As a western vehicle historian, I’m constantly digging for more information on early wooden wheels used in the West. I look for details about the pieces themselves, their specific uses, unique designs, individual builders, marketing methods, competitive strategies, and the overall industry. All of it helps us gain a clearer and better picture of the complexities of America’s first transportation empire.
Not long ago, I stumbled upon an 1882 article sharing some of the challenges faced by heavy vehicle builders in California. The frustrations of the writer are clear as he repeatedly laments the lack of large capacity wagon makers in the Bear State.
While the Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Company was located in South Bend, Indiana, they maintained a strong presence in California. This 1883 illustration was part of a larger advertisement promoting vehicles specifically
built for the West Coast.
Clearly, there were notable, native builders in California during the 1880’s. However, at least during the time of this article, none had sufficiently grown to compete in mass scale with well-known manufacturers in the Midwest and East. Below are several excerpts from the article. As you’ll see, the comments begin with an optimistic outlook on the number of vehicles used throughout California. The tone quickly changes, though, as the writer pinpoints significant issues faced by builders.
“... The high rate of wages, the value of time to business men, the abundance and cheapness of horses and horse feed, the sparseness of population, the long distances at which many of the farmers live from towns, the number of good roads, and the considerable amounts of exports and imports, have led the people of our coast to own and use an exceptionally large number of wagons and buggies. It is doubtful whether so many are to be found in proportion to the people in any other part of the world. All the large towns have pleasure drives, on which the light buggy and the fast trotter are leading features.
While we consume a great number of wheeled vehicles, we produce but few. The oak used in the heavy and the hickory in the light wagons are equally lacking, and we must import both from the Mississippi Valley, and it is found cheaper to obtain them for general use in forms prepared for putting together, if not already put together in the various parts of wagons. A great part of the value of a wagon is in the wheels, most of which are made up for us beyond the Rocky Mountains. Even when wagons are made here, the spokes, felloes, hubs, axles, and tongues have not infrequently been shaped in the East. We purchase on this coast about 7,000 farm wagons annually, worth $100 each, and the number made here is very small, not one factory or shop being devoted exclusively to their production. Nor until we grow some wood that can rival the Eastern white oak in strength, elasticity, and even hardness of grain, is it probable that we can establish large factories for farm wagons with profit, even if the difference of 25% in wages against our manufacturers should be removed….”
The writer continues by sharing that the mining communities also seemed to be overly dependent upon vehicles created thousands of miles away.
“…The building of railroads and the decrease of production and population in the placer mining camps, deprived these mountain teamsters of much of their business, and diminished the demand for wagons of special patterns. The freight is now carried in vehicles brought from Michigan…”
The reference to Michigan-built freighters is particularly interesting. Beyond the distance from California, the notation is intriguing because part of early vehicle identification involves not only intimate knowledge of how a particular brand was built but, also awareness as to where those sets of wheels were distributed. By pointing to the state of Michigan, there is a strong probability that the legendary Jackson brand of wagons were the ones referred to as hauling freight to and from the mining camps. These freighters were often described as ‘Michigan wagons’ throughout the 19th century. It’s an important clue and one that bears remembrance during careful evaluations of surviving western freighters of unknown origins. Time and again, period writings proclaim the prominence of Jackson freight wagons (Austin, Tomlinson, & Webster Company). Yet, like a number of other legendary wagon makers, we know of no Jackson freighters to have positively been identified to date.
This 1889 Jackson wagon catalog contains a wealth of information on numerous Jackson vehicles – including freighters.
With so much of America’s early wheeled history lost or forgotten, it takes time and patience to uncover valuable pieces and put them back together again. Perhaps, through the sharing of some of these findings, we may yet restore important identities to vehicles that have been separated from their roots. The early Jackson catalogs and reference works in our Archives may one day help return a legend to its place in history. For your part, if you find yourself traveling in the West, take plenty of photos of any early freighters (large and small) you come across. We’d love to see them and compare to documents in our care. Together, just maybe, we can help return some of the West’s most important and least known history to its rightful place.