Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Wagon & Western Vehicle Categories

I’ve been traveling a fair amount this week so this post is a little shorter than what I normally share.  Nonetheless, there’s some good info here and, hopefully, enough fodder to get us all to thinking about vehicle origins, provenance, purposes, and the like.  So, without further ado, here ya go...  

Sometimes we overlook the obvious when we’re searching for things... kinda like hunting for a pair of glasses we forgot were propped up on our head or a set of keys left in a car ignition, or even a desperate attempt to find our cell phone as it’s ringing – Only to finally figure out it was with us the whole time in a hip pocket!  Yes, I actually had someone tell me that happened to them. 

Humans.  We’re funny creatures.  From mid-sentence, mind-wanderings to failed recall, it’s easy to forget or overlook the simplest of things.  (Don’t pretend it doesn’t happen to you)  As a kid, I would sometimes get frustrated when I faced situations where I had misplaced something.  With a smile, my mom would reassuringly encourage me to look “in the last place I left it.”  Yeah, yeah, mom.  Now where the devil IS the last place I left that whatchamacallit?

What do these trials have to do with this week’s blog?  Well, after writing hundreds of pieces related to America’s first transportation industry, I often wrestle with what to cover next.  Maybe it’s writer’s block, a weak mind, or maybe it’s just old age... nah, it couldn’t be any of those.  At any rate, as I pondered the topic for this week’s blog, I hit a wall for a moment.  My thoughts drifted - maybe I should cover this type of vehicle or perhaps this particular style or possibly folks would be interested in reading more about a certain design feature.  The more I questioned myself the more unsettled I became.  Time was ticking and I had a deadline to meet.  Then, it hit me.  One topic that I’ve never seen collectively discussed is the actual naming conventions of these old wheels.  In other words, what relevance is there to the way wagons and western vehicles were looked upon and referred to ‘back in the day?’  It’s such a basic and fundamental connection to these pieces that it’s almost too obvious of a subject.  As a result, it’s an easy message to overlook.  Even so, it’s an important part of a vehicle’s personality and provenance.  As groups and individuals, we regularly reference many of the names – whether we’re commenting on a ‘farm’ wagon, military ‘escort’ wagon, or something business-minded like a salesman’s or ‘huckster’ wagon.  Sometimes, it’s good to slow down and question the ‘whys’ of a topic.

As I ran through the makeup of America’s first transportation industry, I came up with at least a half-dozen categories that help define the farm, freight, ranch, coach, business, and military vehicles we review in this blog.  As I focused on the different pieces, it became clear that the labels they go by are often a derivative of what they do, where they go, how they’re made, what they haul, and even who occupies the vehicle.  Many times, a single vehicle can be lumped into several of these categories.  For instance, a ‘tobacco’ wagon and ‘crooked bed’ wagon can be the same thing.  In this case, the vehicle is not only defined by what it hauls but also by how it’s made/designed.  Take a look at the list below and see how many more wagons and western vehicle types you can come up with that fit into the various categories...

1)      What They Do – This category focuses on activities the vehicles are associated with.  Whether you’re looking at a Dump wagon, Escort wagon, Sprinkling wagon, Lunch wagon, Telegraph wagon, Chuck wagon, Round-up wagon, Ticket wagon, Stage wagon, Delivery wagon, or even a Patrol wagon, each bears a name that indicates occupations, pastimes, and pursuits that the old set of wheels was designed for.

Patents for horse-drawn dump wagons were granted as early as the 1840’s and continued well into the 1900’s.

2)      Where They Are Used (or came from) – This refers to any geographic connection including a relationship to a particular region or locale – It’s a category that includes work vehicles like a Road wagon, Mountain wagon (both types), Pacific wagon, Farm wagon, Conestoga wagon, Florida wagon, Concord coach, Yellowstone coach, Station wagon, Depot hack, Beach wagon, Santa Fe wagon, Mud wagon, Red River cart, and more.  A lot of early vehicle brand names also shared geographic ties; with labels mirroring the city or state of manufacture.  Examples like Kentucky, Tennessee, Kansas, Missouri, Pekin, Tiffin, Troy, Florence, Stoughton, and Springfield were well-known all over the United States. 

The legendary Conestoga style of wagon takes its name from the Conestoga River/township region in Pennsylvania.

3)      How They’re Made – Vehicles in this category can be defined and referred to by mentioning a prominent design feature(s) – Some examples include Crooked bed wagons, Dead axle wagons, Spring wagons, Cut-under wagons, Rack bed wagons, Boot end bed wagons, Crane neck drays, Low-Down wagons, and even Double and Triple box wagons. 

Not to be confused with a Conestoga wagon, a ‘Crooked-bed’ wagon is considerably smaller and more lightly built.  

4)      What They Haul – Sometimes a particular set of wheels was called out by what it was designed to transport.  This category can be closely related to the first one mentioned above (What they do) since both are involved with a variety of occupations.  Vehicles included in this category were transports like a Tobacco wagon, Turpentine wagon, Potato wagon, Cotton wagon, Coal wagon, Tool wagon, Freight wagon, Water wagon, Grocery wagon, Milk wagon, Mail wagon, Ladder wagon, Popcorn wagon, Log wagon, Lumber wagon, Ore wagon, Ice wagon, whew!  That’s just a start. 

This extraordinary example of a Harrington brand mail wagon retains almost all of its original paint and signage.  

5)      Who Occupies The Vehicle – A Huckster or Peddler’s wagon, Gypsy wagon, Sheep herder wagon, Contractor’s wagon, Pallbearers’ Coach, and Grocer’s wagon are just a few of the specialized designs that can be defined by the person or occupation using a set of wheels. 

Referred to as Sheep, Sheep Camp, or Sheepherder wagons, these vehicles were often highly customized by the user.  Even so, some time ago, we uncovered a pair of patents on these designs.

6)      Who originated the vehicle – Labels like Herdic coach, Hansom Cab, and McMaster Camping Car are all tied to their inventors.  Similarly, there are countless brands like Fish Bros., Studebaker, Peter Schuttler, Weber, Gestring, Espenschied, Luedinghaus, Nissen, Bain, Mitchell, Murphy, Mandt, Knapheide, and Cooper that were named for their founders.  In fact, the practice of naming the transportation brand after an individual who either owned or was instrumental to the firm’s beginnings continues to be a part of modern day car companies.

Connecting vehicles to specific categories may seem like a tedious and trivial exercise.  The truth is that the act of studying every vehicle a bit deeper almost always sheds greater light onto the provenance, personality, and potential of a vehicle.  It’s the start to every wagon and western vehicle story; it’s who it was, where it worked, what it did, the folks involved with it, businesses that needed it, and how it was engineered to accomplish its purposes.

Focusing on these details helps us develop a more thorough understanding of different vehicle types as well as a deeper appreciation for the complexities of the individual pieces.  It also helps us avoid lumping so many of these old workhorses into a generic perception that tends to over-simplify the significance of a set of wheels.  Ultimately, it’s one more way to put America’s first transportation industry into greater perspective while increasing opportunities for more broad-scale interest.

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, July 12, 2017

Have You Seen These Wagon Brands?

The study of America’s first transportation industry – wagons and western vehicles, in particular – continually takes me down trails that can be confusing, hard to follow, and even phantom-like as they appear and then disappear.  It’s still well worth the chase, though, as the mystery of the unknown can provide amazing insights into vehicle provenance – not the least of which is the narrowing down of manufacturing time frames. 

When I was at Tom and Betty Watt’s auction about a month ago, something else struck me.  The most expensive-selling farm wagon was not only a mix of two brands (box & running gear) but, the box was from a very small maker in Anderson, Indiana.  It was built by the Rhoads Wagon Company and is the only one I’ve ever seen.  Years ago, I had done research on the firm and, through a lot of digging, was able to provide some background within the pages of our Borrowed Time book.  Still, the ability of this small brand to outsell major brands with huge legacies got me to thinking.  What other industry icons with fascinating histories have I seen limited examples of? 

I began to think about all those brands with strong reputations that I’ve seen at least one example of but no more than a handful of survivors in total.  After a fair amount of consideration, I believe a number of these brands also have the opportunity to excel in resale values – especially when found in above average condition.  So, with all of this as background, I thought we’d look at a half dozen more brands that are seldom seen but could be excellent additions to any wagon or western vehicle collection.  Certainly, the back-stories to the brands are filled with thought-provoking details.  What follows is a simple overview of some of those makers...

Beggs – Many folks may associate this brand with Circus wagons or even early automobiles as it became so well-known for in Kansas City, Missouri.  Long before these products were part of the company’s offerings, though, the firm was producing a host of other horse-drawn vehicles.  Samuel Beggs grew up learning both the farming and wagon-making trades of his father, James Beggs.  According to the Centennial History of Missouri, when Samuel turned twenty-two years old in 1881, he started his own wagon manufactory in King City, Missouri.  A half dozen years later, he moved to Carrollton, Missouri and continued to turn out quality farm, freight, and transfer wagons.  In 1905, the company moved from Carrollton to Kansas City to take advantage of better shipping facilities and freight rates.  Production of farm, freight, log, and mountain wagons was maintained at least through the mid-teens.  Within a few years of moving to Kansas City, though, Beggs also took up the manufacture of all types of circus wagons, including chariots.  As another decade began to pass, the firm shifted its transportation focus once more.  This time, the only horses involved were under a sheet metal hood.  By 1917, it had become clear to the folks at Beggs that the future of ground transportation would not be focused on horse-drawn vehicles.  The auto industry was already well-entrenched and was gaining ground on virtually every front – from commercial and farm uses to mining, military, and personal use.  So, in that same year, the Beggs Wagon Company began manufacturing motor cars and expanding their distribution from coast to coast.  In spite of that vision, the company ceased operations before the mid-1920’s.  With Samuel Beggs dating his vehicle-making beginnings to 1875, the Beggs firm could lay claim to being in business for almost a half century.  Still, finding a quality example of a Beggs wagon in the twenty-first century can be a tall order.

One of the toughest Beggs brand wagons to find is their California Rack Bed.

Flint – In 1882, the same year that Jesse James was killed by Robert Ford – four years before the surrender of Geronimo and a full decade before the historic Johnson County War, the Flint Wagon Works was formed in Flint, Michigan.  Many of the earliest examples of these wagons were adorned with scenic murals similar to those found on Concord stagecoaches.  It was a significant visual difference between Flint and other wagon makes with the ultimate purpose being to draw attention and quality perceptions to the brand.  Even though the West was still wild during the early days of this firm, the company was destined to be different

The manufacture of wood-wheeled wagons was a business model that would, eventually, be abandoned as part of the transportation revolution in America.  James Whiting could see the change coming.  He was one of the Flint Wagon Works founders and roughly two decades after he and his partners established the brand, he announced that the firm had purchased the newly-founded Buick company so they could produce gasoline engines for farm customers.  There is speculation that, from the beginning, Whiting intended to use the purchase as a launch for leaving the horse-drawn era and pursuing the age of travel by internal combustion.  Unfortunately, the entire operation was under-capitalized, putting a strain on the Flint Wagon Works.  Whiting and his partners would need more help if they were going to make this venture work.  Enter another highly successful horse-drawn vehicle maker, William C. Durant (Durant-Dort Carriages).  By all accounts, Durant was a popular entrepreneur with extensive manufacturing experience, a long list of investor connections, and an uncanny ability to sell just about anything he believed in.  After initial talks with Whiting, Durant accepted the opportunity to take charge of Buick and grow the brand.  It was the beginning of a major transition into the U.S. auto industry. 

With consistent growth and attention-building excitement, Durant significantly grew the Buick brand.  By 1908, he had formed a parent holding company, General Motors, and within another couple years, he’d added Cadillac and multiple other auto brands as part of the overall organization.  While many of these vehicles were initially built elsewhere, by 1909 the old wagon factory was rapidly being looked upon as a valued automotive asset.  The July 1909 issue of The Hub reported that the Flint Wagon Works had already “completed a half dozen or so machines” and expected to “put out a complete line of cars in 1910.” 

Ultimately, that interest in early autos led to the Flint wagon factory being the place where many of the first Buicks and Chevrolets were built in this country.  Production of the last Flint wagons appears to have wrapped up by 1912.  In the following decades, the only mentions of Flint Wagons in old directories are those referring to replacement skeins.  Those skeins could be purchased from Illinois Iron & Bolt Company in Carpentersville, Illinois.  The Flint brand is special because it’s a visible and firm connection between two worlds – the Old West and some of the earliest beginnings of General Motors – especially with the Buick and Chevrolet brands.  Finding a surviving Flint wagon today is a rare treat.  Owning one is even more uncommon.    

This logo is part of a well-preserved Flint survivor in a private collection.

Fish Bros. - Racine, Wisconsin or Clinton, Iowa. – You may be looking at this and saying, “I thought Fish Bros. was a large wagon manufacturer in Racine, Wisconsin.”  If so, you’d be right.  Ultimately, there were two, highly publicized firms incorporating the ‘Fish Bros.’ name within their company monikers.  The Fish Bros. Wagon Company in Racine was started in 1864 by Abner Fish and his brother, Titus.  The firm had actually begun operations a year earlier under the name of Fish and Bull (only to have Mr. Bull retire in 1864 and the Fish brothers take over the firm). 

Within a few years of the startup, the company began to struggle financially and engaged the support of J.I. Case.  The financial hardships continued and, by 1883, Case was appointed receiver and took control of the factory.  At that point, Titus Fish and E.B. Fish struck out on their own, enlisting the help of the Olds Wagon Works in Ft. Wayne, Indiana to build a separate brand of Fish Bros. wagons.  By the mid-to-late 1880’s, the brothers had gradually returned to the original factory which was now under new ownership in Racine.  However, the harmony with the new proprietors didn't last and the Fish family and brothers were back on their own by 1890.  This was the start of another new Fish Bros. firm.  This time, the family reached out to a different brand, the Labelle Wagon Company, to help build the wagons for the new venture.  Even with the added business, by the mid-1890’s, the Labelle factory had become insolvent and the brothers were in the midst of a move to Clinton, Iowa.  There, they set up their own factory to build ‘Fish Bros. Wagons’ under the company name of Fish Bros. Manufacturing Company. 

While the original factory in Racine continued to thrive, the name similarities between the new Fish Bros. operation and those in Racine were causing quite a stir.  To the folks in Racine, the use of the name was an unthinkable violation of trademark laws.  To the family members, it was a clear and rightful use of a brand name that had always belonged to them.  Ultimately, it was a source of constant irritation to both sides and a long line of lawsuits and legal wrangling ensued as the Racine firm sought to squelch the family from using the name.  Even the Labelle Wagon Company had been drawn into the fray and others similarly contemplating association with the ‘new’ Fish wagons were threatened with legal action by the folks in Racine.  Nonetheless, after years of infighting and countless monies spent, the end result was that both firms were deemed to have legal right to the name, ‘Fish Bros.,’ as well as the use of a fish in the company logos and branding efforts. 

In 1904, the Clinton, Iowa factory claimed a capacity for 20,000 wagons annually.  It's a sizeable number that seems to point to a healthy business.  Even so, both the Iowa and the Wisconsin brands disappear from industry directories by or before the early teens of the twentieth century.  As a result, it's a safe bet that any original survivor of either of these brands is over a century in age.  

Years ago, we worked with Doug Hansen and his team at Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop to restore a Fish Bros. wagon back to its former glory.  The wagon was originally built by Fish Bros. Manufacturing Company in Clinton, Iowa.   

Fort Smith – The Fort Smith Wagon Company was organized in 1903.  By 1907, John Deere had begun purchasing shares of the firm with a total buyout taking place a few years later.  I’ve always been fascinated with the brand for a number of reasons.  While the western legacy attached to the Fort Smith name is one draw, the company’s association with John Deere along with the production of wagons for Native Americans is another intriguing part of our nation’s early transportation history.  Even though the brand is fairly well-known (with sales extending into the 1940’s), original wagons with the Fort Smith label are extremely tough to find today.  In all of my searching, I’ve only come across two survivors and both had been repainted.  In my view, an unrestored, solid Fort Smith wagon is an excellent – and extremely rare – piece to have in any collection.  You can read a little more about the unique background of this brand in a brief bio I wrote in one of our blogs from 2014.

Even though the Fort Smith wagon brand enjoyed strong sales and distribution for over forty years, surviving examples of this brand are tough to find today.

Labelle – With origins dating to 1868, the Labelle Wagon Works of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin was once one of the most recognized names on the western frontier.  So prominent was the firm in Old West that, within its first decade of production, it was already being recognized alongside other firms who were decades older.  In 1874, the company was purchased by Benjamin F. Moore and A.G. Ruggles.  At that time, the name was changed from Farnsworth Bros., Knapp and Company to the Labelle Wagon Works.  By 1880, the brand is purported to have been building around 5,000 wagons per year and, by 1887, it was viewed as a highly profitable investment opportunity by a group from Minneapolis.  As a result, the brand was sold and moved to Superior, Wisconsin in 1890.  In 1892, period records indicate that Labelle produced over 8,000 wagons at its factory in Superior.  It was an impressive 17% increase over the previous year and the company was preparing for annual production rates to rapidly approach 10,000.  It should be noted that, during this same time frame, Labelle was producing wagons for the family members who were responsible for starting and running the original Fish Bros. Wagon Company – Titus Fish, Edwin Fish, and Fred Fish who had separated from the Fish Bros. factory in Racine, Wisconsin and had started their own company. 

While the last Labelle was likely built in Superior around 1896, this was not the last time the brand would grace the side of a high wheel wagon.  For the first decade of the twentieth century, the Labelle and New Labelle names were built by the Fish Bros. Mfg. Company wagon firm (Fish family) which had finally located itself in Clinton, Iowa.  In a way, it was likely a tribute to the brand while also an opportunity for the Clinton, Iowa maker to capitalize on a quality, well-known name. 

A Labelle brand wagon from an 1895 advertisement.

Luedinghaus – In October of 2013, I wrote an article for Farm Collector magazine that highlighted six period wagon makers from St. Louis, Missouri.  One of those was the legendary firm of Luedinghaus Wagon Company.  Founder, Henry Luedinghaus’ earliest days in St. Louis are connected to another well-known wagon brand - Gestring (pronounced as 'Guess - String').  During Gestring’s early years and, until just after the Civil War, Luedinghaus was a partner with the brand’s namesake, Casper Gestring.  By 1866, the partnership had dissolved with each man’s separate shop still being within sight of the other.   Luedinghaus continued to grow and by 1889 had merged with another legendary St. Louis maker – the Espenschied Wagon Company.  By the late 1890’s, reports in industry trade publications indicate the brand continuing to grow with fifty completed wagons being built each day.  After several attempts to compete in the automobile and trailer industry, the Luedinghaus firm finally closed its doors in 1934.  Henry Luedinghaus had died almost two decades before on Christmas night of 1916.  He was 83.  In all of my searches for early wagons, I’ve only come across a handful of Luedinghaus wagons.  They are among a number of legendary but elusive brands.

The Luedinghaus-Espenschied brand was still marketing large freight wagons at the turn of the twentieth century.

The six examples above are just a few of the tough-to-find brands worth adding to any collection.  There are many others.  Brands like Chattanooga from Chattanooga, Tennessee, James & Graham from Memphis, Tennessee, and Racine-Sattley with either Racine, Sattley, or both names combined on the side of the wagon are among a host of medium to large-sized wagon firms with very few surviving examples today.  These, and many others, are worthy of serious evaluation and, if you know of one, I’d enjoy hearing from you.  These rolling legacies can easily possess the history, rarity, and the intrigue to be coveted by enthusiasts everywhere.  

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, July 5, 2017

America – Land of the Free. Home of the Brave.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  As America’s founders put it so well, these are inalienable rights granted to us by our Creator.  Even so, every one of those individuals signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776 knew what that proclamation meant.  It meant that they would no longer be subject to absolute tyranny and a lack of voice in government.  It meant that they would be personally targeted for speaking the truth.  It meant that they would rely (as stated in the final sentence of the Declaration) on the protection of God.  It also meant that they were willing to sacrifice everything they had for freedom. 

The Independence we enjoy in this Great Land is directly connected to the dreams of so many who have gone before us and will come after us.  Those Liberties are bigger than a cause and crucial to every individual.  They not only bind us together but are a priceless inheritance granted at the highest cost.  They remain dear to this day.  As we celebrate the blessings of our nation, we remember those patriots who have made America possible and those who continue to help us guard against oppression.  From sea to shining sea, the Hope we share with the world is a reminder of what can happen when we look beyond ourselves and join together to achieve something much bigger – One nation, under God, Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for All. 

Wishing you and your family a wonderful week!  We’ll have more details related to early wagons and western vehicles 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

Monday, July 3, 2017

Gunsmoke on INSP in July!

As most of our readers know, the good folks at the INSP television network have been supporters of western television programming, as well as our western vehicle blog, for some time.  So, anytime I receive news from them that relates to promotion of the Old West, I’m happy to pass it along. 

In my October 26, 2016 blog post, I shared some insights from an interview with Buck Taylor, famed actor (and artist) from the legendary television series, Gunsmoke.  As I’d mentioned back then, the series is a deeply rooted part of my growing-up years.  So, when INSP told me they were planning a ‘Justice in July’ promotion with a focus on Gunsmoke, I knew that others would also want to know. 


According to their sneak-peek info, during the month of July, INSP will be featuring a marathon of Gunsmoke episodes and movies.  Focusing on the theme of justice throughout July, the shows will kick off with the network premiere of Gunsmoke: To the Last Man on July 8th at 2pm Eastern Time.  The marathon will continue throughout July with the following shows and times (all times listed are Eastern)

·         Gunsmoke: To the Last Man on July 8th at 2pm ET

·         Return to Dodge on July 16th at 2pm ET

·         Gunsmoke: All That on July 22nd at 10am ET

·         Gunsmoke: Long, Long Trail on July 22nd at 11am ET

·         Gunsmoke: The Squaw on July 22nd at 12pm ET

·         Gunsmoke: Chesterland on July 22nd at 1pm ET

·         Gunsmoke: Milly on July 22nd at 4pm ET

·         Gunsmoke: Indian Ford on July 22nd at 5pm ET

·         Gunsmoke: The Long Ride on July 23rd at 2pm ET

·         Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice on July 23rd at 10pm ET

Consider yourself duly informed with plenty of time to set your DVR or arrange your schedule so you can walk the streets of Dodge City with all your friends.  Gunsmoke is one western that I always have time for.  Have a great 4th of July week!  Those celebrations will be a good lead-in to the Gunsmoke marathon.

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, June 28, 2017

Recognizing Originality in Early Wagons

In last week’s blog, I featured a number of visual highlights from Tom and Betty Watt’s antique vehicle auction in Colorado.  It was a great experience to be surrounded by such a strong collection and good folks from all parts of the country.  What I didn’t have time to mention last week were the numerous wagon questions posed to me while at the sale.  It’s a scenario that’s always a welcome exchange.  I enjoy seeing strong interest in these wheels as well as the opportunity to pass along early vehicle insights.  In truth, the questions also have a way of making me stronger in the subject.  They help keep me on task and more studied.  That said, if I don’t know something, I’ll say so.  After all, even after intensely researching this subject for the better part of a quarter century, there’s one thing I definitely do know – I don’t know it all.  The subject is so large that there will always be more waiting to be discovered and understood.  That said, if I’m stumped on a point, the curiosity factor tends to bug me until I’ve dug deep enough to learn more. 

One of the most commonly-asked questions I receive goes along the lines of, “How do you know what’s original on an old wagon?”  It’s a great inquiry that can be answered quickly or with a much more detailed reply – depending on the level of interest.  Simply put, we recognize originality by continually and meticulously studying originality.  While that may sound like a frivolous play on words, the reality is that it’s dead-on accurate.  Consider this – how do U.S. Treasury officials come to understand whether a piece of currency is counterfeit or the genuine article?  A significant part of the answer is that the agents become so close to and familiar with the original that anything less is immediately recognized as suspect.  That’s the exact focus I’ve had for decades.  It’s also the reason I’ve backed away from some purchases for our collection.  There were just too many elements in the vehicle’s fit, finish, and features that weren’t right.  

From the start, this subject has prodded me to always want to know more.  In fact, it can still absorb the vast majority of my extracurricular time.  It was the same story in those early days as I concentrated on soaking up as much knowledge as possible.  Simultaneously, the collecting efforts grew with first one, then two, then dozens, then hundreds, and now literally thousands of period artifacts.  Along the way, something began to happen.  All those original catalogs, flyers, ledgers, photos, and other promotional pieces were getting stored in my recall.  It became easier to recognize more and more of the distinctive design features promoted by early builders.  The old makers were tutoring me and the seeds of brand identification were taking root.  As the historic images and literature began to accumulate, I started noticing industry trends as well as the implementation of patents and the evolutionary changes in brands.  Likewise, these revelations were pointing to who did what and when – all of it being vital to the process of determining timeframes of manufacture and additional provenance.  Ultimately, it’s important to remember that every wooden wagon and western vehicle is unique.  Even if two vehicles of the same brand are side by side, there will be differences.  Some of those variations will be reflected in different ages and use patterns while others may be indicative of a regional style of vehicle, a different set of features and accessories, or some other attribute.

Most of these points will be of minimal importance if all someone is only looking for is a good, solid set of wheels for driving or, perhaps, a static display.  That said, if you’re looking for something that has the best chance of truly standing out in a crowd and growing in value over the years, you will have to consider the subject of originality.  The best way to learn is to dive in.  Ask questions.  Be discerning.  Be thorough.  Be patient and learn to recognize what distinguishes the scarcest pieces – those high quality, brand-central survivors that seldom come along.  A word of caution... this is not a subject that can be mastered overnight.  So, settle in and start the learning process.  Dissect every piece you see, observing differences and noting anything that appears to be a modern addition.  At the end of the day, it’s hard for buyer’s remorse to creep into our thoughts if we’ve done our homework, avoid getting in a hurry, and understand exactly what we want to acquire. 

As for me, when I look at these old transports in an auction or private setting, I automatically go into evaluation mode; looking for anything that doesn’t measure up.  It might be a missing part, amalgamation of parts, contemporary adaptation, veiled weakness, or some other flaw.  Finding rolling works of art with the fewest imperfections and strongest documented provenance is a priority in my quest.  Oh, and by the way, you’ll never find a totally perfect piece.  Most of these vehicles are either near or over a century in age.  Things happen over the decades that make it hard to remain pristine.  Every time I look in the mirror at my thinning head of hair, I recognize that truth.  Reinforcing that point... one of the prized pieces in our collection is a nineteenth century Cooper brand wagon.  It’s far from being perfect, has a lot of wear issues, and even a few sad-looking felloes.  All in all, though, those details are pretty common among many survivors.  What’s attractive to me is not only the legendary brand but the age of the piece and the design features shown.  This Cooper is a significant find from a time when the West was still wild.  As such, it’s a scarce set of wheels to find in any condition.      

While most folks will tend to look at a vehicle as a whole and ignore the individual parts, my tendency is to go for the jugular.  In other words, I’ve learned to hone in on specific details as well as any inconsistent elements.  Here’s a couple points of reference – do all of the bolster standards match?  What about the end gates?  Are they all there and matching?  How about the front and rear portions of the running gear?  Are they consistent with the brand?  Sometimes a sizeable number of different sections from different vehicles wind up together, creating a jumbled hodgepodge of parts.  Evaluation tips like these and many more are among the details I’m happy to help with.  On other points, I’m less transparent with what becomes public knowledge.  Why?  Well, over the years, I’ve seen a number of attempts to place perception ahead of reality.  In fact, as many of these old wheels have become even more scarce (and valuable), the temptation to misrepresent something is hard for some unscrupulous souls to resist.  How do I know this?  Believe it or not, some of them have been bold enough to tell me they’re confident that they can put one over on anyone.  For some, this game of cat and mouse is just that – a game.  For me, it’s as serious as any effort dedicated to preserving the integrity of authentic history while maintaining trustworthy investments.  Fortunately, most people are honest but, it’s a reminder of the importance of working with quality, well-established folks.
Sometimes it can be difficult to confirm originality without sufficient primary source materials or extensive experience.  Again, it’s why we’ve assembled so much background on these vintage vehicles.   Even so, there are some important general guidelines that can help all of us avoid purchase pitfalls when reviewing a set of wheels... 

Non-Supported Word-of-Mouth Provenance – Like many readers of this blog, I regularly hear stories about how a particular vehicle was used by such and such person or traveled West during a certain time frame.  While the statements might be true, in order for it to have pertinence to collectors, there must be primary source documentation such as a photo, news article, signed affidavit from the period, or some other document bringing clear corroboration and certification to a statement.  This sort of recorded verification is valuable as it helps highlight the distinctive personality and story behind a set of wheels.  To that point, I once told a collector that I possessed the full ownership records of a wagon in his collection.  I had once owned the piece and would have been happy to have given him that information.  Regrettably, he had no interest in where the wagon had been, how it had been used, how much it had sold for at different times in its life, who had owned it, and their associated contact information.  It’s like saying I’m not interested in the personality that separates this vehicle from another.  Truthfully, that kind of detail is hard to come by and important to have – if you can get it.

Non-Supported Statements of Absolutes – We have to be very careful when using words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ to describe what a particular maker did or didn’t do.  When a statement can’t be objectively supported, it can create confusion.  I once heard someone say that the well-known Peter Schuttler farm wagon design was never changed throughout its history.  It’s not a true statement.  There were a number of changes and it’s one more reason to explore every era of a maker’s history.

Brand Identification Based on Minimal Points of Reference – We live in a society that tends to want everything quick.  We don’t want to wait for anything.  When it comes to early vehicle identification, the desire for hasty results is an impetuous temptation that can easily land you in a pool of regret.  Nonetheless, as a researcher, historian, and consultant, I regularly run into folks wanting me to identify a piece based on one or two features.  It’s not something I do because there are too many opportunities to jump to conclusions with an inaccurate assessment.  The individual parts and the resulting sum of the whole will always be the most accurate way to conclusively identify a maker. 

Unsupportable Timeframes of Manufacture – Over the years, I’ve heard countless claims related to dates; an 1870 this, 1880 that, or even a pre-Civil War creation claim.  One of the more prevalent manufacturing date assertions I’ve heard is that of a purportedly 1880’s-era John Deere wagon.  Before getting into the details of why this type of statement is suspect, I have often asked folks how such a date was determined.  In every instance, the date was a ‘best guess’ with no objective use of primary sources in the conclusion.  Many times, these suppositions are innocently made.  Nonetheless, they are far from the truth.  As for John Deere-branded wagons (including John Deere Triumph), they were not marketed until after the purchase of the Moline Wagon Company in 1910.  These types of claims can often be debunked with just a little research to determine when a company started building wagons.  For the record, there were a number of wagon companies with ‘establishment dates’ that do not coincide with the time when their first wagons were built.  Birdsell is a good example.  The company traced its beginnings to 1855 but they didn’t build their first farm wagon until 1887.

Mixed elements within a running gear or box – Not long ago, I was reviewing some wagons in a museum.  One, in particular, caught my eye.  Not because it was an outstanding survivor but, rather, because it was a poor reflection of what it was set up to represent.  It was supposed to be an early emigrant wagon.  Instead, it was a mixture of multiple wagon brands woven into a wide array of modern (non-period) adaptations.  My heart sank as these are the places where genuine history is supposed to be of foremost concern.  It’s our opportunity to reach the masses with reality.  After all, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to do our best to get the story right.  If not, what’s the reason for our efforts?    

If I could only emphasize one point in this week’s blog, I’d try to relay how important it is to really get to know a piece before you buy it.  Not only is it good business sense but it can add lasting appreciation for you as well as subsequent owners.   

America’s first transportation industry and the vehicles built during that time are not only the historical backbone of this country’s amazing growth but they also represent tremendous personal struggle, achievement, freedom, and opportunity.  The old master craftsmen were inextricably connected to immigration into this land as well as exportation into others.  Likewise, the subject highlights the study of math, science, geography, forestry, construction, manufacturing efficiencies, free enterprise, marketing, mining, the military, and well, just about any part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries you can imagine.  Talk about a subject with near endless stories!  And they’re all wrapped up in a frame of wood, metal, and paint – just waiting for you to take a closer look.  The American story and the West, in particular, are about as original as you can get.  If originality is not among your priorities when collecting, it will be tough to experience the most that these investments can provide.  So, build your knowledge base, get help when you need it, and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing exactly what surrounds you. 

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Tom & Betty Watt’s Antique Vehicle Sale

It will be hard to forget the recent sale held at Tom and Betty Watt’s ranch in Elbert, Colorado.  If you were there, you know what I mean.  From the sheer diversity of horse-drawn vehicles to the great weather and strong prices realized on many pieces, it was an extraordinary event.  Equally memorable was the gathering of so many familiar faces and western vehicle enthusiasts.  In some ways, the event felt as much like a family reunion as it did an auction.  Folks came from all over the U.S. and Canada.  Author, historian, and Concord Coach authority, Ken Wheeling, was there on a writing assignment from the Carriage Association.  The Stagecoach and Freight Wagon Association was on also hand as well as representatives from the American Chuck Wagon Association and the Santa Fe Trail Association.  Collector’s pored over the pieces, examining every part of the whole while sharing details about other vehicles in their own collections.  Needless to say, it was an exceptional opportunity to both view and learn about America’s early transportation history.

Harley Troyer’s well-known auctioneer service worked for months prepping the event and, it seemed, that anyone with even a passing interest in these antiquities had heard of the sale.  The auction had been promoted and talked about for almost a year.  It included almost sixty period wagons and carriages built by some of America’s most legendary manufacturers.  On Friday, June 16th, a steady stream of onlookers flowed throughout the barn as they previewed the wide assortment of wagons, carriages, and coaches.  

Hundreds of folks from all over the United States and even Canada attended Tom and Betty Watt’s auction of antique horse-drawn vehicles.

The sale was scheduled to begin on Saturday morning, June 17th and, as the sun rose, the field near the barn began to fill up with cars, trucks, and trailers.  License plates from a myriad of states dotted the landscape.  Multiple, full-sized semi-trucks with enclosed trailers sat atop a rise overlooking the whole affair, waiting in anticipation for what would be purchased and loaded within their confines.  Barbeque vendors filled the air with the smell of fresh pulled pork while countless attendees speculated on what a particular vehicle might fetch.  It was, after all, a large representation of wheeled history accumulated over the course of fifty years.  Not only was it an opportunity to witness the results of a half century of collecting but it was one of those rare occurrences when an auction was truly more than an auction.  It was a chance to get to know folks and connect with some of the best known and most experienced collectors of these pieces.  Most everyone had their eye on taking something home.  It was a no-reserve auction, meaning that everything would sell, no matter the bid.

The first wagon to sell was this replica of a Studebaker Army Ambulance.  It was built by Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop and brought $44,000.

The first vehicle to be sold was a piano box buggy made by the legendary Mifflinburg Buggy Company.  It brought $1,300.  Following that up, a Park Phaeton with lamps closed with a $4,000 top bid.  The next handful of pieces all sold for less than $3,000 – an Albany Cutter sleigh for $1,400, a three-seat bob sleigh for $1,600, a Hansom Cab for $2,600, a Governess cart for $700 and a Draft horse show cart for $1,900.  It was a start that carried average to expected prices but, for those who might have thought the sale would end up a little soft, the reality was that the room was just starting to warm up. 

The auctioneer’s booth was positioned on a small, three-wheeled trailer pulled along each row of vehicles.  Once that modern transport made its way past the first few carriages and arrived at the wagons, the feverish bidding began in earnest.  Most buyers, it seems, came there for the wagons, coaches, and western vehicles.  First up in that category was a replica Studebaker Army Ambulance built by Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop in South Dakota.  Back and forth competition for this exceptional piece brought the final price to $44,000.  Another top-seller was an original Abbot-Downing Yellowstone coach, commanding $56,000.  A feature-rich, Newton chuck wagon with fully-stocked chuck box, fly, poles, mannequins, and other accessories claimed a $33,000 tag while a full-sized, reproduction Concord Coach built by J. Brown sold for $28,000. 

In another instance, a ‘mud wagon’ – identified by stagecoach historian, Ken Wheeling, as a ‘Florida Wagon’ – brought $30,000.  According to Ken, the stage was cataloged by Abbot-Downing and, despite the geographical-sounding name, Ken shared that the design was not limited to use within a particular region; it was marketed throughout the U.S.  Even so, it's a piece rarely seen.

Built by legendary St. Louis builder, Weber & Damme, this wagon featured excellent original paint and graphics on the box.

The Weber & Damme wagon at the sale brought $12,000.  

Many of Mr. Watt’s quality farm wagons brought 11, 12, 13, 14, and even $15,000, leaving little doubt that the value of good, original wagons continues to climb.  In fact, if there were lessons to take away from this auction, one of the most apparent would have to be that unrestored, wooden wagons with significant amounts of original paint are very much in demand.  While many buyers were drawn to the major builders like Bain, Charter Oak, John Deere, Birdsell, Newton, Owensboro, Peter Schuttler, Weber-Damme, Columbus, and Weber wagons in the sale, other regional brands like Wagner, Lamons, Knapheide, and Rhoads were highly sought-after as well.  In fact, even unrestored wagons with minimal paint seemed to have an abundance of interest.  Moral of the story... if you have a good, original farm wagon – take care of it and keep it that way.  If you don’t have one, you might want to consider acquiring a quality example as part of a diversified investment plan!

The Charter Oak wagon brand has roots to 1856.  This was another high-quality wagon with original paint at Tom & Betty Watt’s auction.

John Deere wagons are popular with many collectors.  This double box example brought $10,000.  

This original Newton farm wagon topped out at $12,000.

This fully-equipped Newton brand chuck wagon attracted a lot of interest.  The final bid totaled $33,000.

While in Colorado, I had the great privilege of not only talking to many good friends but meeting a lot of wonderful folks from all over the country.  Truth be told, that’s one of my favorite parts of traveling, researching, and consulting with collectors on these early vehicles – this country is full of great people.  Actually, it’s refreshing; especially since the news media has a way of making it sound like the sky is always falling.  All it takes is a trip outside our familiar haunts and into the heart of this incredible nation to see why it’s still the most blessed and wonderful place in the world.  At America’s core, there are a host of good, honest, hard-working people who understand the value of our past and the tremendous opportunity we have to live in this Land of Liberty. 

Here’s a special shout-out to all of those I had the privileging of talking to and hanging out with last week.  I appreciate your kind words as well as the encouragement to keep plugging away on this weekly blog.  Next week will be my 300th blog post.  Trust me; there are weeks that it seems like even more.  Ultimately, it marks a lot of time on the keyboard as well as in our Archives and on trips around the country.  From the beginning, one of my biggest goals has been to help others see the value, depth, and extraordinary history tied to these old vehicles and builders.  Hopefully, we’re making some inroads there.  And to the gentleman who asked if I might still have one of the few “Borrowed Time” books we printed – It’s on the way, my friend. 

Have a great week!

Tom and Betty Watt’s historic Yellowstone Coach was the top-selling vehicle at their auction.  It sold for $56,000.  

Multiple bidders battled for this Bain wagon on an original through-bolted running gear.  Ultimately, it commanded just over $14,000.

This Rhoads brand wagon box sits on a Birdsell gear.  The entire wagon is featured in the book, “Borrowed Time.”  It’s a rare set of wheels that brought $15,000.

The Wagner wagon brand was produced in Jasper, Indiana and predominantly served that local region.  This extraordinary survivor sold for $14,000.  

This Standard Oil wagon sold for $11,500 while the J. Brown-built Concord Coach (in the background) brought $28,000.

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