Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Buck Taylor & The American West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well said, Buck.  Well said. 

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

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Legacy of the West

Where does time go?  It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was stretched out on the floor in front of my grandparent’s television on a Saturday evening.  I would have been around 8 or 9 years old, intensely focused on one of my all-time favorite serial westerns, Gunsmoke.  Then and now, the theme music was highly identifiable.  Whether you’re a fan of the earlier episodes or all of them, it’s easy to appreciate the lineup of characters.  Who didn’t find themselves reading the opening credits and perhaps even imitating an announcer heralding the cast…  Milburn Stone as Doc.  Amanda Blake as Kitty.  Ken Curtis as Festus.  Buck Taylor as Newly.  And James Arness as Matt Dillon.  There was no mistaking that these characters were good folks with amazing friendships.  It was a combination that made all the difference in the trying times of the Old West. 

Today, the show still holds great memories.  Anyone growing up as a fan of the program doesn’t need a time machine to be transported back.  Like an old friend, the music and episodes have a way of drawing us back to spend more time together.  And why not?  The show was masterfully written with extremely well-developed personalities.  So significant is the program that it still stands as television’s longest-running prime time drama with the most episodes - 635.  It originally ran on radio and then captured the imagination of television audiences for another 20 years (1955-1975).  Re-runs continue to be aired today, over 60 years since the show’s promotional introduction by none other than John Wayne.   

For over 60 years, the cast of Gunsmoke have endeared themselves to fans of all ages.

For many, the program and its characters are much more than fictional representations of moments on the frontier.  The series is a connection to a way of life; a time when doing the right thing wasn’t just a convenient slogan.  It was the fabric that held family, friends, communities, and an entire nation together. 

So, when I got the opportunity to spend a few hours with one of the cast regulars, I wasn’t about to pass up the chance for an interview.  From acting to painting and a seemingly endless trail of appearances, Buck Taylor has been focused on the West for virtually his entire life.  The results of those creative efforts have produced countless true-to-life exploits from the western frontier. 

While this (and next) week’s blog may seem like a slight departure from my regular focus on western vehicles, the overall message is still on target.  How?  Well, for years I’ve shared concerns about how period information, artifacts, and even the original vehicles have been overlooked and are rapidly disappearing.  Truth is, the more I’ve studied this subject, the more convinced I’ve become that we only know a fraction of what there is to learn.  For instance, there were thousands of patents on early wagons and western vehicle designs.  Most go completely unnoticed today.  Why are they important?  Because each one has the potential to help authenticate, identify, date, and define the true value of a particular set of wheels – not to mention that many of these innovations were heavily contested in legal wranglings as wild as anything in the West!  Just as valuable are a host of all-but-forgotten details related to paint, wheels, timber, construction features, and even correct terminology for a particular piece.  In fact, one of the most exciting aspects in studying America's first transportation industry is that the subject is so deep, there’s always something new to learn.  It happens to me almost daily.     

Reinforcing that point, every day we have a choice to help save or lose valuable links to our past.  The first step in preserving that history takes place when we help others grow closer to the rich heritage and exciting stories accompanying this part of yesterday.  After all, it’s only through active sharing that any of us can experience the full depth, spirit, and life lessons found throughout the stories of the frontier.  So, while painting and acting make up Buck Taylor’s livelihood, he’s also a promotional ambassador for the American West – just like many of you reading this now.  The upshot to it all is that the more the subject is effectively promoted, the more likely it is that valuable parts of history are recognized and saved. 

My goal in next week’s blog is to share a few things about Buck Taylor that many have never read or known.  Hopefully, it helps add even more depth and appreciation for all who devote so much time to perpetuating our western legacy.  From chuck wagon competitors and historical organizations to collectors, writers, publishers, and enthusiasts in general, everyone plays a vital role.   

Similarly, we’ve been privileged to talk to a lot of good folks over the years.  We even have one reader who complimented us by saying that our blog is the first thing she reads before her feet hit the floor on Wednesdays.  Well, all I can say to that is you may want to move your coffee maker closer to the bed for next week’s blog because it will likely be a fair amount longer.  Even so… maybe, just maybe, it helps reconnect us all a little closer to the incredible spirit and allure of the Old West.  Maybe it even rekindles a special memory you haven’t thought of in quite a while.  If that spark can make you smile, slow you down, and draw you nearer to the most important parts of your life – well, maybe we’re all gaining some ground.  

See ya next 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, October 12, 2016

Exposition Wagons

Long before auto makers were showcasing their hottest concepts at car shows, the carriage and wagon industry was laying the foundation for these head-turning events.  In fact, even in the wildest days of the Old West, horse-drawn vehicle builders were displaying their most innovation and attractive creations.  Many of these venues took place at highly publicized gatherings such as local and state fairs as well as national and international expositions.  The atmosphere of these special events created tremendous opportunities for wagon and carriage makers to promote their wares to large crowds with a heightened sense of excitement.

As the auto industry still does today, horse-drawn vehicle makers had several ways to set their products apart at these shows.  They jockeyed for prominent locations, created impressive displays and signage, printed distinctive and colorful support materials, worked to secure articles and editorial magazine features, and showcased unique vehicles that captured the intrigue and imagination of all who strolled by. 

Among the more recognized show pieces that collectors and enthusiasts may think of today is the giant farm wagon built by the Moline Wagon Company for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (Louisiana Purchase Exposition).  During the same event, the legendary Luedinghaus-Espenschied Wagon Company took the time to stack a number of their wagons.  So effective was this massive pyramid that the image, itself, was trademarked by the firm.  The accompanying tagline touted the reputation and quality of the brand by stating, “We Tower Above All.”

This 1904 photo shows the ‘tower’ of vehicles displayed by the Luedinghaus-Espenschied Wagon Company.

At the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Studebaker pulled out all the stops with a set of wheels often referred to as the ‘aluminum’ wagon.  It was (and still is) an extraordinary piece to see.  In fact, the showpiece cost them over $2,000 to build – easily ten times the then-retail price of many farm wagons.  At the time, aluminum was expensive and difficult to work.  Even so, in an effort to reflect their serious commitment to craftsmanship and innovation, Studebaker used the element to remove roughly two-thirds of the heaviest hardware and weight from a standard-sized farm wagon.  Those efforts to lighten the design while keeping it strong meant that the vehicle could be moved with less effort while hauling more cargo.  If all of this sounds familiar, it should.  Nearly one hundred twenty-five years after Studebaker was the first to use aluminum in a vehicle, auto makers around the world continue to work with this metal.  Driving home that point, almost a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog on the continued use of aluminum in some vehicles today.

This original Studebaker ‘Aluminum’ wagon is on display at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana.

Other well-known wagon companies with displays at the Columbian Exhibition included Kentucky, Mitchell, Jackson, Burg, Champion, Fish Bros., Milburn, Mitchell, Moline, Peter Schuttler, Stoughton, Weber, Keystone, Knickerbocker, Bettendorf, Armleder, Abresch, and many more.

Another rare exposition wagon that can still be seen today is the Studebaker ‘Centennial’ wagon which was unveiled at the first World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876.  Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence, this massive event is known as the Centennial Exposition.  The site, itself, is said to have included more than 200 buildings spread out over several hundred acres.  Lasting for six months, the event hosted more than ten million visitors, including dignitaries from all over the world. 

Among those with vehicles on display in the Centennial's transportation section was a relatively small maker with big dreams.  Hailing from Seymour, Indiana, Jacob Becker, Jr. unveiled an ornately crafted wagon with multiple patents protecting its innovative features.  You can read more about this custom creation by checking out the exclusive story on our website.

Like the use of aluminum, the concepts of twin axle steering and front wheel brakes seen here have also been incorporated into automobiles.


There are a few other wagons I’ve come across in my research that may well have been used as a promotional vehicle.  That said, I’ve been unable to confirm some of those suspicions with primary source documentation – at least yet.  As difficult as all of this research is to complete, I’ve been a little more successful locating period photos of other pieces also shown at the Centennial event.  One example is an original cabinet card we found years ago.  It features a patented crane neck dray built by John Beggs & Sons of Philadelphia.  The photo below shows a portion of that image.  Engineered to replace the more common two-wheeled drays of that time, the wagon is equipped with the relatively new-to-the-market Archibald wheel hubs.  Established in 1839, the Beggs firm is said to have been a significant producer of wagons for the Union Army during the Civil War.

Our efforts to learn more about this custom dray built by John Beggs & Sons also resulted in the discovery of extensive original color descriptions for the vehicle. 

With custom design elements and patriotic-themed crests, this nineteenth-century wagon was likely built for a special event or promotional show.  Even so, we've yet to conclusively identify this builder.

Most folks never give a thought as to how complex America’s horse-drawn vehicle industry really was.  In fact, I’ve had more than one strange look from individuals when I’ve made comments regarding the industry's sophistication and commitment to innovation. The truth is, we know so little about this part of our past.  Yet, it is the very industry that propelled our nation forward in times of peace… and war.  From show-stopping promotional displays to advanced concept vehicles, the most successful manufacturers left no stone unturned in the areas of advertising, marketing, sales, and product innovation.  It’s a legacy of exceptional attention to detail that paved the road for countless ideas that are still used today.   

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

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Studebaker Wagons & Information Sources

As most of our regular readers know, when it comes to the wheels that built the American West, we share a tremendous amount of history inside each of our weekly blogs.  Even so, there’s a lot more information located in our maker archives and ongoing research files.  As I’ve mentioned before, the depth of this subject is so vast that it’s hard to find a single early source outlining what happened with who, when, how, where and why.  So… what early assets do we rely on? 

First and foremost, we look to as many primary sources as possible.  Original promotional literature, photos, business correspondence, government records, period articles and books, unaltered vehicles and parts, old directories, and even obituaries can provide valuable insights into America’s first transportation industry.  First hand experiences are also importance resources.  To this day, I regret not talking more about this topic with my grandparents and great grandmother while I had the chance. 

While this advertisement dates to the mid-1860’s, an earlier 1859 promotion published by Mr. Kern offers “substantial” wagons for emigrants and miners moving west.

My great-grandmother was born in 1884, less than eight years after the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  Growing up near Indian Territory in western Arkansas, she lived more than 100 years, witnessing massive product innovations and equally significant lifestyle changes.  She was 11 years old in the spring of 1895; the same timeframe that saw the passing of a number of legendary wagon makers such as Jacob Kern of St. Louis and O.R. Johnson, the then-owner of Fish Bros. Wagon Company in Racine, Wisconsin.  That same spring, one of the originators of the legendary Studebaker Wagon Company also passed away.  Understandably, news of Henry Studebaker’s death was covered by many news outlets.  Immediately below is one of the accounts as it was published in the April 1895 issue of the trade magazine known as The Hub

“Henry Studebaker, one of the founders of the great Studebaker wagon establishment at South Bend, Ind., died March 2d, aged sixty-eight years. 

Mr. Studebaker was born at East Berlin, in Adams County, Pa., October 5, 1826.  He was the sixth of a family of thirteen children born to John and Rebecca Studebaker.  The family emigrated to Ashland County, O., when Henry was nine years of age.  Serious reverses had overtaken them in their old home, and they made the trip from Pennsylvania to Ohio across the Alleghenies, with all their earthly belongings in an old fashioned “schooner” wagon, built by the father, who was by trade a blacksmith and wagon maker.  Henry was apprenticed to a country blacksmith, working at the forge in summer, and going to district school in the winter.  Later he returned to the family home and completed his trade with his father and brothers, Clem and J.M., at the old shop near Ashland.

In 1847 Henry had accumulated enough to buy a horse, and with a few extra dollars in his pocket he started out to seek his fortune in the West.  He went to Goshen, Elkhart County, Ind., and there engaged to work at blacksmithing.  He sold his horse, intending to have no temptation to yield to homesickness and go back to Ashland.  But at the close of several months’ service, without other pay than his board, all the compensation which his employer was able to give him was an old silver watch.  Discouraged with this experience, he turned his face homeward, and walked the entire distance from Goshen to Ashland, O.

In 1850 Clem Studebaker went to South Bend, and the next year Henry and the rest of the family followed.  This trip the family accomplished in two wagons, mainly constructed by Henry himself for this especial purpose.  In February, 1852, Henry and Clem Studebaker, with a joint capital of $68, opened a blacksmith shop for horseshoeing and wagon making in South Bend.  There, under the firm name of H. & C. Studebaker, was instituted to the business to-day known to the world as that of the Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Company.

In 1858, the business had become prosperous for the time, and as hard work at the forge had told on his health and strength, he sold out his interest to his brother, J.M, purchased land and turned his attention to farming, making the same success at that calling as in manufacturing, and left behind him a handsome rural estate.”

In between horseshoeing and general blacksmithing work, Henry and Clement managed to build two wagons during their first year – a far cry from the 100,000 annual production mark the firm would eventually achieve.  Their first significant financial shot-in-the-arm came as a result of instabilities in Utah during 1857.  During those events, Army orders for wagons provided important cash flow for the duo.  Even so, as a pacifist in the Dunkard faith, Henry is said to have had difficulty accepting the company’s role in war conflicts.  He eventually left the business, selling his share to another brother, John Mohler (J.M.), in 1858 for $3,000.  More government contracts came during the Civil War and production rates gradually climbed to 8 completed wagons per week.1  The Studebakers weren’t slowing down and, by the late 1860’s, the brand was going head-to-head on the frontier with well-established western freighting brands like Espenschied and Joseph Murphy.2  By the end of the 1870’s, the company was producing around 20,000 horse-drawn vehicles annually. Through each of these and subsequent eras, the wagon designs and paint configurations continually changed as part of the company’s commitment to brand excellence.   

Henry Studebaker was the oldest of the five Studebaker brothers. 

From the first wagon built in 1818 by the brothers’ father, John Studebaker, to the last Studebaker wagon built in 1920, the family name became synonymous with exceptional quality, innovation, and leadership.  Today, collectors clamor over just about any original vehicle truly authenticated as a Studebaker.  It’s a badge of honor and a continual reminder of what brand-building success looks like.  After all, it’s been at least 50 years since Studebaker built automobiles and almost a full century since they constructed the last horse-drawn wagon in South Bend.  Even so, the name remains extremely popular among collectors and, for those willing to dig a little deeper, primary source documents can add even more appreciation to a world of antique wooden wheels.

1 According to “Land Owner” periodical records within the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

2 D.P. Rolfe – Early wagon freighter, Wheels That Won The West® Archives

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, September 21, 2016

More on the Giant Moline Wagon

It’s been over two and a half years since I’ve reported any new findings on the huge, double-sized wagon unveiled by the Moline Wagon Company in 1904.  As many know, the head-turning piece was designed as an unforgettable display for the St. Louis World’s Fair that year.  Back in 2013 and 14, it was encouraging to discover more previously unknown details about this huge promotional piece.  Those particulars can be seen in two different blog posts from January 2014 and February 2014.  For decades, collectors and history seekers have scoured the country in search of this famous set of wheels.  I’ve certainly spent my share of time looking for clues as to where this iconic piece of transportation and agricultural history ended up.  The trek has taken up countless hours of research and plenty of conversation.  Still, it’s managed to hang onto a certain amount of intrigue while remaining an elusive beast of burden.

This 1906 photo from the Lincoln, Nebraska Fair is one of only two surviving images known to have captured the giant Moline wagon at that event.

Again and again, folks familiar with the story of this giant ask the same question… “What happened to it?”  From our own research and archives, I’ve repeatedly been fortunate to find significant and largely unknown information.  One of the more interesting revelations has been that the wagon was used within multi-state promotional tours by the Moline company and its dealers years after the first showings at the World’s Fair.  Still, the trail has been cold for some time.  The last glimpse we were able to get of the wagon was at a fair in Nebraska during 1906.  Since then, nothing.  No trade reports.  No newspaper clippings.  No photos.  No other details have come to light.  It’s as if the wagon just disappeared.  But, as I mentioned in my February 12, 2014 blog, details on mysteries like this can sometimes come right out of the blue. 

That’s just what happened last week when I was canvassing an April 1909 issue of “The Hub.”  Positioned just below a short story about the Abbot-Downing Company falling into receivership was an equally brief write-up sharing the whereabouts of the colossal Moline wagon.  Finally, after more than 100 years in hiding, the secret of what happened to this magnificent piece of history was being revealed!

As the story points out, five years after first being shown at the St. Louis World’s Fair, the wagon was being given a permanent home.  The article reiterated that the show-stopping attraction had been publicized extensively in state and national fairs during the previous years.  As of the 1909 writing, though, the big wagon was in the process of being placed on top of four, concrete pillars at the east end of Moline Wagon Company’s lumber yard.  The pillars were nine feet in height, meaning that the entire structure with the wagon would stand at least twenty-five feet tall!  It was intended to be the final tribute to the legendary set of wheels (and brand), standing where it would be a continuous topic of conversation to all passers-by. 

The enormous concrete platform was a fitting display, visibly reinforcing the power, reputation, and legacy of the historic brand.  Nonetheless, after reading this report, it’s not hard to imagine what ultimately happened to the huge wagon.  After a few years atop the concrete pedestal, the effects of a continual barrage of sun, snow, ice, and raw elements would have surely taken their toll; leaving the wooden titan in a deteriorated condition.  Also, knowing that just a year later, John Deere would buy the firm and two years after that change the name from Moline to John Deere; it’s easy to understand that the hulking wagon would have ultimately been dismantled and disposed of.  It had served a strong purpose for many years but, as the Moline brand disappeared from daily life so was the fate of the equally colossal wagon.  Both appear to have vanished at the same time and, even with their once prominent fame, are merely a pale curiosity today.  

This graphic from an 1870 company letter is easily among the oldest survivors from the legendary Moline Wagon Company.  It’s just one of numerous rare artifacts housed in the Wheels That Won The West®Archives.

It would be interesting to know if any photos may yet be found of the old promotional icon mounted on its concrete-column throne.  Even if none were taken or have survived, I can now finally put this legend to rest.  No longer do I expect to come across an actual piece of this three-dimensional superstar.  Like so many other notable wheels pointing to another time, this five-ton monster was likely allowed to wither into oblivion. 

Used throughout the West as farm, freight, military, emigrant, and chuck wagons, Moline was among the most competitive and revered brands inside America’s first transportation industry.  By the time John Deere purchased the firm, Moline was building 30,000 wagons per year.  It’s a rate that translated into 600 completed wagons per week (10 per hour – 100 per day).  Even with so many produced, original Moline wagons with respectable amounts of factory paint are still among the rarer finds today.

On another note, it’s been a while since I included a sign-up reminder but if you'd like to have these weekly writings sent to you - saving the time it takes to look it up on our website - 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 confirmation 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 be among the first to receive these weekly insights into America's first transportation industry.  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, LLC 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tom Watt Tour

While my introduction to horse-drawn vehicles can be traced to a runaway experience in my early teens, my dad and grandad grew up using wagons and horse-drawn equipment – on a daily basis.  Sometimes I have to remind myself that, even though America enjoys a host of modern conveniences today, it wasn’t that long ago that motorized wheels were an unaffordable luxury. 

Like a lot of folks across the globe, my grandad’s wagon-related stories were highlighted by runaways and wrecks.  Of course, my dad would want me to add that grandpa often fueled the problem by purchasing green (unbroken) mules to work the fields and wagons.  For obvious reasons, they were cheaper.  Dad laments that just about the time they would get a single mule or team working well, grandpa would sell them.  No doubt, for a good profit.  During the process of breaking them, though, there were times when explosive excitement and quick action ruled the day! 

After hearing the old stories and having my own ‘incident’ behind the traces, it took a while for me to come back to wooden wheels.  Still yet, I couldn’t shake the history of these pieces and in the mid-1990’s, I began a more serious focus on researching and collecting unique vehicles.  Since the internet was relatively unknown at that time, it wasn’t always easy to find details on antique horse drawn vehicles.  My earliest ‘guide’ was a used book store in Springfield, Missouri.   Visiting it a half dozen times a year, I was blessed to some across a number of important primers.  “Conestoga Wagon 1750-1850” and “The Prairie Traveler” were among the pieces found there and they continue to be valuable assets in our Wheels That Won The West® library. 

As the years progressed, I became acquainted with more folks of a similar bent.  Turns out, my intrigue with discovering and preserving this segment of American history is not so unusual.  Over and over, I’ve met collectors and enthusiasts from all walks of life and all parts of the U.S. as well as several foreign countries.

Positioned at the entrance to Tom Watt’s collection, this Newton brand chuck wagon is fully equipped and set up as an authentic display.

A number of years ago, I was introduced to Tom Watt.  Tom is a long, tall Arizona Coloradan – meaning he spends about equal time between properties in each state.  Not only is he one of the friendliest fellas I’ve run across but he’s also an astute businessman and early vehicle collector.  The pieces he’s helped preserve include several dozen historic wagons, carriages, and stages.  In fact, one of the small thorough-brace vehicles he owns is purported to have carried President Theodore Roosevelt during the 1904 World’s Fair at St. Louis.

Years ago, I wrote a brief history for Tom outlining the background of another equally rare, hand built vehicle he has on display – a Rhoads brand wagon from Anderson, Indiana.  Some of that particular brand’s heritage can be found in our “Borrowed Time” book which also covered other hard-to-find details from national wagon brands like Birdsell, John Deere, Peter Schuttler, Weber, Newton, Studebaker, and more.

Not long ago, Tom hosted a large group from the Larkspur and Cherry Creek Valley Historical Societies.  Walking them through his collection is akin to stepping back in time to a day when horseflesh ruled the road and the big ‘three’ in transportation was more like the big 50 or 100.  All total, there were tens of thousands of horse drawn vehicle makers in the U.S.  While most were small makers, a number of them became strong regional, national, and even international forces.  Tom’s compilation includes an impressive lineup of notable brands and wide variety of vehicle types including those built as a farm wagon, chuck wagon, sheep wagon, hearse, sleigh, mail wagon, buckboard, buggy, carriage, mountain stage, mud wagon, Concord coach, stock rack, and military ambulance.  Seldom do we have a chance to see so many different vehicles in one setting. 

Business wagons, such as this one promoting early Watkins products, were once a common sight as peddlers hawked their wares to rural sections of the U.S.

Making the most of every opportunity to pass on knowledge, appreciation, and insights from America’s first transportation industry is just one of the unspoken duties many collectors gladly embrace.  After 50 years of collecting, Tom Watt and his wife, Betty, have put together some of the country’s most impressive vehicle survivors and, in the process, have preserved a tremendous amount of history.  From rare brands to unique designs, we are all the richer for it.

Beginning in the late 1890’s, light wagons such as this one carried the mail via Rural Free Delivery (RFD) to farm families living distances from town.

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, September 7, 2016

Lost Abbot Downing Stagecoach?

There’s something about a mystery that’s spellbinding.  Questions, uncertainties, and lost national treasures have a way of nagging their way into the forefront of our minds.  Tracking down details of the unknown can be equally addictive and, for those following the trails of our past, there are plenty of discoveries still waiting to be uncovered.  Each comes with its own set of challenges while focused curiosity and sheer determination often deliver amazing results. 

Again and again, researching yesterday’s transportation has a way of bridging the past, helping us actually connect with and ‘hear’ what an old set of wheels has to say.  Reinforcing that point, some time back, I purchased several 19th century issues of “The Carriage Monthly.”  This early trade publication was a prominent voice inside America’s first transportation industry.  As such, the magazines are a treasure trove of insights and information.  Thumbing through the pages, I made note of pertinent articles; anything from patents and construction techniques to factory transitions, industry successes, and timber shortages.  Then, alongside a story dating to 1899, I noticed a poorly reproduced photo of an early Concord Coach.  The vehicle was said to be sitting in a rundown shed in Kentucky and the image looked similar to Abbot Downing’s western-style stagecoach.  Equipped with lights (small windows near the passenger doors), leather boots, a thorough-brace suspension, and baggage rack irons, the historic look of the piece is pure Americana.  Even so, at first glance, the stage didn’t seem overly distinct from other Concords.  As with any vehicle evaluation, though, it’s the details that make the difference. 

According to well-known Concord coach historian, Ken Wheeling, this old Abbot Downing stagecoach may date to as early as the 1840’s.

Looking closer, the body style lines of the old coach didn’t exactly match the contours of virtually all Concords that I’ve seen.  For instance, the twin body rails extending forward of the doors do not come together in a pointed fashion as is often the case with Abbot Downing designs.  It’s an interesting observation.  After all, even small details can share insights into a vehicle’s provenance, originality, timeframe of manufacture, and so forth.  In this case, the construction variances could be a reflection of several possibilities such as a particular buyer requirement, a repair to a damaged coach, or they could simply be indicators of an older Abbot Downing work.  Based on the 1899 article that I’ve transcribed below, the historic coach does seem to be among the earlier pieces built by Lewis Downing and J. Stephens Abbot in Concord, NH.  Those considerations may be sufficient to explain the differences between this particular piece and most of today’s surviving western Concords.  Yet, there is a lingering question… “Where is this coach today?”

With a little more research, I discovered that the account I stumbled across in “The Carriage Monthly” had actually ran – at least in part – in as many as three other local newspapers in 1898 – a full year earlier.  Even so, the timing was still long after the heydays of western coaching.  So, has this particular Concord survived?  I reached out to well-known stagecoach historian, Ken Wheeling, for answers.  Ken is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge related to Abbot Downing history and extant Concord coaches.  Coincidentally, as I pointed out in my July 13, 2016 blog, Ken has just written a new article about the oldest-known surviving Concord.  The story is scheduled to be in the October 2016 issue of the “Carriage Journal.”  (FYI… if you’re not already a subscriber to this magazine, the upcoming story is a good reason to make the call.) 

Okay, back to the Kentucky Concord story.  According to Ken, the old coach in the photo is a nine-passenger bag boot design.  Not being able to see the complete running gear, he couldn’t confirm whether the vehicle was built as a ‘western’ stage.  He noted that the coach does not appear to have a passenger seat on the roof immediately above the driver and agreed that the forward body rails/style lines being widely spaced were unusual in their position.  Close examination seems to confirm that the rear rails are also widely spaced.  Equally curious are the small windows – referred to as ‘lights’ – near the passenger doors.  Almost all western coaches will have a matching set of lights balancing each side of the center door.  The right side of this coach body is partially obscured but it almost appears as if there may not be a ‘light’ forward of the door.  It’s possible that the framed signage or photo is actually hiding the forward light but, as Ken pointed out, if the light is missing, it may have been an early construction variance or order distinction by a customer.  Whatever the case, we’ll continue working on the mysteries within the photo as well as what may have happened to the coach.  Regrettably, it was not a match with any surviving Concords known to Ken.  

As is the nature of so much of our research and Archive holdings, the bulk of this original information can be difficult to locate.  So, in an effort to share some of our findings, the following text is from “The Carriage Monthly” article as it last appeared almost 120 years ago…

“Under a weather-beaten shed in Bloomfield, KY., is an old dismantled stage coach which has a notable history.  If it were put on exhibition, it would be an object of curiosity and wonder to the people, not only of Kentucky, but of the United States.  This old stage has had many ups and downs during its time.  It was at first the property of Ham Jones, a noted stage driver away back in the thirties.  After the pike was built from Bloomfield to High Grove, (which, by the way, is the oldest highway in the State,) by the late Henry McKenna, a man who had a wide reputation as the originator of a famous brand of whisky, this stage was then run between Louisville and Bloomfield.

The old coach was built at Concord, N.H.  During the war it was captured many times by the Confederates and recaptured by the Federals.  It was also captured many times by the guerilla bands, led by Munday, Magruder, Quantrell, One-armed Berry and Captain Terrill, who robbed the passengers, plundered their baggage and destroyed the mails and freight.  Thousands of dollars in money were hidden in the cushions and trimmings of this old stage and carried to Louisville during the war.

Among the distinguished men who rode in it were Governor Charles A. Wickliffe, James Guthrie, Governor John L. Helm, Generals Buell, Phil. Sheridan, and Rousseau, and it is said that General John H. Morgan, on one of his raids through Nelson County, took passage on this stage to Louisville, where he remained for several days.

Many of the most noted stage drivers of ante bellum days have sat on the box of the old vehicle.  The following are the names of some of them who are still remembered by many of the older people along the route between Louisville, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn.:  Ham Jones, Charles Simpson, Lee Withrow, John Goodnight, John Martin, John Brown, Billie Hall, and Tim King.

John Showalter, of Mount Washington, who died about a year ago, and who claimed to be the oldest stage driver in the Southwest, also frequently engineered the old stage on its perilous trips during the war.  Mr. Showalter, at the time of his death, was ninety years old, and could relate many interesting stories of the old stage-coaching days.  He began driving on the line between Bardstown and Nashville, Tenn., in the twenties, and during that time carried more prominent men than any other man in the country.  Among the celebrities he had driven at various times were Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Generals Lafayette and Taylor. 

This old stage is the last of its kind in the southern country, and it is a relic of more than ordinary interest.  It has been resting beneath the old shed for more than twenty years, and its trappings and woodwork are fast falling to decay.  The picture herewith shown is a faithful representation of the antiquated vehicle.”

With so much time passing since this coach was featured in the “Taylorsville Courier” (KY) and subsequent articles in “The Weekly Argus News” (IN), “The Recorder-Tribune” (KS), and “The Carriage Monthly,” we may never know what happened to this particular part of our past.  Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing story since so much provenance is revealed in the old news reports.  Like so many other vehicle mysteries I’ve shared, this one is holding tight to its secrets.  Perhaps some of our Kentucky readers can help shed some additional light on the whereabouts and well-being of the coach? 

As Ken Wheeling has pointed out in a number of his presentations, less than 10% of all Concord stagecoaches produced by Abbot Downing (individual or collective company) have survived.  With the discovery of this photo, it appears this may be another lost coach.  As such, the image is likely the only fragment remaining of such a valuable part of American history.

This authentic, western-style Concord coach, built by Doug Hansen and his team in South Dakota, is an extraordinary symbol of the American West. 

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