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.