Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Collision of Worlds

I enjoy a good laugh and as our kids grew up we found ways to share memories that we still chuckle about today.  As their dad, sometimes I had to face the music as I was the object of the laughter – and that’s okay.  A little humility is good for all of us.  From family trips and school stories to chores around the house and special movies, we have a lot of things to smile about.  Throughout their growing up years, our kids were subjected to more than their share of western movies.  Like most, I suppose, we have our favorites.  I’ve lost count on how many times I’ve seen Lonesome Dove… And about any John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart flick is gonna get a nod of approval.  One that we often quote lines from is John Wayne’s “Big Jake.”  One of the interesting parts of this film is the timeframe of the storyline.  It’s set in the year 1909 and includes a few early autos and a motorcycle.  To some, that doesn’t qualify it as an appropriate western.  I understand why a purist might want to shy away from these transitional cowboy movies.  Sometimes, it can be tough to reconcile eras that we like to keep corralled in the 1800’s. 

Truth is, like any history, there are often times of significant advancements allowing collisions between generations of technology and lifestyle.  During the dawn of the 20th century, the popularization of the automobile and other newly-developed creations ushered in radical changes to what had been the ‘Old West.’  Legendary outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid along with Frank James and Cole Younger lived to see those days.  Wyatt Earp and several of his brothers also rode through some of these transitions.  Even though change was occurring fast, there is a fair amount of western vehicle history still tied to this timeframe.  Case in point, note the freighter shown below with the early automobile.  The men in the car are outfitted with rifles reminiscent of the posse scenes from “Big Jake.”  Clearly, the car seems out of place but it accurately reflects the days of the west during the early 1900’s.  

An early pair of western freight wagons in Narrows, Oregon.

The turn of the 20th century was still a booming time for wagon makers but the end was clearly on the horizon.  Patent submissions for wagon makers seemed to top out around 1910 and, by the late teens, the internal combustion engine was starting to call the shots at the factory as well as on the farm and the road.  

Weber wagons were well known throughout the 

country prior to the IHC acquisition.

In December of 1903, just months before International Harvester purchased the Weber Wagon Company and close to the same time the legendary Fort Smith Wagon Company was being formed, Orville and Wilbur Wright launched their celebrated flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  The transportation industry was going through significant changes.  Some fought for the old days and old ways while others embraced the shift, determined to make the most of it.  Again, the photo below shows the collision of these worlds.  The appearance of a very early airplane being carried by an army wagon with a balloon and period auto in the background is far from being common subject matter in early images.  It’s not known whether this may have been a fair, some type of military display, or other event.  What matters most is that all of these elements of transportation were sharing responsibilities – at least for a time – in both work and pleasure.  

A ultra-rare photo showing four modes of transportation in the early 1900’s.

So, what’s the point of this week’s blog?   Just this...  Some of the rarest wood-wheeled, vehicle history we have can come from the early 20th century.  It was during these years that horse drawn vehicle makers were engaged in a massive struggle to determine who they really were and how or if they would survive.  How did they compete?   Would they adapt to a new direction or mission?  How would each get around the newfound competition with automobiles?  Was there a market overseas or with a different business niche that might still need more wood-wheeled vehicles?  What about the emerging trailer and auto body industries?   What impact did the First World War have on these wheels?  All of these questions – and many more – defined an era that blended new and old in a way that can be almost as strange-looking today as what it must have seemed back in the day. 

For us, the ability to recognize unique features and construction traits from time periods such as this can help narrow down dates of manufacture.  It can also point to vehicles with extremely limited production numbers; and subsequently, pieces of greater interest and intriguing storylines.  After all, recognizing true rarity involves more than just looking for the oldest pieces.  It’s a process that requires understanding of what was happening within the industry as well as the brand.  It’s that never-ending study and fascination with America’s wood-wheeled history that continues to give us a legacy to keep and stories to tell.