Wednesday, August 20, 2014

More Wyoming Wagons

Congratulations to all of the participants at the recent Wyoming State Fair Sheep Wagon competition.  It was an impressive event, kicked off with a great chuck wagon breakfast on Sunday morning.  I had the privilege of participating in the wagon judging and can’t say enough about how warm and welcoming everyone was.  The wagon display included a wide variety of styles including a WW1 era Army Escort wagon, multiple chuck wagons and buggies as well as fourteen sheep wagons signed up for the competition. 

An early sheep wagon scene taken from Volume One of our Borrowed Time western vehicle book series.

Vehicles from the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s were represented with about an equal number of wooden wheeled and rubber-tired sheep wagons shown.  Box makers we could conclusively determine included Florence and Home on the Range.  I was also able to identify running gears originally built by makers such as Bain, Mitchell, Peter Schuttler, Owensboro, Studebaker, Winona, John Deere, and Stoughton.  Author, sheep wagon authority, and fellow judge, Tom Lindmier, was gracious enough to show me a few more wagons in the area.  It all made for a full and memorable trip.  Below is a brief look at a few winners from this year’s Wyoming State Fair Sheep Wagon Competition.

Classified in the "Restored with Modifications" category, the Valentine Sheep wagon entry captured this segment.

New for this year, the "Personal Touch" category helped highlight some of the more customized Sheep Wagon entries.  The Garber entry received the highest total points in this class.

John Sullivan and the Sullivan Ranch took home top honors in the “Unrestored Working” sheep wagon classification.  His wagon is an original “Home on the Range” brand. 

In the "Unrestored Original" category, Bob Vollman received the most points from the 4 judges. His original Florence bed was mated to a Mitchell running gear.

The "People's Choice" sheep wagon award went to Richard Kaan from the Fall River Carriage Company. 

Thanks, again, to the event organizer, Steve Shadwick, and all of the great folks at the Wyoming State Fair.  The wagons at the gathering represented a good cross-section of early manufacturers.  Some of the period designs rode on Mountain Wagon gears with steel skeins (correctly pronounced with a long ‘a’ as in “skains”) while others were equipped with cast skeins.  Combined with comfortable weather and a super-friendly atmosphere, the only thing missing for me was the opportunity to stay longer.  After two days at the fair, work was calling and it was time to hit the trail once again.  My trip to the region took me past old stage stations, military forts, sections of the Bozeman and Oregon Trails, numerous museums, and even a historic buffalo jump.  One thing’s for certain, if you enjoy America’s western history and early wagons, this annual event – and the entire area – should be on your bucket list.  To punctuate that a bit, in an upcoming blog we’ll share even more about several additional wagons located on the Wyoming State Fairgrounds in Douglas. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Coaching in Mariposa Grove

In late 2011, I made a commitment to write a weekly blog with subject matter directly related to the heavier horse drawn vehicles that helped build America.  In addition to the dozens of feature length articles I’ve been fortunate to share, this week’s blog marks my 150th post.  As a way of highlighting that personal milestone, there is another reason the ‘150’ number is special this year.  2014 marks the 150th Anniversary of the creation of Yosemite Park by Abraham Lincoln. 

The Yosemite Stage & Turnpike Company offered breathtaking tours of some of America’s most beautiful scenery during California’s early coaching days.

Doug Hansen and his team of professionals at Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop completed this restoration of a vintage Yosemite coach several years ago. 

The Park and the giant sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove have a long and storied history connected to coaching in the West.  In 1877, thirteen years after President Abraham Lincoln ceded Yosemite to the state of California, the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company began offering stagecoach tours to Mariposa Grove, the largest stand of giant sequoias in what became Yosemite National Park in 1890. The sequoias are much the same today, but many of the open-sided touring coaches are gone.  To get to the Big Trees by stage in the early days, drivers had to negotiate steep, narrow mountain roads with sheer drops and difficult switchbacks. On a few occasions, masked highwaymen disrupted these outings.  In fact, during the first recorded robbery in 1883, passengers forked over an amazing $2,000 worth of cash and jewelry. Even without this extracurricular excitement, the tours often took all day.

With a continuing interest in these specially designed vehicles as well as other stage and mountain wagons used in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (and the fact that I’ve always wanted to see the giant redwoods up close), my wife and I made another trek out West a few months ago.  As part of the venture, we made sure to include Mariposa Grove in our trip.  From the legendary Half Dome granite rock to giant waterfalls, scenic roads, wildlife, and the big trees themselves, the area is incredibly beautiful and rich in American history.

Reaching the parking lot of the Grove well in advance of the tour buses, we were among the first to arrive.  The morning air was cool but extremely comfortable for our 4 mile round trip hike into the impressive trees.  Within sight of our parking spot we encountered one of the legendary trees often shown in the early coaching photos.  It was the ‘Fallen Monarch’ which is believed to have met its demise more than 300 years ago.  Climbing on this still-imposing piece is prohibited today but there are a number of photos from 19th century excursions showing horses, riders, coaches, and sight seers all atop this monstrous tree.  The acids in the wood help prevent decay, so a number of the oldest toppled giants are still here to view. 

The photos above show the legendary ‘Fallen Monarch’ tree as it appeared in the late 1800’s as well as today.

Moving up the well-marked trail, we began to hear the first rumblings of the tour vehicles.  In some cases, these open air buses are traveling the same paths as the early horse drawn coaching parties did.  Just over 2 miles up a zig-zagging mountain trail was a tree I’ve wanted to see for decades.  It is the giant Tunnel Tree that has been the subject of so many photos over the years.  Period images often show early coaches, mountain wagons, and automobiles being driven through it.  As a bit of background to the Tunnel Tree’s history, the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company hired two brothers in 1881 to cut an eight foot wide tunnel through the heart of the redwood, also known as the “Wawona” Tree.  The brothers were paid $75 to create a passage more than 26 feet long and 10 feet tall.  The majestic tree stood over 230 feet in height until it fell in 1969 under an especially heavy crown of snow. 

Perhaps the most famous tree in Mariposa Grove is the “Wawona” or Tunnel tree.  It was a favorite place for ‘drive-thru’ photos for almost a century.

The two photos above show the legendary Wawona as it appears today.  It lays where it fell in 1969.  A close look reveals the old road beneath the giant.


One of the many Giant Sequoia trees near the well-known Wawona Tunnel Tree.

While it’s sad to see the fallen hulk on the ground, there is something especially grand about this tree that puts life in greater perspective.  Prior to its fall, it was sometimes promoted as the “Oldest Living Thing.”  Believed to be as much as 2,300 years old when it fell, it stretched more than 230 feet into the air, was standing during the birth of Jesus Christ, and dwarfing the forest floor when Columbus stumbled upon the Americas.  Billions of people lived their lives from start to end during the lifespan of this behemoth.  It was a privilege to see while walking some of the same trails taken by early horse drawn coaching parties.

Just a few miles from Mariposa Grove is the Pioneer Yosemite History Center.  The facility contains a number of historic structures related to Yosemite as well as a significant collection of early western vehicles.  We’ll cover some of those special sets of wheels in an upcoming blog.  In the meantime, if you haven’t yet signed up to receive this weekly blog via e-mail, 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. Please don't hesitate to let us know if we can be of assistance. We're looking forward to your visits each week.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Wyoming Sheep Wagons

This year marks the 130th Anniversary of the construction of the first sheep wagon built by James Candlish.  Many have attributed the invention of the vehicle to Mr. Candlish while others believe William McIntosh, Jacob Jacobsen, or George Ferris should receive credit.  There will likely always be discussion as to the who, when, and where’s of the first sheep wagon but, the recognition of Wyoming’s leading role in its creation is undisputed.  Locations such as Douglas, Casper, Cheyenne, Buffalo, and Cody have a long and legendary connection with the vehicle.  Today, the state continues to celebrate its rich western heritage with the 102nd Wyoming State Fair taking place from August 9-16.  Activities included in the week-long event include a Dutch oven cooking contest, rodeo, ranch horse event, and sheep wagon competition. 

A rare early image showing a pair of Florence Hardware Sheep wagons.  The original photo has crisp details and is part of the Wheels That Won West® Archives.

Sheep wagon competitors are judged on the quality of the running gear, roof construction, doors/windows, accessories, stove, history, and other pertinent traits.  The gathering at this year’s fair will include a wide variety of wagons and plenty of ranching history from our nation’s past.  While regional builders/sellers of these wheels – such as Florence Hardware, A. & A.C. Rice, J.C. Jacobsen, and F.L. Belcher – often gain a fair amount of attention, there were several prominent national manufacturers of Sheep Camp wagons as well.  Among the host of makers were the Studebaker, Stoughton, Winona, and Kentucky wagon companies.  Each capitalized on the growing sheep industry during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and each offered customized variances on a standard design.  Today, these special vehicles are still popular with ranches, collectors, lodges, businesses, and others. 

This Sheep Camp wagon has a Peter Schuttler supply wagon in tow as it crosses a low, narrow portion of the Powder River.

For those in the area of Douglas, Wyoming on August 9th, this year’s sheep wagon competition at the Wyoming State Fair will present a great opportunity to see some impressive examples of America’s western history on wheels. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wagon End Boards

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know we cover a wide variety of wagon-related subjects.  Clearly, the topic of early wood-wheeled wagons and western vehicles is one with surprising depth.  Over the years, we’ve tried to show these complexities through numerous speaking engagements, magazine articles, books, videos, and this blog.

Even with hundreds of our articles and blogs written to date, one area that we haven’t focused on much is that of end gate designs.  A wagon’s end gate is the forerunner of a ‘tail gate’ on a contemporary pickup truck.  Just how important a particular end gate style could be is reflected in the seemingly endless number of patents granted for related parts and designs in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  While the forward and upper rear end gates were usually a solid plank of wood, the lowermost rear board could be made the same way or it might be configured with multiple segments engineered to drop, flip, slide, swing, or fold open.

Folding end gates became extremely popular due to the ease of unloading and accessing cargo on early farm, freight, and ranch wagons.

The folding design that so many surviving wagons possess today can trace much of its lineage to a patent awarded to Charles Comstock in 1870.  Known as the Comstock Patent End Gate, the arrangement was quickly adopted by numerous wagon makers.  The advantage of the hinged design was that it was able to be quickly and effortlessly detached from the bed without the need to remove box rods or dislodge the upper gate.  This was an important feature for unloading cargo such as corn, vegetables, coal, and other loose materials.  It also allowed for easy carrying of lumber and other lengthy or awkwardly-sized items that might otherwise be poorly-suited for the available box space. 

These images from the 1870 Comstock patent illustrate the simplicity, efficiency, and convenience of a folding end gate.

In 1879, the Mr. Comstock’s patent was reissued, extending him even more notoriety and financial gain.  Again and again, we see the impact of technology on America’s first transportation industry and, again and again, these details help us evaluate, define, and properly connect history with the appropriate timeframes and brands.  While construction methods and product traits can vary, there are some elements within wagon designs that share origins.  With that in mind, the next time you see a folding end gate on any vintage wagon you’ll know that it relies on an idea made popular almost a century and a half ago.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ten Lost Wagon Brands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wooden Wagon Signs

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

Hand built, wooden promotional signage was once a common 

sight with wagon retailers.  

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

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

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

business establishment itself.

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

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

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Wagons & Stagecoaches in the West

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

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

Concord Coach is still visible today. 

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

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

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

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