Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Rolling History Lessons

From my earliest days of studying America’s period wagons and western vehicles, the subject really took me to school.  In fact, these rolling works of art have done more than just grow my western transportation repertoire.  They’ve sent me to the proverbial woodshed a number of times for discipline.  Those experiences have taught me to slow down, look close, and not jump so easily to conclusions. 

It’s one of the reasons I’m always a bit cautious when pushed to quickly identify a vehicle builder.  While we live in an age where fast food and instant gratification are strong expectations, offering answers too quickly can generate a whole new set of problems.  About now, someone may be saying, “What the devil are you getting to, David?”  Just this… There are countless areas in vehicle evaluations where non-supported assumptions can leave us high and dry.

One of those places lies in the similarity of many brand names.  When looking at the different makes, it’s important to remember that what we see is not always as it appears.  For instance, some of our readers are likely aware that Montgomery Ward once marketed a wagon by the name of Whitewater.  Unfortunately, if you run across a Whitewater wagon, the name, alone, is not sufficient evidence to prove it is a Montgomery Ward brand.  In fact, there were at least three manufacturers that promoted a ‘Whitewater’ wagon.  In similar fashion, other companies also had duplicates.  For instance, while their histories were intertwined, Fish Bros. wagons built in Clinton, Iowa and Fond du Lac, Wisconsin were not the same as those built in Racine, Wisconsin.  Along the same lines, the Winona Wagon Company was a separate entity from the Winona Carriage Company.  There were multiple manufacturers of Nissen-branded wagons in North Carolina and the Star Wagon Company and Star Buggy Company were totally different firms in separate states.

Competing against a number of different ‘Smith’ wagons, this firm in Pekin, Illinois promoted themselves as the oldest and only vehicle worthy of the name.


If that’s not convincing enough, there were various builders of ‘Smith’ wagons as well.  While many enthusiasts may be familiar with T & H Smith from Pekin, Illinois, fewer are likely aware of Smith Wagons from Minneapolis, Minnesota or LaCrosse, Wisconsin.  Even more egregious is when two prominent brands are confused with each other.  As an example, not long ago, I came upon a Moline Mandt brand erroneously referred to as a Moline wagon.  Each of these companies have different factories, owners, designs, and histories.

Other complexities include countless brands that aren’t well known on the national scene but had a strong local influence.  It’s important to be aware that these pieces aren’t always found close to their original homes these days.  With collectors, traders, and enthusiasts scanning every nook and cranny of the U.S. for the best vehicles, quite a few of these sets of wheels have been transported well outside of their primary trade areas.  To that point, how many folks today are familiar with brands like Bement, Dean, Gale, Ottawa, Case, Cherokee, Pioneer, or Reitig?  These are names of well-promoted local and regional pieces that could be misidentified because they’re relatively unknown among the masses. 

Why does all of this matter?  Because, accuracy and proper identity always matter.  It matters to vehicle integrity, history, education, and even resale values.  Ultimately, it’s a big world inside America’s first transportation industry.  So, dive in, hold on, and good luck with your research.  There’s not a roller coaster on the planet with more dips, dives, twists, turns, and surprises.

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