The older I get the more complex the world seems to be. Yes, I know, some parts of life do appear to be simpler but consider this… when many of us were kids, something as straightforward as a watch was, well, just a watch. The band was either elastic, had a clip, or small buckle. That was the end of the frills. There were no digital read-outs, just an hour, minute, and “sweep” second hand. Today, the watch many of us use is also a phone and flashlight as well as a still camera and video recorder that shows multi-year calendars, sends emails and texts, surfs the internet, plays games, sends reminders, keeps notes, updates us on news and weather, gives directions, plays music, videos, and so much more!
Whatever the innovation and however superior the idea, it seems there’s always room to be better. Studying the world of early wagons and western vehicles has some parallels as well. Predominantly, the more we uncover, the deeper this subject seems to be and the easier it is to see there is still a lot to learn. Beyond my own research queries, I receive quite a few questions in the course of a year related to wood-wheeled transportation. To that point, some time back, a gentleman asked me to define the scope of a farm wagon’s use. That’s almost like asking how many stars are in the sky. The vehicle is so versatile, it was used for a near-endless array of purposes.
The Peter Schuttler wagon brand, based in Chicago, Illinois, was highly respected among farmers, ranchers, freighters, and business owners.
Ultimately, the individual wanted to know if a farm wagon could sometimes be engaged as a freight wagon. The answer is threefold… “Yes, No, and It depends.” By now I hope I have your curiosity up because the question is one of the best I’ve ever received. The reason is that it forces us to consider the entire scope of what has become an extraordinarily commonplace term for a surprisingly complex design… a design so ubiquitous that contemporary audiences often see it as ordinary. The end result of that kind of reasoning can mean a loss of vehicle identity, contributions, and significance. In other words, by focusing only on the words – ‘farm wagon’ – the category can be so restricted that misinterpretations are too easily substituted for historic reality.
American farm wagons, by definition, can include a broad assortment of vehicles going by names such as Road wagons, Virginia wagons, schooners, smaller Conestoga wagons, box wagons, rack beds, and even Mountain wagons. Each of these types can be pigeon-holed into a specific set of farm duties but some of these wheels were also used as freight wagons during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Of course, city trucks, drays, hitch wagons, and platform wagons as well as log wagons, dump wagons, and a variety of other styles were also haulers of certain types of freight. The freight wagons I’m referring to here, though, are those strictly commercial vehicles regularly traveling long distances while carrying massive amounts of goods, supplies, equipment and/or raw ore between settled areas.
Tall-sided freight wagons with ‘back-actions’ were a common sight during the mid to late 1800’s in the American West.
While major wagon builders in the late 1800’s regularly promoted specific freight wagon designs, end users also looked to what they already had available. Clearly, lightly built farm wagons would not have been up to the requirements of heavy freighting. That said, more muscular farm wagons were indeed documented among eastern and western freighters. Among many of the eastern states, Road Wagons, Virginia Wagons, and smaller Conestoga wagons could be seen hauling commercial freight as well as serving on the farm. Numerous period records refer to temporary freighter/farmers as ‘sharpshooters’. These farmers took advantage of seasonal or financially favorable opportunities to participate in freighting alongside the ‘regulars.’
Out West, where the tall-sided freight wagons reigned, heavier built farm-style wagons could periodically be seen trailing behind as a second or even third wagon in a connected train. These secondary trailers (back-actions) were often fitted with additional sideboards, making them at or near the same height as the lead wagon. Our Wheels That Won The West® archives not only include original photographic examples of these configurations but some images actually show an entire train of reinforced farm wagons with multiple sideboards. Of course, these aren’t your average farm wagons. Equipped with steel skeins, heavily clipped gears, and reinforced axles, payload capacities for some of these brawnier farm wagons could equal as much as 3 or 4 tons. Maker-labeled ‘Freight Wagons’ promoted in 1800’s catalogs were regularly engineered with capacities of 2.5 to 7 tons.
This image shows a pair of western rack bed wagons with additional sideboards in place. It was not uncommon to see freighters like this in the West.
So, while not all farm wagons could be called freight wagons, some were clearly used in that position. Prominent wagon makers also sold specific lead & trail wagons for freighting.
As a side note, most surviving farm wagons today will vary a bit from 1800’s-era designs due to evolutionary changes in construction features. As with virtually every product configuration, details make the difference as to what could or could not have logically filled the role. From skein sizes and types to axle configurations, bolsters, and standards, every part and purpose of these vehicles was specifically engineered to reinforce the whole.
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