Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Early Sprinkler Wagons

Permeating the American landscape, horse drawn vehicles were manufactured by the millions in the 18 and early 1900’s.  Cities were especially packed with a variety of designs.  From ambulances and coal wagons to ice, petroleum, furniture, milk, bakery, express, grocery, mail, meat, peddler, sanitation, farm, freight, lumber, and even dray wagons, the country’s city streets were once home to an enormous variety of spring-hung and dead-axle wagons.  With such great diversity, it can be tough these days to gather details on all of the makers and styles.   
While some were built for a precise function, others were used for a multitude of purposes.  One of the more clear-cut designs was the “Sprinkler  wagon.”  Often large and heavy, these specially-built wheels carried tanks built to hold as much as a thousand gallons of water.  Some were equipped with heavy duty platform springs while others were supported by bolster springs or even no springs at all.  Strength, durability, ease of maintenance, and fluid draft were among the qualities typically associated with these wagons.  Their purpose was simple; help keep the dust dampened on heavily traveled streets while simultaneously improving the health and living conditions for the populace. 
Among the more prominent builders of these wagons were brands like Studebaker, Winkler Bros., Miller-Knoblock, Etnyre, and others.  Large builders offered numerous vehicle sizes, tank capacities, and sprinkler configurations.  As you might imagine, competition for business was keen with manufacturers' agents regularly engaged in contract negotiations with cities all over the country.
One lesser-known builder from St. Joseph, Missouri applied for a patent on his sprinkler wagon design in January of 1879.  It was granted in 1880 - well before most other patents were issued on these vehicles.  According to an 1881 account entitled, “The History of Buchanan County, Missouri,” J.P. Fairchild had been involved in the street sprinkling business in St. Louis as early as 1866.  After years of experience with the machines, he felt he could improve their designs and set about to fabricate a different system.  With the completion and successful testing of the concept, he gave the vehicle the bold name of “The Boss.”  Thereafter, each of his sprinklers carried that stenciled name.  

This image was taken from a much larger photo showing significant details of the Fairchild Sprinkling wagons.   

One of the primary advantages of Fairchild’s patented design was to regulate the strength and flow of water, minimizing and also maximizing the output with ease.  Within the first year of production, the heavy duty vehicles were used throughout the cities of St. Joseph, Missouri and Keokuk and Oskaloosa, Iowa as well as Atchison, Kansas and other locales.  Regrettably, we’ve found no evidence that the Fairchild business was long-lived.  By the late 1880’s, period directories show no record of the enterprise in St. Joseph.  
With tens of thousands of known wagon and carriage makers and repairers once doing business in the U.S., it would likely be an impossible task to find and gather records of each one.  That said, for the last twenty-plus years, the Wheels That Won The West® Archives have become home for the history of a sizeable number of these builders.  As many of you know, we're on a quest to seek out and preserve as much of this rare history as possible before it's forever lost.  The documentation of Mr. Fairchild’s wagons represents some of our latest efforts to help showcase the contributions of small builders with big dreams.  We feel fortunate to have quality imagery showing multiple angles of the Fairchild sprinklers and hope one day the materials may prove beneficial in identifying a previously unknown set of wheels from America’s first transportation empire. 

The Fairchild sprinkler wagon patent was proclaimed by some to produce results “more natural than a shower itself.”  

Sprinkler wagons continued to be relatively commonplace among larger communities well into the twentieth century.  However, as early as 1904, cities such as Los Angeles were already experimenting with different methods of cutting the dust.  One attempt included the spreading of crude oil on streets.  At the time, it was believed to be a more cost effective and successful way to handle the clouds of dust and dirt in the city’s thoroughfares.  Ultimately, the paving of roads and the popularity of automobiles, themselves, took away the need for horse drawn water sprinklers.  Even so, water trucks with sprinkler systems are still regularly used today in construction projects, dirt race tracks, and other municipal purposes.  They stand as distant reminders of a time when horse drawn vehicle makers were aggressively competing for contracts to water down infrastructures while strengthening the well-being and overall economy of the U.S.  

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.