Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Western Vehicle Research

The old barn was dark, dusty, and full of cobwebs.  It had been ages since it was an active part of the family farm.  Swallow and mud dobber nests dotted the interior and sunlight pried its way through the slat board sides.  As I walked across the loft floor, the old planks popped and groaned, warning me to step lightly.  I stopped to survey the interior, finally fixing my eyes on the back of the building.  As my sight adjusted to the dim surroundings, I noticed a familiar shape peering out from under a massive pile of loose hay.  Pulling back the musty straw, I began to uncover yet another nineteenth century survivor on wheels.  Who was the maker?   What history did it hold?  Why had it been buried?  Plenty of questions begged for answers but one fact was clear.  This was more than an old wagon.  It was a reminder that scarce pieces of early transportation history are still out there, waiting to be discovered and worthy of being preserved for future generations. 

To that point, we’re thankful to be adding a couple more original pieces to our collection this week.  One is a small stage wagon – also referred to as a mail jerky – from California’s legendary gold country.  Built on a Mountain Wagon frame, the aged structure is oozing with western character.  (For readers primarily familiar with “farm-style” mountain wagons, this is a different design entirely – I’ll try and cover the distinctions in a later blog).  The other vehicle is an early, slip-reach running gear with a morphing bed/box that folds into multiple configurations.  The folding box was built by the American Wagon Company and is one of only a handful or two we believe to have survived. 

While each vehicle is from a different century, both represent hard-to-find, century-plus-old pieces.  To date, the Wheels That Won The West® vehicle collection includes examples from several dozen brands with documented histories spanning every decade from the 1870’s through the 1940’s.      

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that the process of locating and studying vintage wagons has long been a passion of mine.  It’s a rewarding pastime highlighted by countless stories and remarkable finds.  For every find, though, there are countless dry runs and false leads.  Two decades ago, as I began to earnestly analyze early wagons and western vehicles, I couldn’t have imagined how much there would be to learn.  Similarly, I never cease to be amazed at the amount of misinformation that can be heard and seen today.  I’ve come to believe that the near-endless number of speculative statements, personal opinions, misconceptions, and outright untruths may be the biggest obstacle for anyone sincerely wanting to understand period wood-wheeled vehicles.

My recommendation for avoiding these pitfalls goes straight to the heart of the definition of ‘research.’  Modern dictionaries describe this term as being “a careful or diligent search.”  That means you probably shouldn’t believe everything you hear offhand and certainly should be cautious about placing too much credibility in every search of topics on the internet.

The process of closely examining and documenting features on numerous original wagons can play an important role in sustainable research. 

Case in point… Not long ago, I noticed an auction where a wagon was represented as an early 1800’s piece.  It was not.  The supposed history of the vehicle was equally incorrect.  Likewise, elements of the vehicle were mismatched and not original.  How did I know?  First of all, the purported date of the piece was not in sync with multiple design standards and construction methods on the wagon.  As I’ve shared before, over the years, wagon makers often changed methods of manufacturing as they repeatedly looked for ways to create better products.  Recognizing these variables is important when assessing wood-wheeled transportation. 

Secondly, the wagon brand was one I knew had not been manufactured until after the turn of the 20th century.  The original maker stenciling and stamping on different parts of the wagon made this point even more obvious.  Finally, I’ve shared over and over that every part of a period vehicle has a story to tell.  Part of my mission in these situations is to study details to determine what information can be gleaned from every part.  These types of comprehensive reviews have a way of uncovering inconsistencies in a vehicle.  After examining thousands of these rolling workhorses, I’ve noticed a number of patterns.  The experience has made it easier to know where to look and what to look for.  In this particular auction, it was eventually learned that the well-meaning seller had briefly looked at one source on the internet and, based on that single (unreliable) source, had made statements that left his credibility in question.

At the end of the day, there is a great deal of pride and satisfaction in knowing exactly what a particular piece represents.  If you’re looking at purchasing a period vehicle, don’t be afraid to dive in, ask plenty of questions, and insistent on documentation to support historical assertions.  Regrettably, quick assumptions can leave a less than positive feeling for both parties in a transaction. 

Twenty years ago, there was a reason that generalizations and best guesses were made about many old wagons and western conveyances.  At the time, almost no information on individual brands could be found in a centralized source.  As a result, not as much study had taken place.  We knew little about period design standards and even less about construction variations among the myriad of different manufacturers.  Today, information is more prevalent but still needs to be properly vetted to help insure its reliability.  

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