Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ten Lost Wagon Brands

When I was a young boy, my parents ran a small grocery store and gas station out in the country.  Back then, the location was somewhat remote and the patrons were made up of locals as well as a steady stream of tourists and travelers.  Being friendly and service-minded, my folks had a sign on the exterior of the little shotgun style building that read, “Lost?  Inquire Inside.”  It brought them more traffic while helping others gain clearer direction to their destination.  Built in the 1930’s, the old store is still there but today it’s used as a storage building.  I’m fortunate to have some of the old signs from the store and, yes, the “Lost” sign is among my treasures.  Ironically, in my studies of America’s early transportation industry, I’m still hanging out a shingle for the lost.  In this case, it’s lost wagons and western vehicles. 

This sign helped countless people find their destinations.  Today, ultra-rare materials in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives are doing the same thing for collectors of early wood-wheeled vehicles.

Over the years, I’ve shared a lot of details related to old wagons in this blog.  It’s hard, though, to write about yesterday’s most significant wheels without giving due credit to a number of brands that are noticeably absent today.  These are the ghost wheels of the West.  They were prominent brands once seen regularly on western trails but are almost non-existent today. 

Legendary names like Wilson, Childs & Company…  Espenschied…  LaBelle…  Fish Brothers…  Murphy… Luedinghaus…  Jackson…  Coquillard…  Kansas or Caldwell…  and Cooper plied the frontier throughout the 1800’s.  They hauled freight, ore, emigrants, farmers, ranchers, miners, businessmen, and the military as well as the hopes, dreams, and future of a young nation.  Hundreds of thousands of vehicles were produced by these ten brands during their operating years.  So where are they today?  To be sure, there are a few examples of some still resting quietly in public and private collections – but very few.  They are as scarce as water in a desert.  So scarce that, in two decades of diligent searching, the closest I’ve come to some early brands like LaBelle, Espenschied, or Coquillard is a handful of old photos and promotional literature.  The Kansas Manufacturing Company which also produced the Caldwell brand wagon is another good example.  Established in 1874, the firm built countless wagons including military escort wagons, six horse army wagons, ambulances, Dougherty wagons, farm, freight, and other spring wagons.  Yet, other than a few mentions in period literature and a bit more in contemporary publications like Mark Gardner’s, “Wagons for the Santa Fe Trade,” the reminders of this company’s legendary heritage are in short supply.  There is a surviving Dougherty wagon made by the company.  It’s housed in the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  

This original pamphlet from the Kansas Manufacturing Company dates to 1877 and may be the earliest surviving material from the company.

Overall, the subject of lost wagon brands continues to harbor a number of unknowns; mysteries largely responsible for the opening of the American West.  For a few more years, perhaps, there may still be a chance to save the few 19th century reminders not yet found.  These are the historic connections firmly tied to yesterday that we constantly search for today.  They rolled alongside other well-known makes such as Studebaker, Bain, Mitchell, and Schuttler but, unlike these four iconic brands, many fewer of the other ten labels appear to have survived.  Much of the reason lies with the timeframe each company was in existence.  Financially healthy firms extending into the 20th century tend to have many more surviving examples of their work.  As I’ve posted before, though, we’ve seen enough instances of 19th century wagons still being found that it’s very possible some of these ten brands could yet be uncovered.

So in your travels, stay vigilant.  What looks like a rotted old relic might actually be a legend on wheels just waiting to be discovered.  And just like the old “Inquire Inside” sign, we need to look deep inside the designs to recognize the tell-tale signs of the manufacturer’s handiwork.    It’s a rough, scarcely-traveled road but somewhere the next find is waiting for us to help place it back within its rightful part of history.  

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wooden Wagon Signs

In the hunt for history, one of the most exciting parts is the chase itself.  The pursuit can be full of surprises and often generates a host of unforgettable memories.  As intriguing as the chase may be, though, the greatest satisfaction usually comes with the actual discovery of pieces most have only read of or dreamed about.  It’s a thought easily echoed in our own searches as, again and again, our quests are punctuated with exceptional finds; each driving us forward in the never-ending search for lost artifacts from America’s first transportation industry.

Hand built, wooden promotional signage was once a common 

sight with wagon retailers.  

Not long ago, we came upon another rare survivor – An original, wooden sign that would have been used as an outdoor billboard for a dealer of Peter Schuttler wagons.  Schuttler, as many know, was a legendary wagon builder and highly respected brand during more than 8 decades of manufacturing in Chicago.  I’ve written a fair amount about the firm, including a brief company bio in Driving Digest magazine a few years ago.  Like Studebaker, Mitchell, Bain, Jackson, and countless other nationally-recognized brands, the Peter Schuttler Wagon Company was a strong marketer with a host of advertising tools.  Most of the true outdoor pieces have either deteriorated, been destroyed, or may yet be tucked away in an attic, old barn, or similar out-of-the-way place.

While these promotional signs came in a multitude of sizes, this single plank display is one of the larger varieties, measuring almost a foot in height and 14 feet in length.  Surrounded by a well-worn, blue-beaded finish, the faded white block lettering is adorned with barb-like serifs on the individual characters.  The spurred font carries a unique western feel which may have been designed to leverage the company’s rich history and popularity during the early growth of the West.  The size of the sign is also significant as it’s a strong indicator of its purpose as an outdoor piece.  Larger signs were used to draw greater attention while reinforcing the dominant market position of a particular brand.  

Early wagon signage was often more prominent than the name of the 

business establishment itself.

Numerous early photos in our Archives show these signs on period hardware, lumber, general mercantile, and other stores.  While vintage wagon makers worked to establish exclusive sales contracts with these sellers, retailers were an independent sort and they often sold as many as a half dozen different brands from a single store.  It was no doubt confusing to some buyers with so many signs and wagon names on the outside of a building.  Knowing this, it’s no surprise that the practice of carrying multiple brands was a regular source of contention between manufacturers and sellers of these historic wood-wheeled wagons.

If you know of other early vehicle signage, give us a shout.  We enjoy the opportunity to review period advertising materials.  Custom designed for optimum impact, these special pieces offer rare insights into the business side of one of the most competitive and essential industries in early America.  

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Wagons & Stagecoaches in the West

Over the years, I’ve been privileged and fortunate to uncover some of the rarest history on wheels.  The thrill of the chase is real while the research involved is crucial to recognizing and saving these dramatic and story-rich reminders of America’s youth.  It’s part of the reason we’ve dedicated so many resources to this discovery process.  Without fail, the constant seeking is rewarded with amazing finds.  So it was that earlier this month I sat out on another journey; one that would again take me west to learn, discover, identify, and help preserve some of the most legendary vehicles our nation ever produced.

The original Wells Fargo lettering on this 1860’s-era 

Concord Coach is still visible today. 

These trips are never long enough to satisfy all my curiosities but this one started out with an air of expectation.  I had a good feeling that this excursion would reveal significant western wheels.  In fact, I had written notes prior to the event with the prompt to ‘expect the unexpected.’  It was a reminder that came roaring to life even on the plane trip.  As we boarded our early morning flight, it became clear that the aircraft would be chock full of passengers.  The significance of this fact was painfully punctuated by my inability to reserve an aisle seat.  So, camera on my shoulder, I sat down in what had to be the smallest seat on the plane.  To my left was a businessman evaluating profit/loss statements on his laptop.  At the window seat on my right was a middle-aged woman absorbed in an electronic book.  I resolved to make the most of the confined quarters but about an hour into the flight my legs began to cramp and my body grew impatient.  If I could just get an armrest – maybe that would help me feel more relaxed.  Nothing doing.  That territory was heavily guarded by my neighbors.  Making matters worse, the woman on my right was fast asleep to the point of producing a fairly constant snore.  I didn’t want to wake her with my arm jockeying.  What could I do to improve things a bit?  Running through options in my mind, it finally hit me.  In that moment of soul-searching revelation, I realized I had never reclined my seat.  Surely that would help.  Looking at the armrests, it was hard to know which one controlled my seatback.  Eeny meeny miny moe!  I picked the right button and will never forget what happened next.

Apparently, the reclining seat mechanisms had been recently polished and heavily greased with liquid butter.  To my utter horror, my seat did not recline as I depressed the button.  Instead, the sleeping woman’s chair fell backward as if it had been dropped from 30,000 feet.  It hit the end of its range with a thud so hard I thought the hinge had broken.  Worse yet, the look of terror on the woman’s face lacked only a scream to complete the nightmare.  Clearly, she thought we were crashing.  My first reaction was to feign innocence blended with curiosity as to what may have just occurred.  Of course, it didn’t work.  She read me better than the Kindle notebook on the tray in front of her.  I quickly apologized and wished I could disappear.  As she began to get her bearings, though, she started to laugh.  Thankfully, she could see the regret and humor from both sides of the story.  It turns out that the experience was a sign of things to come. 

Images of mud wagons, stage wagons, and Concord Coaches are still highly popular symbols of the American West.

Full of twists, turns, questions, and many more surprises, the trip proved to be one of our most productive early vehicle pursuits to date. From stage wagons and concord coaches to western freighters, giant logging wagons, and California Rack Beds, the expedition was packed with new discoveries.  It’s a busy summer here but stay tuned!  I’ll be sharing more highlights in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Different Studebaker

One of the most-often mentioned horse-drawn vehicle brands is Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing of South Bend, Indiana.  Of course, this is the same company that eventually transitioned into building automobiles.  Their involvement in the transportation industry lasted well over a century.  From the first wagon to the last car, it’s a legacy permanently woven into the very growth and development of America.   A prolific manufacturer and marketer, many original promotional materials from Studebaker’s horse-drawn days are still relatively easy to find.  For collectors of these wooden vehicles, though, it’s not quite the same story.  In spite of the fact that the company is believed to have built millions of wagons and carriages, these wooden sets of wheels have become increasingly harder to come by.  (One million Studebaker vehicles are purported to have been manufactured between 1897 and 1907†).

Just over a decade ago, I wrote an article for Farm Collector magazine about a special type of Studebaker that is equally difficult to find.  It’s called a Studebaker Model and, while it was built to the Studebaker specs, it wasn’t made in South Bend.  Okay.  That’s my teaser.  Below is the article.  It’s a bit longer than most of my blogs but I thought you might like to have it in its entirety.  So, find a comfortable spot, grab a cup of coffee, and immerse yourself in another chapter on the legendary Studebaker brand… 

An early Studebaker Wagons sign

I enjoy researching old farm and freight wagon companies.  So much so, that no matter where I travel, I usually find myself scanning the roadside farms, homes, and businesses looking for telltale signs of vintage wheels.  Maybe the passion comes from the thrill of chasing a good mystery or perhaps it’s simply a kinship toward an all-but-forgotten way of life.  Whatever the reason, the search keeps me young and, like any near forgotten art, there’s always something new to experience and learn. 

Knowing my fetish for old wagons, an Amish friend had been telling me about a Studebaker he felt I needed to see in Kentucky.  With my day job keeping me tied down, it seemed that I just never had the few days it would take to explore the eastern part of that state.  When I finally did take some time off, I was surprised at what I found.  Sitting inside a barn, covered by a thin gray tarp, was a piece of yesterday… a workhorse on wheels that had long since been retired.  Lifting off the canvas, the early morning sun lit up the faded and well-worn green paint of what had once been an American farmer’s pride and joy.  Yellow pinstripes ran the length of the box and showed significant weathering from age and use.  But, it was the unmistakable flowing curves of the Studebaker emblems that really got my attention.  Resting on an original Studebaker gear, the wagon still boasted bright logos on both sides of the box as well as the folding end gate.  Conspicuously positioned below each logo, though, was the word ‘Model’.  It was painted in the same yellow and black tones as the Studebaker name, but used a smaller block style of lettering.  Hmmm.  I’d never seen a farm wagon or even a vintage advertisement carrying the label of “Studebaker Model”.  Other than the painted stenciling identifying the selling dealer, I could find no other markings that might help shed some light on the puzzle.  The extension to the Studebaker name was a difference that nagged at me.  The owner couldn’t explain it.  Why was it there?  Was it a variation of a Studebaker design?  Was it an original piece?  Where did it come from?  Dozens of questions begged to be answered and so began my research into another chapter of the, mostly uncharted, history of America’s wagon makers. 

'Studebaker Model' wagons are rarely seen today.

Back home and in my own element, I was confident I could find some answers.  I dug through a number of Studebaker catalogs, flyers, trade cards, print ads, and associated correspondence.  I talked to wagon collectors and traders and even re-read some early Studebaker articles and book chapters.  No luck.  A month passed and, as fortune would have it, I happened across an old dealer price list from the Kentucky Wagon Company of Louisville, Kentucky.  The flyer included prices and specifications on several brands of wagons and gears that Kentucky made.  One of the brands featured was… you guessed it - the “Studebaker Model”.  I had found my first piece of the puzzle.  As it turns out, it was a very big piece. 

I knew that Kentucky had purchased construction patterns and some parts from Studebaker after they officially closed the wagon business in 1920.  But, that’s about all I had ever seen written about that relationship.  Did Kentucky have an agreement allowing them to use the Studebaker name?  To find out, I wrote the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend and asked for any help they could provide.  According to their archivist, this facet of Studebaker’s history had never been explored in detail.  However, with a little searching, they uncovered exactly what I was looking for… evidence of an old contract between the Studebaker Corporation and Kentucky Wagon Company.  In the minutes of a near-century-old set of executive meeting notes, Studebaker not only resolved to sell the remaining wagons, wagon parts, patterns, blueprints, business records, and advertising materials, but also licensed Kentucky to use the Studebaker name on wagons built from the authentic Studebaker patterns.  The resolution was dated January 5, 1921 and it authorized Kentucky to use the Studebaker name until June 30, 1923.  Even though the Studebaker Company had ended their production of wagons, it seems there was still a great deal of life -and profit- in the Studebaker name.   

The Kentucky Wagon Company made a variety of 

farm, freight, log, and military wagons.

The agreement with Studebaker came none too soon.  By the end of the twentieth century’s second decade, the auto industry had staked its claim on the future and was running with a strong head of competitive steam.  For wagon and carriage makers, it was a business environment that required a serious look at current strategies and goals.  The purchase of Studebaker’s blueprints and patterns allowed Kentucky to ease some of the pressure by reinforcing their image as a trustworthy brand with strong name recognition and the highest quality construction.  The arrangement opened them up to an even broader customer base and, by aligning themselves with the sterling reputation and design features of Studebaker, it’s a safe bet they added some of the country’s best wagon dealers to their distribution system.  Beyond the profits from the sale of the wagon division, the transition also benefited Studebaker by providing a quality outlet where existing Studebaker wagon owners could obtain original replacement parts and maintenance support… thereby continuing Studebaker’s good will with its family of wagon owners.

While Kentucky continued to build wagons under the well-known names of Old Hickory, Kentucky, and Tennessee, this new acquisition allowed them to add another powerful brand to their lineup.  Labeled as “The Studebaker Model,” these wagons sported the same logo and proven design that the original wagons from South Bend had carried for almost three quarters of a century.  According to early sales literature, the Studebaker Model was sold as both a one and two-horse wagon.  Light, medium, and heavy grades were offered.  Wheel sizes varied, with the one horse wagon featuring 40” front and 44” rear wheels.  Two-horse versions were available in a broader range of 36/40”, 40/44”, or 44/48” wheel heights.  Additionally, tire sizes varied from 1 3/8” to 4” widths for two-horse wagons while the one-horse models were offered in 1 1/8” to 3” sizes. 

The addition of the word 'Model' makes this an unmistakable 

product of the Kentucky Wagon Co.

How many of these surrogate Studebakers have survived?  It’s difficult to say.  With so few original business records remaining, it’s even harder to know how many were actually built.  However, the old Studebaker Model price list I had run across included a print date of July 15, 1928.  From that single sales flyer, it appears that Kentucky was able to secure a significant extension to the original agreement limiting their use of the Studebaker name.  In fact, according to other documents I’ve been able to locate, Studebaker was still referring customer inquiries to the Kentucky Wagon Company as late as June of 1929. 

When it comes to collecting these old vehicles, the Studebaker name naturally attracts a lot of attention.  As with any major brand, Studebaker will likely always have a solid core of fans.  So, how does the Kentucky Studebaker fit into the list of vehicles sought by collectors, historians, and others?  Time will tell.  But with only a decade or so of production, it’s clear that these are not only the last of the Studebaker wagons, but they’re also among the rarest.  

† According to original Studebaker literature in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Real Horsepower Of A Brand

We’ve likely all been at an auction where a particular item generates a frenzy of escalating bids and surprising prices.  Sometimes the draw is the rarity of the piece.  Sometimes the increased interest is due to the type of item.  At other times though the brand, itself, can be the primary attraction.  For many horse-drawn vehicle collectors, certain maker names are often able to generate more excitement than others.  Why is that? 

In the world of wagons and western vehicles, there are at least four influential elements that can drive desirability of a particular label.  Those areas involve the history of the brand, modern representations of that name, vehicle condition, and personal preferences.  With that as a backdrop, let’s take a brief look at the first point; how the history of the brand can impact modern day perceptions of these wheels. 

This Wheels That Won The West® archive photo is part of our extensive collection of early wagon maker reference materials.

Brand heritage can be elevated if the builder has a legacy attached to early development of the western frontier.  Connections involving the military, politics, or some other noteworthy segment of America’s past can also play an intriguing role.  Overall, that background of enriched history has the power to help shape the face of and fascination with early trademark names.  In fact, the legacy and lore attached to those days can often be transferred to a surviving vehicle even if it wasn’t produced during those times.  Peter Schuttler, for example, is known to have continually leveraged its presence and connection with the Old West well into the 20th century.  It’s not the only consideration, but is likely part of the reason for the popularity of that brand with collectors today.  Company size is also a significant historical point since those with larger production capacities were often the more esteemed builders.  As with the Schuttler note above, it’s possible for that popularity to remain consistent generation after generation.  Other brands like Bain, Mitchell, Murphy, Moline, Espenschied, Schuttler, Studebaker, Weber, and Jackson share similar ties to freighting, ranching, mining, and emigrant travel in the early West.  Remarkably, each of these also have strong followings today. 

A second stimulus to the admiration of individual vehicle brands is connected to how those labels are represented today.  For instance, the history of Wells Fargo is powerfully woven into the legacy of one horse-drawn vehicle maker in particular.  Abbot-Downing of Concord, New Hampshire built a number of legendary Concord Coaches for the firm and, over time, the use of these elite stages became almost synonymous with Wells Fargo’s dependability, security, and presence in the West.  It’s so much a part of the company’s personality that the organization has long used the Concord Coach as a symbol of the firm.  Just as interesting is the point that, for decades, the banking legend has owned the rights to the Abbot-Downing name and actively uses it today within its financial service offerings.  Furthermore, the firm’s commitment to this history has resulted in numerous original stagecoaches being displayed in Wells Fargo facilities throughout the U.S.  Many parades and prestigious events are also attended by the company’s horse drawn stages.  Over and over, these regular and prominent reminders of a specific brand can easily impact modern day perceptions. 

An original condition Concord Coach in the Otero Museum in La Junta, Colorado

Thirdly, the condition of a particularly branded set of wheels can also sway interest – even if the vehicle was built by a small maker.  Surviving pieces with minimal wear and tear and a fair amount of original paint are increasingly hard to locate and in ever-increasing demand.  Solid construction and quality paint combined with a visible and identifiable logo can make almost any wagon or western vehicle hard to pass up.

Finally, personal preference can work as a type of ‘wild card,’ carrying the potential to vastly sway an individual’s fascination with a set of wheels.  As such, it’s not unusual for an original vehicle built in a particular locale to be even more attractive to persons from the same region. 

There are many other influences to vehicle popularity so this list should not be construed as a one-size-fits-all set of guidelines.  As with any other collectible, it’s important to know as much as possible about a piece before investing.  Do your homework, get to know the power of a brand and understand what’s most desirable to you and others.  It’s time well spent toward the quality of your collection, not to mention your own satisfaction.  

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wagons at the Centennial Exposition

By all accounts, the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was an ambitious and momentous event.  Lasting six months, from May 10th to November 10th, this first World’s Fair was ostentatious with extraordinary architecture showcasing countless treasures and innovations of the known world.  The Exposition included over 200 buildings and 30,000 exhibits spread over 450 acres.  Among the vast technology displayed was Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and a Remington typewriter as well as a mechanical calculating machine (a precursor to today’s computers).  This half-year celebration in honor of the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence was heavily photographed and hosted almost 10 million visitors with countless promotional souvenirs handed out. 

Rare photos taken during the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

While original tickets and other mementos can be found today, there are less than a handful of the magnificent buildings that still exist.  In like fashion, and in spite of the world-wide attention and extensive photography at the event, very few records remain of the horse-drawn vehicles shown during this renowned pageant.  Several years ago, I wrote an article called “A Ticket to Tomorrow” for our website and added even more details in our “Borrowed Time” book regarding one of the innovative wagons that was displayed at the Exposition.  The wagon was built by Jacob Becker, Jr. of Seymour, Indiana and was equipped with patented braking and steering designs.  It took two full years to conclusively identify the wagon in the photo as the one owned and shown by Becker.  For an even longer period, that photograph and the actual Studebaker Centennial wagon (currently on display at the Studebaker National Museum) have been the only known surviving visuals of wagons shown during this larger-than-life experience.  

A one-of-a-kind image showing Jacob Becker, Jr.’s “Champion Wagon of the West” shown at the first World’s Fair.

Since the identification of the Becker wagon (shown above), we've spent years looking for more records of wagons presented at this first World’s Fair.  The persistence has paid off and, today, we’re celebrating the discovery of yet another photo of a vehicle demonstrated at this event.  Ironically, this wagon appears to have been located very close to Jacob Becker’s wagon display.  This latest original photo shows a patented crane-neck dray in full ceremonial style; ornate striping, exquisite woodwork, and an exclusive design.  It was built by John Beggs & Sons of Philadelphia.  The firm was known for quality fabrication of numerous wagons and city vehicles.  The photo immediately below is excerpted from the image which shows the entire wagon.  It was taken on the grounds of the Exposition in 1876.  As a point of reference, the photo was likely taken just weeks before General Custer met his demise at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. 

John Beggs & Sons displayed an exclusive dray design at the Philadelphia Exposition.

We have another century-plus-old book in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives that gives us even more detail on the color, features, and striping of the vehicle.  In fact, it is possible that enough details are now available that a replica could be built in honor of America’s 250th Anniversary in 2026, less than a dozen years from today.  Below is part of the 1867 patent for the vehicle.  Collectively, these ultra-rare resources are helping us put the pieces back together for what effectively introduced America as a new industrial world power.    

With fewer than 3 dozen wagon builders competing for attention and awards at the Centennial Exposition – including legendary makes such as Milburn, Moline, Kansas, Jackson, Schuttler, Cortland, Studebaker, Fish Bros., and Wilson, Childs & Co. – it might seem that there would be more details available.  Regrettably, that is far from the case as each one of the discoveries mentioned have required substantial effort to locate and recognize their significance.

John Beggs & Sons was granted a patent on their dray in 1867.

With each find, though, there is hope - hope for future discoveries and hope for greater recognition of these pieces.  Ironically, it’s that same hope for tomorrow that every exhibitor held at that first World’s Fair.  Today, it still drives us to look forward in anticipation and expectation; a great blessing of our democracy and the very foundations of American independence.