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.