinforcing those points, no major western wagon brand produced vehicles exactly the same way throughout its tenure in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Because of that reality, we’re often able to determine timeframes of manufacture without guesswork.  It’s a significant reason we’ve worked tirelessly over the last two decades to assemble such a large amount of literature in the Wheels That Won The West® collection. Those materials and other period documents and imagery have helped us avoid much of the conjecture surrounding construction dates. 
Ultimately, the best advice I could give any collector is to get to know the vehicle you’re interested in.  Not everyone is going to take the same amount of time studying that set of wheels and the extra attention on your part could save you time, money, and disappointment.    

Vehicle Care

I’m regularly asked how to best care for an antique, wood-wheeled vehicle.  Most times that question comes with preconditions like… I don’t have a dust-free, humidity-controlled, temperature-monitored, and UV-restricted facility but, otherwise, how should I care for my vehicle(s)?  First off, these folks should be commended because they’re asking before – not after – something negative has been done to the vehicle.  That said, of the four environmental points mentioned above, each is important to recognize and do our best to attain. 

One of the more common questions I’m asked is, “Is it okay to re-paint the vehicle?”  That’s a touchy point in that there is a lot to be evaluated first.  For instance – How rare is the piece?  What condition is it in?  How much original paint is still on the vehicle?  What levels of originality does it possess?  What is the vehicle’s history or provenance?  Has it been evaluated by an authority on early vehicles?  What is the objective and purpose behind re-painting?  What level or quality of re-painting would be attempted?  Answers to each of these questions (and more) are crucial as the information will help make the final decision.  As a general rule, it’s good practice to move slowly in this area.  After all, it’s impossible to undo many of the most well-intentioned efforts and originality can be a valuable asset to lose.

Another question I am asked involves the use of polyurethane.   Unlike the previous question on paint, this one gets a quick and sharp reply from me… DON’T DO IT.  Polyurethane may bring out more saturated paint colors and might initially be deemed as ‘pretty.’  Nonetheless, someone will likely rue the day that it was applied.  Why?  Because this polymer hardens significantly while penetrating and bonding with the paint.  It can turn brittle, eventually acting like a paint stripper, peeling the coloring right off of the vehicle and leaving only the bare wood.  It may take a while for the process to begin, but it has a way of irreversibly taking hold.  Below is a photo showing a seat after a few years of polyurethane working its magic.

A sad sight; this image shows part of a wagon spring seat that once had a significant amount of original paint.

Other advice on storing collector grade vehicles is to keep them away from varmints of all sorts.  I’ve seen damage done by a variety of critters; birds, squirrels, goats, horses, cows, cats, rats, mice, and all sorts of insects.  At the end of the day, to be a better steward of history, it really does come down to what you know and how that information is applied.  Knowledge is key to saving irreplaceable history and it can also keep embarrassment from camping at your door.  

Week in and week out, it’s our hope that these tidbits of info can help prevent even the best of intentions from turning into a bad April Fool’s joke. 

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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Wagons & the Way They Were Built

I’ve shared a number of times that every part of a period vehicle can hold clues related to its provenance.  From age and use histories to maker labels and design standards, paying attention to construction details can make all the difference in what we know to be fact versus mere beliefs or speculation.

Some time ago, I had a discussion with a friend about the way floors were placed in early wagons.  There were several techniques employed by period builders of farm wagons.  The most frequently seen style in surviving vehicles is tongue and groove. This type of interlocking construction works by fitting a grooved slot from one side of the board into a protruded ridge from another board.  It offers great strength and long-lasting sealing characteristics. 

 This image shows a wagon with the more commonly seen tongue and groove floor.

A second method of placing boards in a wagon floor is by simply butting the sides of the planks together.  While simple to install, one of the primary challenges for farmers was the difficulty in keeping the boards sufficiently tight in respect to each other.  Over time, gaps between the boards would almost certainly appear, allowing loose grain, seed, or other small items to fall through. 

As can be seen in this image, laying boards side by side invariably left gaps making it tough to seal the floor of the box.

A third approach to installing flooring for a box is similar to tongue and groove.  Referred to as a shiplap floor, this design pulls the floor together by over and underlapping adjoining boards.  As with tongue and groove boards, shiplap construction allows for dimensional movement of the wood while also retaining longitudinal strength.  While the design is effective at closing gaps, it may not seal quite as well as tongue and groove and sometimes can be more susceptible to splintering and warping.

For some modern day collectors, the process of shiplapping a wagon floor may be tempting to view as a faster but less effective way of finishing a box.  However, that opinion was clearly not shared by some well-known wagon makers.  Over the last decade, I’ve encountered several instances of original wagon boxes built in this way.  In each circumstance, the wagon was known as a premium quality brand with an unquestioned national reputation.   

Period wagons with original shiplap floors are not commonly found today.

As we work to understand why certain builders did things in a particular way, it’s important to remember that major vehicle manufacturers didn’t (and still don’t) typically rush into cheap alternatives in the design of their products.  Hard-earned reputations for quality have too much to lose by ushering in unproven creations.  While all builders looked for efficiencies that made good business sense, there is a balance between saving time and money while continuing to deliver excellent products.    

Even with the use of shiplap floors by multiple dominant manufacturers, the practice does not seem to have garnered wide-spread acceptance.  Nonetheless, I recently uncovered a catalog from yet another prominent brand touting the preference of ship lap floors.  The firm claimed that these floors were “…much stronger than ‘tongued and grooved’...”  It is known, however, that this same company did eventually switch to the tongue and groove method.  Why did they ultimately switch?  Product availability, consumer preference, warping, splintering, or even sealing issues may have had something to do with it.  We may never really know as I have also seen warping and splintering in tongue and groove floors.    

The true take-away from this information goes beyond which method proved to be best.  It comes down to the need for enthusiasts to be acutely aware of differences and prepared to understand what each area can tell us.  Alertness to these details can be extraordinarily useful when determining timeframes of manufacture, rarity features, originality levels, and brand identities. 

In the end, the subject seems to share some similarities with early claims related to the upsetting (tightening) of tires on wooden wheels.  As with the case of tongue and groove floors, some makers seem to have stuck predominantly with one method of tightening tires while others experimented with two or more different directions.  We’ll take a closer look at this topic in an upcoming blog as well.

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Wheels That Won The West® Updates

Most weeks, this blog is filled with behind-the-scenes details related to western vehicles created a century or more ago.  This week, the thoughts are still related to those early pieces, but I wanted to share some more current news related to our website.
We’re in the middle of a number of site changes that are expected to launch this week.  From the beginning, our desire has been to show America’s early western transportation industry for what it was… and still is!  It’s an intricate blend of extraordinary art, science, dreams, devotion, and sweat equity surrounded by a heritage of real world challenges and unforgiving competition.  For me, it’s the most intriguing segment of the Old West because it dramatically impacted virtually every aspect of it.
Conveying those truths has sometimes been difficult since there are a number of misconceptions about the industry, the vehicles, and the times.  One of our primary goals for the Wheels That Won The West® Archives has been to actively search for lost details on brands memorably tied to the development of the American West.  Honestly, it’s not easy.  The journey requires a tremendous investment of time and resources and most of the efforts go unseen.  Fortunately, the passion I have for this subject is its own fuel and that drive continues to uncover some pretty amazing material; the bulk of which is preserved for other projects and often not included in these blogs. 

This screenshot shows some of the rich imagery and storyline details that have been incorporated into the Wheels That Won The West® website.

With that in mind and, in an effort to better explain who we are and what we do, we’ve been working on a number of noticeable changes to the ‘Wheels’ website.  The homepage has undergone a complete overhaul and is designed to more effectively convey the depth, artistry, and complexity of heavy horse-drawn vehicles from the 19th and early 20th centuries.  With such a broad base of original, primary source materials at our fingertips, the site is also fashioned to expound on a world of exclusive Vehicle Services.  Details can be found in the ‘Records & Research’ as well as the ‘Presentation & Media’ sections.  All of it should be more mobile-friendly, so you can take us with you anywhere.

You’ll note the ‘Articles’ section has been updated to include even more of our writings.  With several hundred pieces penned to date, this new section clearly doesn’t include everything we’ve written but at least it’s a start.  Finally, I’m working on material for a special section we’ve entitled, “Search & Rescue,” that will ultimately include information on unique present-day western vehicle finds.  I continue to believe that we may be the last generation with any hope of locating and recognizing remaining survivors tied to the development of the West.  This feature is currently linking to the ‘Articles’ section but will eventually become a separate source of vehicle information.

This is a ‘soft launch’ of the new site – meaning that we’re still working on other areas and some of the link-to pages will be changing as we move forward.  Nonetheless, it seemed noteworthy to let everyone know of the new look.
Other projects on our front burner include an upcoming article for Farm Collector magazine and a final report documenting the restoration of a rare and transitional John Deere wagon that we worked on with the folks at Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop.  In this project, our files were tapped for access to ultra-rare logos, striping, and other authentication elements.  We also have a few original running gears in the shop that are slated to have darkened linseed oil removed while preserving the original paint. 

Finally, as of late last year, my wife and I are officially grandparents so we’ve been working on backyard playground plans.  Yes, I know, the kid isn’t even crawling yet but let’s not let details get in the way of fun!
We appreciate your continued support, encouragement, and suggestions.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while and have yet to introduce yourself, please drop us a line.  We really would be glad to hear from you.  Have a great week!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

An Interview with John Mohler Studebaker

I recently came across an issue of “The Hub” magazine from 1910.  This publication, and others like it, is filled with information regarding America’s early transportation industry.  From wooden vehicle designs and instruction on different trade crafts to details on the then-current industry news, there is a lot to be gleaned from these periodicals. 

“The Hub” was a prominent trade journal for the carriage and wagon industry.

Leafing through the pages, I noticed an interview with John Mohler Studebaker, President of Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Company in South Bend, Indiana.  Like many enthusiasts, I’ve read a fair number of books and articles about Studebaker but, poring over this interview, the impact of the words took on a different perspective.  No longer was I reading but, rather, it felt as though I was in the room; a bystander listening to the conversation. 

J.M. Studebaker would have been quite familiar with the horse drawn wagons shown in this 20th century catalog.  He passed away in 1917, just a few years prior to the company ceasing production of all horse drawn vehicles. 

Hearing something from Mr. Studebaker virtually firsthand is a rarity.  He passed away in 1917 and most historical accounts don’t include extended quotations.  1910 was a transitional period for the firm, so thoughts from one so deeply connected to the brand’s roots are intriguing.  In 1910, Studebaker was just six years into production of gasoline automobiles and roughly a decade from ceasing output of all horse drawn vehicles.  Times were changing but the old wagon man refused to conceal his love for wooden wheels.  He was “dancin’ with the one that brought him” the entire time.

With that in mind, and out of respect for the Studebaker brand, I thought it would be appropriate to share this century-plus-old interview from “The Hub.” At the time J.M. (John Mohler) was the last surviving brother of the famed Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Company: 

Mr. John M. Studebaker, of the Studebaker concern, was interviewed at the Waldorf-Astoria when in New York recently.  A part of what he said follows:

Mr. Studebaker said that he started out in life with a capital of 50 cents.  He said that he was 77 years old, “though,” he added, “my wife always gets after me when I tell my real age.  You see, the secret of long life and good health is hard work.  I have always worked hard.
Two of my brothers had a little blacksmith shop in South Bend, but I decided in 1852, while I was working for a wagon maker there, that I wanted to go out to California to seek my fortune.  So I built a wagon body that winter and my brother did the iron work for me.  There was a company going west the next spring, and I turned my wagon over to them to pay for my share of the expenses.  We had a drove of horses with us and the Indians chased us all the way.  Almost every night they would try to steal our horses.   They didn’t have rifles in those days, so they did not do much attacking.
It took us five months and eight days to get across to California, and when I landed there I only had 50 cents on which to begin life.  I took to prospecting but I kept at it only three months.  Then I decided to make use of my trade and I started in making wheelbarrows and picks.  After four years, I had enough of it and returned to South Bend in the winter of 1857.  (WTWTW note:  JMS actually returned at the end of the 1857 winter in April of 1858)

My two brothers were still in business and I bought the elder out, and we went into wagon making.  There wasn’t any marvelous growth – just natural.  The business spread and the day before I left South Bend, we received orders for 11,000 vehicles of various kinds.  We sell a good deal to Europe, though as much to England.  South America is our biggest foreign customer and the Argentine Republic is the chief part of that.  A friend who just go back to-day from the other side was telling me he hired a carriage at Jerusalem and found it was one of our make.  We turn out 400 different kinds of vehicles.”

“What has been the effect of the automobile on the carriage business?” Mr. Studebaker was asked.

“Well, it has practically killed the fine vehicle, but it has increased the output of the medium class article.”   

Building any brand into a household name is challenging.  The Studebaker family and their employees did it so well that the desire among collectors for all things Studebaker is still extraordinarily powerful – nearly a half century since the last auto was built and close to a century since the final wagon left the factory. 

We’ll share more details about the early days of Studebaker in a post later this year.  It’s a brand closely paralleling the excitement, opportunity, and growth of the American West.  By the way, if you haven’t yet 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. Please don't hesitate to let us know if we can be of assistance. We're looking forward to your visits each week.

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