Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving

Wishing you, your family, and friends a wonderful Thanksgiving.  May God bless you during this special time of year.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Wagon Displays

Over the years, I’ve received countless questions related to early American wagons and western vehicles.  It’s a subject that continually invites curiosity and admiration.  Ultimately, what we, as collectors, know and share not only helps reinforce the fascination for these rolling works of art but perpetuates the true personality of a set of wheels. 

So, this week, I’d like to turn the tables a bit and ask a couple of questions to vehicle collectors as well.  First... how much do you truly know about the individual pieces in your collection?  And second... how do you display and share those details?  I’ve been researching and collecting for over two decades and never cease to be amazed at how much there is to learn about individual vehicles and brands, let alone the entire industry.

Whether we’re talking about a high-end museum collection with multiple transports or a single set of wheels that’s been passed down from an earlier generation, the staged atmosphere surrounding a piece helps set it off as more than a basic concept from a bygone era... it highlights the iconic personality; bringing the piece to life and uniting it to some of the most challenging and exciting times within American history. 

We’ve all seen museum exhibits with elaborate signage and expensive backdrops.  While sets like this can be impressive, some of these can be so elaborate they completely miss the mark.  Why?  Too often, basic history is repeated to the point that the specific provenance attached to a particular set of wheels is completely missed.  If you’re looking to add to the intrigue of your collection with friends, family, and visitors, hone in on the most personal and historic elements related to a vehicle.  I’d recommend that you begin modestly, perhaps with only one vehicle.  Start off with your favorite.  The feelings you have for that one vehicle will help keep you motivated and perhaps even help establish it as the obvious centerpiece in your collection.  Below are a few thoughts on some ways to get started...

Brand History – Work up a brief bio of the brand’s background, highlighting its connection to the growth and development of America.  You may even be able to profile the maker’s involvement in significant events, patents, or legal wranglings. While keeping the details short for easy reading, place the info on a placard next to the wagon.  

Brand Advertising/Signage – Early tin, wooden, and cardboard signs can be an ideal accent to a set of wheels.  Likewise, old print advertising is often elaborate, helping showcase the way a particular brand was perceived back in the day.  If the cost of rare, original signage runs a little outside of your budget, it’s also possible to accomplish similar results with inexpensive reproduction pieces.  Other options include having a digital print shop enlarge an original advertisement and mount it on a stiff backing board.

Design Elements – Get creative.  Look for supporting accessory pieces from the same era as your vehicle.  The presentation of your wagon can benefit from a few (not so many that they’re distracting) authentic components like a wagon jack, drag shoe, stay chains, wooden crates/barrels, or even a miniature child’s wagon of the same make as your full-sized wagon.  Some early wagons might even be appropriate custodians of a period odometer.

Technology Used – Look the wagon over closely.  Are there any patent markings or special features that can be called out?  These types of bonus details can add greatly to the talking points and interest of a particular vehicle. 

Personal History – It’s always a good idea to try and acquire as much history on a set of wheels as possible.  Even if you don’t have a full ownership history, many times a wagon still has the name of a selling dealer stenciled on the box or gear.  Researching the dates of operation and details of a particular retail outlet can reinforce the character and story tied to a piece.

Ultimately, it pays to do your homework.  Take your time researching; being careful in the details.  The last thing anyone wants is to get the history wrong.  That said, be advised... the subject of early wooden wagons is full of twists, turns, and sudden stops.  Many builders had similar names.  Some reinvented themselves under new brand or management names.  Still others have a history that has been widely misreported in modern times.

In the end, don’t be surprised if the extra efforts put forth in the interpretation of a piece not only reflect your deep appreciation for a set of wheels but also more fully engage family members and visitors in a way you never thought possible.  Best of luck to 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.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Not Enough Timber

From the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth century, America’s horse drawn vehicle makers competed heavily for certain wood stocks as they were in heavy demand from a multitude of industries.  With so much pressure on the nation’s forests, the challenges to acquiring the right raw materials in a timely manner were sometimes overwhelming.
To that point, the article below is from a 1906 issue of “The Carriage Monthly.”  It outlines the struggles of supply and demand along with concerns related to vehicle quality, performance, and customer satisfaction.  In part, it also helps explain why some types of wood were in use during a particular time.  Combined with a blog I wrote back in February of this year, it’s an interesting piece giving added insight into America’s first transportation industry.

 “The growing scarcity of timber forces manufacturers to make the very best of the kind of timber they find on the market.  In the opinion of some very careful observers, the time will come when substitutes will have to be had for oak and hickory, none of which will be as good as the oak and hickory stock which contains small defects, but which do not interfere with the strength of the material.  Heretofore, it has been the custom to throw out anything with a defect, even if it did not impair the strength of the material, but the present condition of things limits the manufacturer in this respect.
Take white ash.  A few years ago it was comparatively plentiful.  Now it is practically exhausted.  No wood can easily take the place of second growth northern white ash for certain parts of a vehicle.  There is no white ash to-day that is suitable for the same purposes of the old second growth white ash of a few years ago.  It is not so long ago since that all wagon manufacturers used ash for wagon tongues and they would not hear to the use of anything else.  To-day oak is used for wagon tongues almost entirely, and it is a rare thing to find an ash tongue.  Those that are in use are inferior to ordinary oak stock.  It is true that there is considerable ash in the South, but experience has taught manufacturers that when it is thoroughly dry, it is “brash” and hardly suitable for vehicle construction. 
The inferiority of ash and its scarcity has, in a certain sense, driven vehicle builders to use oak for purposes which a few years ago were not permissible.  Besides, the supply of oak, limited as it is, affords the manufacturers a wide selection.  It is for this reason that oak is being largely used for wagon tongues; also in such articles as buggy bows, oak has almost entirely taken the place of ash.  When a builder comes across a lot of genuine second growth white ash, he feels himself particularly lucky.  Southern ash has the appearance of being tough when it is green; but when it comes to a matter of testing in use, it is demonstrated that oak is superior to ash as it is found to-day.
These are only a few of the instances which could be greatly multiplied, and which are suggested in the timber situation as it faces the carriage and wagon builder to-day.  Cottonwood has been brought out as a substitute for high-priced poplar, but it met with a great deal of opposition for awhile.  Today, wagon builders know to what extent wagon boxes are made from cottonwood, and even this number is approaching the scarcity of poplar.  The question now is, what will next be employed?
Attention is being turned to gum, and it is probable that gum will be largely utilized in the construction of wagon box boards.  Coming down to hickory, we are up against the most serious part of the proposition.  We can find substitutes for oak, poplar, ash and cottonwood, but when it comes to hickory, there is no apparent substitute, and the supply is rapidly diminishing.  The way out of the serious difficulty will be the subject of future discussions, for it is a problem which must be met and solved.”

Just as manufacturers today are dependent upon the availability of quality raw materials, vehicle makers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also wrestled with maintaining sufficient stocks of building supplies.  This century-plus-old article is just one more reminder that the ‘good old days’ were not necessarily as simplistic as sometimes portrayed.  Builders worked with purpose but often found themselves experimenting with new materials and a whole new set of advertising hyperbole.

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, November 4, 2015

What’s My Wagon Worth?

Undoubtedly, the most common questions we receive are focused on early vehicle values.  Before diving off into this surprisingly deep topic, let's take a look at a few points that can sometimes cause confusion.  Too often, these antiquities are generalized with one set of wheels assumed to always be on par with any other.  The fact is, every period wagon is an individual, with a separate history and unique attributes.  It takes a thorough understanding of these early pieces to make comparisons.  As a result, it’s not typically a good idea to assume a particular value for one set of wheels by looking solely at what someone else is asking for another. 

Unlike today’s automotive industry, there are no printed value guides for old wagons and, since there are seemingly endless variables separating these pieces, the subject is full of opportunities to misinterpret value.  Yet another point to be made is that since no two wagons are ever exactly alike, it can sometimes be problematic to take even realized prices at face value without examining various qualities of the vehicle, itself.  I’ve seen pieces with “perceived” attributes sell at auction for significant prices, only for the new owner to discover that troubling points had been overlooked and too much had been paid.  Cue the well-worn phrase, “Caveat Emptor.”

With those thoughts in mind, we’ll take a look at seven areas that should always be assessed prior to assigning value to a specific piece.  Even so, none of the points below can be looked upon as stand-alone considerations.  The collective whole of what I’ll point out in this post (as well as other considerations) must be evaluated together.  With that as a background, let’s take a look at a few crucial areas that can impact period wagon values.

Condition – This point covers a lot of territory with countless features to be examined.  What is missing, broke, weakened, replaced, or rotted on the wagon?  What is the level of wear to each and every part?  This portion of the evaluation process can be extensive and costly if one doesn’t know where and what to look for. 

Degradation or rot in old wheel felloes is a common sight these days.  Nonetheless, its presence can lessen a vehicle’s resale value.

Brand – Similar to motorized vehicles today, the authenticated brand name of a wagon box and gear can easily impact the desirability and purchase price.  Similarly, it’s important to understand that many well-known wagon brands also created secondary brands.  Knowing this history can help a collector add important pieces to a collection without the cost sometimes attached to the primary brand.

Age – Most antique, wood-wheeled wagons are either near or over one hundred years in age.  While it’s a remarkable thought to ponder, simply because a wagon possesses a well-seasoned age does not necessarily mean it has great value.  Similarly, it’s possible for some 20th century wagons to carry more value than a 19th century counterpart - or maybe not.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the collective whole of these points, ultimately, helps define an accurate value.

 Not all wagon companies attached dates to their wagons but some did.

Provenance – The documented personal history of a particular piece can also impact historic, sentimental, intrinsic, and resale values.  It’s generally good to pursue as much verifiable information as possible about a vehicle as it can add to the interest of a set of wheels. 

Originality levels – Like so many other elements, this is an area that requires significant experience to confirm the authenticity of a piece.  Replaced and mismatched features along with modern repairs, repainting, or other aftermarket wood treatments can impact values.

Vehicle features – Original accessories and intriguing construction elements can sway values both positively and negatively.  Knowing what a particular brand was doing at a particular time can be extremely helpful in assessing the significance of individual features.

Vehicle type – Wagon makers created numerous types of wagons with even more varieties of construction and features.  Not all vehicle types are considered equally collectible.

Ultimately, this overview is not meant to be all-encompassing, overly simplistic, or even confusing.  Rather, it’s clear that the need for resale value information is important to the preservation and understanding of every surviving vehicle.  It’s our hope that the highlights in this week’s blog can help others put these wood-wheeled warriors into better perspective; encouraging more attention be given to individual pieces with less reliance on vague, non-descript, and non-supportable notions.

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, October 28, 2015

Finding 19th Century Wagons

A few weeks ago, several media outlets reported that an old tintype of William H. Bonney (aka Billy the Kid) had been found and, of all things, he was photographed while playing croquet.  It’s an intriguing story and, while the jury may still be out for some historians debating the identities in the image, the discovery made me think about all of the photos each of us has seen of wagons in the West.  Incredibly, and in spite of the way these wheels dominated western history, far too many of the vehicles have been overlooked and their identities lost.  It’s one of the reasons we initiated such a focused study of the subject more than two decades ago.  As time has passed, this hunt for history has led us to a number of destinations throughout the U.S.  Along the way, we’ve been privileged to help preserve and interpret significant elements of our nation’s heritage.

It’s always interesting to come face-to-face with an actual wagon or vehicle image from a particular era.  Many of these can be linked to the times and places associated with legendary outlaws, trail drives, emigrant travel, military expeditions, and overland freighting.  So, while it’s thought-provoking to look into the faces of 19th century personalities of the West, it’s equally fascinating to run head-on into the legendary wheels they saw, walked past, and rode upon. 
Recognizing the traits of 1800’s vehicles has become a passion of mine.  Fortunately, with so many primary source documents in our western vehicle Archives, the rare files have drawn us closer to what these various transports/brands truly looked like throughout the different eras of the 19th century.  Because of the size of the early vehicle industry and the competitive similarities between many brands, the review process can sometimes be extensive.  Nonetheless, over time, we’ve been able through point-by-point examination to conclusively identify wagon brands in a number of largely unknown photos.  Each time we add an identity to the list, it helps bring greater insights into who was doing what, where, how, and when. 

In 2007, we were granted exclusive access to this running gear in the Arabia Steamboat museum in Kansas City.  From provenance details associated with the ship's cargo to a point by point review, we were able to identify the piece as the oldest surviving Peter Schuttler wagon.  It dates to 1856. 

Ultimately, our research almost always leads to some easy conversation starters.  For example... Of the legendary wagon brands that existed during the timeframe of gold discoveries, outlaw exploits, and cattle drives, what do you suppose the paint, striping, and logos looked like?  You can bet it was much different than what many of the surviving wagons typically show today.  Depending on the timeframe, many carried more flare and extravagance to their designs while also embracing construction differences seldom seen in pieces built in the early 20th century.   
Knowing what the different brands were up to at different times not only helps define history more accurately than what’s typically portrayed in the movies, it can also be crucial to sound identification efforts and construction provenance.  In fact, every wagon we acquire goes through this validation process to help corroborate the vehicle’s connection to a particular maker and timeframe.  It’s an important distinction as the world moves farther away from the horse drawn era.  Today, the purity of primary source information goes beyond well-intentioned guesswork by helping verify the details of a vehicle design in its entirety. 
When it comes to authentically telling the story of the American West, it’s always a rush to come across a wagon built during or before the time of Billy the Kid, Geronimo, Jesse James, the Earps, and others.  Unlike the distant viewing of an old tintype, finding one of these wheeled dinosaurs is one connection to the West that we can all experience firsthand.  Still, time is running out on the search for survivors.  Too many sit unprotected.  Unknown to those who pass by and unable to hold on much longer.  
Case in point... many years ago, I saw an original wagon with the well-worn paint and very faded name of “Jackson Wagon.”  I have photos today but wish I had bought the piece.  I only saw it for a few minutes and it took me too long to recognize its significance.  The wagon could be anywhere now but has likely finished weathering away or been destroyed.  It is the only true Jackson, other than catalogs and old photos in our collection, that I’ve ever seen.  Made by prison labor in Jackson, Michigan, the brand carries a well-documented and legendary reputation in the West. 
Like so many others that plied the American frontier, these rare glimpses into yesterday are vanishing.  Reminiscent of an aged and weakened image staring out of an old photo, many antiquated wagons are drifting to a point of no return.  So, we search; continually seeking those amazing links to the Old West.  From vehicles to original documents and images, somewhere, the next discovery awaits.  It likely will not be obvious in sharing its identity.  But, just like the incredible discovery of the Steamboat Arabia in 1988 (see link in the photo caption above), anything is possible if we don’t give up.

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, October 21, 2015

Lost & Loose – More Transient Wagon Parts

Last week, we featured some original parts of early wagons that are often missing from surviving vehicles today.  Whether they’ve inadvertently fallen off, been taken off, or have been replaced, putting the wrong piece back on can affect resale value, soundness, and the overall integrity of the wagon.  Below are a dozen more areas that are regularly affected by the issue of transient parts.

End gates – These are likely some of the most commonly misplaced pieces from an old wagon.  Like other parts, they were often removed and laid aside, only to never be put back with the wagon.

Rub Irons – Sometimes, these pieces have been used so much that the persistent wearing of the steel tire has cut the rub iron in half.  The result can be that some (or all) of the piece can eventually fall off and become lost. 

Due to the heavy pressure and constant wear placed on rub irons, they were often worn heavily – to the point of separation and loss.

Wagon Box – At first glance, it sounds a bit crazy to say the box of a wagon can go missing.  In truth, the box and gear were often separated from each other.  As a result, either can eventually be absent.  I have some great boxes that are missing their original gear.  Likewise, I have a number of gears that no longer have the original box.

Stay chains – As a collector, you’d probably have better luck herding cats than believing you’ll always find the original stay chains with every wagon you run across.  These chains were sometimes used for other purposes beyond those with the wagon.  Additionally, once folks started using wagons as trailers behind tractors, they no longer needed these chains (or doubletrees).  Today, you can sometimes find used stay chains or you can buy new replacements.

Rocking bolster – Here’s a transient part that often gets overlooked.  The forward rocking bolster is typically held to the gear by the king bolt.  Occasionally, a bolster was so heavily damaged that it needed to be replaced or, perhaps, it was removed when a gear was knocked down for storage, causing the parts to be separated.

Spring seats – If you’ve ever been to an auction where wagons are sold, you’re familiar with the practice of selling seats separately.  In fact, many seats show up to the sale already separated.  Families often sold the old wagon from their farm but kept the spring seat as a memory of earlier days.  My own family remembers the wagon my granddad owned but no one remembers what happened to it.  They did keep the spring seat and somehow one box rod remained at the old barn.  They’re two reminders of just how easy it is for these pieces to get broken up. 

Brake rods – These long connecting rods were bent and even broken from time to time.  Even so, the most likely reason for one of these to come up missing is the result of the box being removed from the running gear.  While this is not generally an issue when a wagon is fitted with box brakes, those mounted to the gear are a different story.  When a box is removed from a running gear fitted with brakes, the linkage or brake rod has to be partially disconnected, which can sometimes result in the rod getting misplaced.

Wheel wrenches – While spring seats and stay chains may seem hard to keep up with, they pale in comparison to the challenges of ensuring you have the right wrench for an early wagon.  They were so easy and necessary to move around that many wagons sold today do not have their original wrench.

Wheel wrenches for wagons were made in a number of sizes and shapes.

Reach/coupling pole – The most common reason for a period wagon to not have its original reach today is that it was broken or heavily damaged at some point.  The problem could have resulted from a wreck or severe stress created by the terrain being traveled.  I’ve even heard (multiple times) of folks breaking the reach with a forklift while trying to lift and move the wagon.

Box tighteners – Other frequently lost parts on early wagons are box tighteners.  These ‘sideboard clamps’ were designed to help keep flax and other small seeds from leaking through the sideboards and floor edges.  There were many different styles of box tighteners.  The most commonly lost types are the ones with steel rods extending over part or the entire height of a box. 

Latches – Folding endgate latches are often held in place by a single nut.  Should the nut ever fall off, the latch is quickly separated from the wagon.  I’ve even heard of these being stolen, undoubtedly, to replace another somewhere that’s missing. 

Sideboards – Most two-horse farm wagons were equipped with multiple sideboards.  These additional pieces could be removed if needed and stored in the barn, shed, or elsewhere.  From time to time, the separation took on more of a permanent nature.  Today, it’s not unusual to see these pieces listed as an isolated item in a sale.  

Over and over, I’ve had folks share thoughts that a particular pair of wagons were just alike.  Truth is, no two surviving wagons are ever exactly the same.  Part of the reason will almost always be due to the levels of originality remaining in each one.  Time and again, parts are removed or lost and the completeness of a vehicle suffers.  The lists I’ve shared here and last week are not all-inclusive but, they do give us an idea of how prevalent the losses can be.

Thanks for stopping by.  Remember, if you haven’t signed up to receive this weekly blog via email, you can easily do so by typing in your address in the “Follow By Email” section above.  You’ll receive a confirmation email that you’ll need to verify before you’re officially on board.  So, don’t forget to verify.  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, October 14, 2015

A Wagon Load of Missing Parts

This week’s blog is the first of a two-part story covering transient parts of old wagons.  Webster defines transient as being of ‘a brief or temporary existence’ as well as including references to ‘something passing quickly into and out of existence.’  When it comes to wagons, it’s a polished way of referring to parts that can become alienated from the vehicle over time. 

A few weeks ago, we published a blog focused on the topic of ‘originality’ in early wood-wheeled vehicles.  As I’d mentioned then, there are a number of things that can affect originality levels in an old wagon.  One of the more common enemies of originality is the issue of transient parts.  As mentioned above, by transient, I’m referring to any number of elements that started out with the wagon only to end up lost or separated from the vehicle.  

In many cases, it’s simple to understand how these pieces are so easily and frequently misplaced.  They may have been deliberately taken off or some may have simply fallen off.  In either case, today, we see countless examples of wagons that have lost some portion of their original structure.  It’s part of the history of a set of wheels.  Even so, those losses do not always negatively impact the resale value of the piece.

Ultimately, it’s good to know the kinds of things to look for if total originality and authenticity are priorities.  With that in mind, below are a few parts that have had a tendency to get lost and replaced over the years… 

Box rods – Some of the more commonly replaced elements of a vintage wagon seem to have been box rods.  It’s understandable since the rods were often taken out so endgates could be removed and the wagon dumped, longer cargo added, or the sideboards may have been detached for a particular need.  Some rods never made it back to their rightful place and some were taken to be used for other needs - like fireplace pokers!  (I've seen that a number of times)  

Nuts, nails, & screws – These smaller pieces are regular 'no-shows' when it comes to evaluation of surviving, original components on early wagons.   

Even small parts like nails, screws, box rod washers, and nuts can all become separated from a wagon over the decades.

Tongues – Most of these lengthy pieces were made to be easily removed.  Many were also broken in accidents.  As a result, it’s not unusual to find wagons fitted with non-original tongues today.

Doubletrees/singletrees – Similarly, these pieces were moved from place to place during use with a wagon and sometimes became separated from the vehicle.  Broken or heavily damaged doubletrees and/or singletrees could also result in a non-original substitute.

Neck yoke – One of the most susceptible pieces to wandering off is the neck yoke.  By its nature, this piece of hickory was not typically a permanent attachment to the tongue.  As a result, when a team was unhitched, the neck yoke could get set aside and eventually separated from the wagon and tongue.  It became an even more frequent occurrence as wagons began to be used as trailers behind tractors.  Suddenly, there was no need for the neck yoke (and doubletree/singletrees) and it was cast aside. 

If you have a vehicle with missing pieces or non-authentic replacements, there are outlets that can help with either new old stock or even modern reproductions made to original maker specs.  Next week, I’ll cover at least a dozen more wagon parts with an equal tendency to wind up missing over the course of time.

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.