Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Riding In A Stage Coach

Not long ago, I found myself stuck on an airplane.  A storm had camped over Atlanta and, just as the flight attendants closed the cabin door, news came that our mid-sized plane would be delayed from leaving the gate.  All ground crews were confined indoors so nothing was moving. 

It was no fault of the airline but the delay was just as real.  People shifted uncomfortably in their seats.  Some occasionally stood to stretch their legs.  There was a steady line of traffic back and forth to the restrooms.  Music played, businessmen worked on their laptops, cell phones stayed on, and conversations lingered.  Adding to the experience, after we were finally given the green light to leave the gate, the line of incoming and outgoing air traffic was limited to just one runway.  Altogether, over a hundred and twenty folks sat on the plane for two and a half hours waiting for the lightning, rain, and our turn to take off.  At the moment we finally took flight a sizeable number of those on board showed their appreciation with a spontaneous round of applause. 

I thought about that experience as well as the recent news of some becoming upset on flights when a seat was reclined in front of them.  In many ways, we've become a spoiled, short-tempered society intolerant of actions falling anywhere short of total comfort and timely service.  What a difference between today and American travel of a hundred forty or fifty years ago.  During the 1800’s, travelers engaging in long journeys had come to expect tight quarters, unpleasant temperatures, a myriad of traveling personalities, plenty of airborne dust, and extended times necessary for the trip. 

Depicting a fate that met many stagecoaches, this old Concord Coach was abandoned and forgotten for years.  

An interesting description of stagecoach travel during the nineteenth century is shared in the 1874 book, “The World on Wheels and Other Sketches,” by Benjamin F. Taylor.  Below is an excerpt taken from pages 20-21.  Along with the word pictures of wheeled travel in the West, Mr. Taylor shares some benefits of those coaching treks.  While some of the period phrases and word uses may seem a little strange today, you’ll get the gist of it.  Ultimately, the passage holds a point or two that might still prove helpful to travelers in the 21st century.  So grab a quick cup of coffee and settle in for a – not so smooth – ride on an early coach…

“…Think of that coach creeping like an insect… five miles to the hour, to and fro between East and West, the only established means of communication!  Think of its nine passengers inside, knocked about like unlucky ivories in a dice box… They get in, all strangers; the ladies on the back seat, the man who is sea-sick, by one coach window, the man that chews ‘the weed, it was the devil sowed the seed,’ at the other; somebody going to Congress, somebody going for goods, somebody going to be married.  They are all packed in at last like sardines, with perhaps an urchin chucked into some crevice, to make all snug.  There are ten sorts of feet, and two of a sort, dovetailed into a queer mosaic upon the coach-floor.  The door closes with a bang, the driver fires a ringing shot or two from his whiplash, and away they pitch and lurch.  Think of them riding all day, all night, all day again, crushed hats and elbowed ribs, jumping up and bouncing down into each other’s laps every little while with some plunge of the coach; butting at each other in a belligerent way, now and then, as if “Aeries the ram” were the ruling sign for human kind; begging each other’s pardon, laughing at each other’s mishaps, strangers three hours ago, getting to know each other well and like each other heartily, and parting at last with a clasp of the hand and a sigh of regret.  I think a fifty-mile battering in a stage-coach used to shake people out of the shell of their crustaceous proprietaries, and make more lifelong friends than a voyage of five thousand miles by rail.”


This original condition M.P. Henderson mud coach was built for rugged western terrain.  It’s located at Scotty’s Castle near Death Valley.

Most would agree that we don’t really take time to get to know each other as much anymore.  As small as the world has become, being neighbors doesn't always result in being neighborly.  It’s one of the reasons I enjoy the study of and travel associated with early wheeled vehicles.  It seems that anytime a crowd is gathered in support of these conveyances, it’s easy to come across folks from all walks of life; each coming together on common ground with mutual enthusiastic interests.  We find out the world isn't as overwhelmingly negative as it’s so often shown on the news.  For the moment, the subject of old wheels brings us closer and, perhaps, a bit better suited for the pace of the world we live in.  For those in the early 1870’s, the world was moving just as quick.  Transcontinental travel by rail had only recently been completed.  Technology was rapidly developing and many of the established ways of life were disappearing.  For our ancestors, it carried with it a sense that the world was moving too fast. 

As much as yesterday may have seemed to be part of ‘the good ‘ol days,’ we can also benefit from slowing down and sharing our own experiences with others.  For my part, I hope you have a good week and, with any luck, we’ll have a chance to get together down the road.  I wouldn't even mind sharing a cramped seat on a dusty coach (as long as I could limit it to an hour or so and have a hot shower, a fresh change of clothes, and comfortable car waiting at the end!) All in all, we continue to be blessed to live in a great land with many wonderful people, each enjoying the freedom to look back and the opportunity to move forward.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Collector’s Guide to More Wagon Brand Differences

Over and over, I’m asked how to determine the identity of a wagon when the maker name is lost or worn away.  Rarely is there a simple response, although I've often wished for one.  Answers can lie in a number of places with firsthand experience often landing at the top of the list.  During the last two decades, I’ve been privileged to examine thousands of pieces and those encounters can be  a tremendous resource in any review.  An equally important asset is the amount of original builder literature we have in our Wheels That Won The West® Archives.  Done correctly, these assessments involve an overlay of the vehicle with numerous primary source materials, using them as a solid and supportable measure of individual vehicle features. 
Since time can result in adaptations to even the most seemingly correct pieces, the identification process requires that elements of the box and gear be studied closely to help confirm a maker as well as levels of authenticity.  In a nutshell, there are three areas that must be thoroughly evaluated in order to reach a supportable conclusion in any reliable evaluation.  Those segments involve the original surviving portions of a wagon’s paint, wood, and metal work.  Each area can offer numerous clues pointing to a possible maker.  Likewise, each area is suspect until the originality of the specific piece can be resolved.

This small section of a pre-1900 illustration provides well over a dozen accurate clues pointing to a particular maker.

I’ve written this blog as a reminder of the potential disappointments waiting when quick determinations are based solely on superficial details.  In particular, transitory pieces like end gates, spring seats, tongues, and doubletree/singletrees cannot be looked upon as singularly conclusive sources of a wagon’s identity.  Even the box should be reviewed to assure a match to the running gear.  The reason?  Over the years, these pieces can become separated with substitutions easily made.  While each of these parts can support maker details noted elsewhere on the wagon, no solitary part should ever by relied upon as confirmation of an entire vehicle’s identity. 
As I’ve shared in previous writings and event presentations, there are literally hundreds of differences that can be pointed out between different brands of farm, freight, and ranch wagons.  From axle shapes and bed measurements to box rods, hound configurations, wheel designs, circle irons, and so much more, the amount of subtle but crucial differences can be staggering.  Over the years, I’ve catalogued at least three dozen potential variations in just the spring seats alone.   Multiple considerations involving the seat hangers, spring designs, support blocks, bracing elements, and shape of the seat back go well beyond the basic measurements and are just a few points that help confirm whether a piece is both correct for the maker as well as the era represented by the rest of the wagon.   

Period photos combined with early literature can prove invaluable when authenticating seats and other elements of surviving wagons.

Endgates are another constant source of contention.  Because they are easily removed and can be replaced over time, it often requires the assistance from numerous primary source materials to confirm everything from hardware and special features to position and overall design.  Over and over, I’ve wished the subject were simpler but, the fact remains, these early wagons were (and are) complex machines designed for even more challenging work.  

Knowing the correct hardware and woodwork configurations for a particular brand (and particular era) is essential to the serious collector of early wagons.

From the beginnings of my own collecting, my desire has been to help preserve the highest levels of originality in early wagons and western vehicles.  Ultimately, it’s a service to future generations for each of us to help pass along the greatest truths of these wheeled workhorses.  Likewise, for a person desiring to collect truly original pieces, this information is vitally important as it directly impacts the perceptions, integrity, and sustainable worth of a set of wheels.  

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Barn Find In Conestoga Country

Like a lot of folks that grew up on a farm, I’ve spent a fair amount of time working in, on, and around barns.  At the time, I didn’t realize the positive memories these places would push deep into my mind.  Perhaps it’s because most of those wooden frameworks were dusty (and sometimes overly aromatic) insect havens that were poorly lit, spattered with cobwebs, and insufferably hot – especially in hay season.  Even so, from photographers and advertisers to publishers and event coordinators, rustic barns can be a big attraction today.  They stand as weather-beaten testimonies of agrarian communities, family ties, fond memories, and sweat-driven dreams.  They can be a respite from the wind, a welcome relief from the rain, and the birthplace of new life.  

Many years ago, my wife captured dad’s old barn on canvas.

The bigger barns on my dad and granddad’s farms are both gone.  Victims of gravity and time, the only place they exist now is in my mind.  I can still see the corn cribs, mangers, feed rooms, hay drops, and oak plank stalls.  I have an old chair rescued from one family barn and a pair of doors with hand-forged hinges taken from another; special reminders of all-but-forgotten days.  Even so, these places from our past hold more than memories.  Time marches on and along the way, we’re sometimes fortunate to find and recover things that bring us closer to our past and, just maybe, a bit closer to remembering who we are and where we’ve come from.  Such was the case, when the new owner of an old bank barn happened upon a forgotten treasure.

Bank barns allow ground level access to the structure from two different levels.

Bank barns are amazing structures and the state of Pennsylvania is full of them.  Perched on the side of a knoll or hill, many have stood for generations.  Some remain in use while others sit empty, relegated to service as a cultural landmark of sorts.  Still others harbor countless relics from days gone by.  It’s this category that best defines a particular barn I learned of earlier this year.  It’s located near the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.  For some, it may have appeared to be just another outbuilding.  Decade after decade, though, it quietly held a secret.  A secret tied to another place, another time, and another life. 
When I first set my eyes on the barn, it was sagging in places and clearly showing its age.  No longer could it keep the wind and rain as much at bay.  It just wasn’t as strong as it once was.  Yet, in some ways, the character it holds today makes it even more attractive; enough so that, by the summer of 2014, the owner was determined to help get the building back in a better state of repair.  Old hay was removed.  Ages of clutter, discarded implement parts, old wheels, rusted wire, window frames, and other debris were gone through.  As he shared his story, the owner said he had been working in a side shed attached to the barn and noticed some planks stored above the log rafters.  Climbing up to examine the boards, the dim light revealed something more to him.  Next to the rough sawn lumber were the isolated remains of a Conestoga wagon bed.  The heavy pair of sideboards were carefully removed and brought out into the daylight.  They were covered in dust as well as a century’s worth of animal droppings and other debris.  The exteriors of both panels appeared to be coated with white paint.  We’re told that a good part of this light coloring washed away when a garden hose was used to clean the boards.  After looking at the sideboards firsthand, I’m convinced that this white tone was likely the original blue pigment that had heavily oxidized, essentially turning to powder.  Fortunately, enough blue lead was firmly stuck to the wood that limited amounts can still be seen in some areas, including sections on and around the tool box.

These early sideboards were part of a mid-sized Conestoga wagon. 

In addition to the blue paint, we found the initials – I. K. – stamped into the largest metal band surrounding the tool box.  Eight sets of bow clips line each side. Hand forged ironing, lock chains, and hasps designed to hold the box to the gear are all substantially intact.  The sideboards curve upward and stretch 13 feet in length at the top and 11 ½ feet at the bottom.  They measure a full 3 feet in depth at the ends with the center section narrowing to 27 ½ inches.
In classic Conestoga styling, the side panels are formed by three longitudinal rails intersected by upright, chamfered standards mortised through the rails.  This particular design is engineered to allow the sides, ends, and bottom to be separated or knocked down for shipment, storage, or other uses.
We’ll need more time to determine if additional provenance can be found.  All in all, though, it’s just the kind of pre-Civil War wagon discovery that reminds us it’s still possible to find substantially original, early 19th century pieces.  While true barn finds have become a rarity these days, patience and persistence have a way of opening doors we might otherwise pass by.  The old bank barn may be weathered and tired but it has done its job – delivering some of America’s rarest transportation history to a place of respect and preservation in the 21st century.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Stagecoach History in the West

Over the last two decades, we’ve been fortunate to build a sizeable library of wood-wheeled transportation references.  From original photography to primary source literature, correspondence, signage, and the vehicles themselves, each element holds the potential of revealing significant information for restoration, identification, provenance, and overall research projects.
One of the truly special books in our collection is a volume we’ve briefly listed before.  It’s a huge labor of love unveiled almost three quarters of a century ago.  In 1942, Mae Hélène Bacon Boggs published a compilation of early newspaper writings primarily related to stage coaching in the American West.  The title of the oversized and very thick tome is “My Playhouse Was A Concord Coach.”  It’s an intriguing label further explained by the author in the opening pages of the book.  
When asked why she wrote the book, Ms. Boggs shares in the introduction, “I did not write a book but compiled a book of those who made California history, placing it in the path of those who follow, hoping that they, too, will leave it just a little better for having traveled this road.” 

Well said - and, with that, we hope through our writings, travels, and research we’re also able to leave things a little better than we found them.

The book, “My Playhouse Was A Concord Coach,” provides impressive historical insights into the business and operation of stage coaches in the American West.

If you’re lucky enough to come across one of these original books, it will likely run you a few hundred dollars for the privilege of owning it.  Nonetheless, if you enjoy early western history and stagecoaches, it’s a wonderful piece to have in your library.  At 763 pages in length, it’s a safe bet it will take some time to commit it to memory.  We all owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Boggs for her tremendous dedication to this volume.  In tribute to this massive and classic collection of western staging history, below are a few excerpts from the work…  

Yreka Journal - Wednesday, June 24, 1874
“The C. & O. (California & Oregon) Stage Co. are putting up another shop, near their stable in town, in which the wood work, and wood repairs of their coaches and wagons will be attended to, which with the blacksmith shop built last year, will enable the company to do all their own stage work by employing mechanics to take charge of the shops…”

New Hampshire Statesman – Friday, April 17, 1868
“One of the most pleasing sights, in a mechanical point of view ever seen in Concord was enjoyed on Wednesday.  At 1 P.M., a large company of people assembled near the Freight House of the Concord R.R., where thirty elegant coaches from the establishment of Abbot, Downing & Co., stood upon platform cars, about to depart for Omaha.  The running portion of each vehicle is yellow, the body a rich red.  Each bore the firm name of ‘WELLS, FARGO & CO.’  The ornamental painting on the doors and other portions of the body of each is very beautiful.  The coaches were all in line, with no intervening freight.  At a few minutes past 1 the locomotive “Pembroke” gave a premonitory puff, and the beautiful train passed off.  It was made up to undergo no change until the coaches reach Omaha.  The train was photographed by Benj. Carr…”

Shasta Courier – Saturday, November 21, 1863
“… The CALIFORNIA STAGE COMPANY have received one of their new style sleighs for use on Scott Mountain soon as the snows require a change from wheel to runners.  We have lived in snow country for many years but have never seen a snow vehicle of the pattern here presented.  The runners are six inches wide, shod with steel half an inch thick.  In the center of each runner, and midway the body of the sleigh, are two bars of iron, one inch in diameter, which pass down through the runners, and are worked with the usual appliances attached to brakes upon a coach, and the pressure of the feet upon the brake strap forces the bolts through the runners into the snow, and thus checks its progress.  The seats are arranged in regular omnibus style.  It is a novel yet durable snow craft for mountain travel.”

Shasta Republican – October 2, 1858
“Wednesday last, on his last trip, Davis, one of the messengers of Wells, Fargo & Co., saved some lives and the wreck of a coach.  The driver had dismounted at the Blue Tent for the purpose of watering the horses – entrusting the lines to a passenger who was sitting beside him.  The horses soon started, when the person who held the reins jumped from the coach, and the team broke into a run.  Davis had been sleeping under the driver’s seat, and being soon awakened, he at once perceived the perilous condition of affairs.  He immediately climbed down to the tongue of the coach and from thence to the back, and finally to the neck of the wheel horse, and succeeded in gathering up the flying reins of the leaders, and stopping the team…”

The excitement of the early West certainly kept the nation talking.  The country was big and so were the stories.  Today, we continue to celebrate the determination and spirit of those early pioneers and argonauts.  The vast majority were everyday people with extraordinary dreams.  From cattle drives and military expeditions to overland freighting, community growth, family ambitions, and countless other ventures, we’re continually reminded that the history and heritage that America possesses is unique and dramatic.  Driven by a desire for freedom, opportunity, and a better life, we still carry the same basic DNA of our emigrant ancestors.  With that in mind and before I close this week’s blog, I thought I’d share one other entry compiled in this book.  Carried by the Shasta Courier at the close of the Civil War, it’s a reminder of what the people considered to be their strongest foundation – even amongst the greatest of trials…

Shasta Courier – Saturday, May 20, 1865
“The GOVERNMENT has decided that the motto, “In God is our trust,” shall hereafter be stamped upon coin issued from the United States Mints.  This is a proper recognition of the Great Creator, who has so wonderfully shaped the destinies of this nation, and preserved it from dangers human foresight and human strength could not have averted.”  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

California Freight Wagons

I’ve shared a number of specifics related to early American freight wagons in previous articles as well as during presentations at special events.  From giant freighters in Idaho and Colorado to those in California, the Dakotas, the Santa Fe Trail and all points east and west, these designs with their massive size, responsibilities, history, and lore are captivating.  As intriguing as these huge workhorses can be, though, the very nature of the harsh terrain and loads they were subjected to have made them relatively scarce.  It makes every encounter today a little more special and such was the case earlier this year.

This past June, I scheduled another trip to the west coast with a plan to photograph and review several stagecoaches and western vehicles throughout central and southern California.  With a full calendar at work, my time was somewhat limited.  Nonetheless, I felt the planning left sufficient time to study the coaches and still squeeze in a few other family activities.  Now, this is going to sound a little strange but, what’s always surprising about these trips are the surprises themselves.  I mean, no matter how much I travel, I’m amazed at what there is to discover – sometimes when we’re not even looking for it.

The ‘Old Town’ park in San Diego offered an intriguing and family-friendly step back into American history.

Landing in San Jose, we hit the ground running with visits to San Francisco, Stockton, Angels Camp, Wawona, Mariposa Grove, Anaheim, and Los Angeles.  One of the last places we visited was Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.  With the first human populations in the area dating back at least 9,000 years, the location is often billed as the birthplace of California.  We arrived around 10:30 in the morning and were fortunate to find a parking spot close to the entrance.  Inside, there are numerous shops, museums, restaurants, and curiosities to explore.  The Wells Fargo building is near the entrance and houses a number of impressive exhibits.  Among the historic highlights, the company has a Concord Coach as the centerpiece of the museum.  This legendary set of wheels was originally built by the firm of Abbot-Downing in Concord, Massachusetts.  It’s coach number 251 and it was built in 1867 for Wells Fargo.  The coach is one of the famous thirty Concords photographed on flat cars as they were transported to Omaha, Nebraska in 1868. 

I wanted to record measurements and photos of this coach but I knew it would take a little time so we decided to first grab some lunch in the old Cosmopolitan Hotel.  This building started as a single story adobe house in 1827 and, with additions, opened as a hotel in 1869.  While we were waiting a few minutes for the restaurant to open, I noticed the blacksmith and carriage shop just a few yards up the street.  Curiosity overtook me and walking in through the large outer door, I was surprised to see a number of period wagons and coaches on display.  Most startling, was the lead and trail freight wagon.  It was surprising because, in all my travels and discussions, I’d never heard anyone speak of a tall-sided freighter being located in Old Town San Diego.  It was like I had found another long lost friend to compare and share with other surviving freighters.

The exhibits in the Carriage & Blacksmith Shop at Old Town San Diego offer a look at several rare freighting and staging vehicles from days gone by. 

The lead wagon stood 8 1/2 feet in height.  It sat on 5 inch wide tires and 3 inch steel axles.  Other dimensions included a heavy, 1 inch square circle iron, 60 inch wheel track, and 52 inch/44 inch wheel heights.     

Old Town’s lead freight wagon measures 16 feet in length with a 42” wide box.

The trail wagon was smaller, being just over 7 feet in height and an inch shy of 12 feet in length.   Equipped with steel skeins and a flat truss bar beneath the axles, it was more of a heavy farm wagon.  That said, it was not uncommon to see this type of arrangement in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  While both wagons have had adaptations, there are still significant levels of originality present – especially with the lead wagon.  In addition to the freighters, there are several original mud wagons, including a reproduction mud coach built by Doug Hansen of Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop in Letcher, South Dakota. 

Doug Hansen and his team of craftsmen are well known for producing quality and correctly-styled western vehicles.

Dating to 1806, this extremely rare carreta is one of 

California’s oldest surviving vehicles.

The collection also features a carreta or two-wheeled cart dating to 1806.  Being over 200 years old, it’s one of the earliest surviving vehicles in California.  Finding these additional pieces was the icing on the cake for a trip that revealed literally dozens of other vehicles rarely shown or discussed.  I’ll spend some time in future blogs sharing more details on a variety of vehicles we explored during this trip.  As is almost always the case, the only shortcoming in the venture was the lack of time I had to explore the other intriguing wheels in the area.  Someday I hope to get to the Banning and Autry Museums as well as other local collections.  In the meantime, if you find yourself in California, don’t miss any of the numerous opportunities to get up close to some of the most impressive survivors of America’s early western heritage.  Beyond their individual provenance, each holds clues to further interpret, identify, and preserve some of the most dramatic wheeled history in the continental U.S.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

More 2014 Chuck Wagon Events

Fall is in the air here in the Ozarks.  We’ve finally gotten a reprieve from some of the heat and humidity.  In some ways, it’s been a long, hot summer.  Then again, I keep wondering where all of the time goes?  Over the last few months, we’ve been consumed with work, travel, and even more special projects.  In the middle of it all, we’ve received a number of notices related to upcoming events.  Unfortunately, we’re not able to post everything we receive but in an effort to share some of the announcements, below are details from a pair of press releases sent to us.

Stay tuned as we have another early vehicle discovery we’ll be reporting on in the next several weeks.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Carriage Association of America

Locating detailed information on early wagons and stagecoaches isn’t always an easy task.  Some particulars can only be found in period catalogs and materials produced by vehicle builders while other data may have to be mined from scarce periodicals, old government records, or other references.  While many folks use the internet as an immediate ‘go-to’ resource, the very nature of massive amounts of data being posted online can make it tough to confirm reliability in all instances.

Equally important is the point that there is a host of well-researched information not currently available on the world wide web.  In fact, many materials originally published decades ago have never been posted on line.  A good reminder of this can be found by perusing early issues of “The Carriage Journal.”  The magazine, published by the Carriage Association of America (CAA), is well-known for producing quality, well-written, and well-researched details on a host of vehicle styles, including America’s heavier wagons and stage coaches.

The Carriage Association of America is involved in much more than carriages and light vehicles.

A few years ago, I acquired a hardbound collection of the earliest years of this magazine.  Within the Summer 1965 issue, I came across a multi-page story covering the famed 20 Mule Train and giant freight wagons used to haul borax through Death Valley.  The article includes an overview of the wagons as well as discussions related to the mule teams, muleskinning, the desert terrain, and the early Pacific Borax Company. 

The Wheels That Won The West® Archives includes countless unpublished and rarely seen photos from America’s first transportation industry.

In another article from a half century ago, the CAA covered the restoration of Abbot-Downing’s coach #431.  A 1964 write-up highlighted the wagons and carriages built by James H. Birch of Burlington, N.J. and still another in 1967 focused on the firm of Hoopes Bro. and Darlington in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  At the time, they were still busy building wagon wheels; a business started 100 years earlier in 1867. 

More than quaint stories from another time, these are touch points in history; allowing us more opportunity to learn about specific vehicles while potentially reinforcing provenance documentation.  Likewise, such articles can be helpful within identification and authentication work.  With a history dating to 1960, the Carriage Association of America is a strong organization helping bring like-minded folks together while promoting horse-drawn vehicle history and modern day applications.  They’re located at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky.  If you’ve never been there, it’s well worth the visit.