I once had a team of draft horses that were unpredictable and took spells of nervous behavior. They were great fun to drive but it was hard to tell what might set them off. One fall day, I had hitched them to an old John Deere wagon. I had been working them for about two hours and was rolling through the middle of an open 40 acre field. The day was cool but comfortable and all had been going well. As I contemplated heading back to the barn, something stirred in the brain of the near wheeler. Whether it was his imagination or some reality that I hadn’t noticed really didn't matter. Both horses took flight and I found myself on a ride that connected me firsthand to a part of our horse drawn heritage most would like to avoid.
In an instant, the serenity of the moment was exchanged for a time of rapt attention and rapid deliberations. I’ve heard folks say that the human mind can’t ponder multiple thoughts at the exact same time but that day may have been an exception. The next several minutes seemed like an eternity with plenty of contemplations being hastily tossed around in my head.
I don’t know how long the run-away lasted but, as I slid sideways around the perimeter of a large circle, I remember seeing good-sized chunks of grass and dirt being cut by the tires and thrown high into the air. I kept the team turned as much as possible and when they finally stopped, it was hard to tell who was trembling the most – me or the horses. The next surprise happened when I looked down from my precarious perch. It appeared that the wagon was quite a bit longer than it had been when I started. Of course, that didn’t make sense but as I climbed down, I quickly noticed the pin had popped out of the reach and allowed the rear half of the running gear to slide along the coupling pole leaving only few inches before the gear extended beyond the box. Thankfully, we had stopped just in time to prevent the wagon from coming apart at full stride. (Moral of the story - always check to make sure the reach pin has a cotter key securely attached and do an overall vehicle safety review before hitching up!)
Surrounded by members of a threshing crew, this lunch wagon may have fallen victim to heavy winds on the plains.
Just as with traffic accidents today, these types of encounters occurred throughout America’s horse drawn era. The mishaps happened at night as well as during the day and could be the result of a number of different circumstances. Some took place when a vehicle traveled too close to the edge of a narrow, mountain road. Others ensued when loads shifted on hilly terrain. Still more happened in natural disasters, water crossings, sudden animal frights, or when parts broke at seriously inopportune times.
To the point about parts, early vehicle builders knew the dangers of broken or weakened components. As a result, many designs were created to enhance the performance of a set of wheels while adding to the peace of mind and confidence of the user. For example, since king bolts were a crucial part subjected to tremendous stresses, many of these sections received extra reinforcement as did the associated areas on the forward axle and sand board. Reaches were likewise engineered to help eliminate wear or rotate in response to changing terrain. Some brakes were designed to self-engage when going downhill, aiding with the load on draft animals and helping prevent skittish teams from running when they felt the wagon pushing them. Steering systems (much like some early autos) were developed to help minimize injuries to horses from a tongue whipping to one side or another after hitting a rock or hole. Some manufacturers even had specially designed pole caps that minimized the chances of neck yokes accidentally slipping off of the tongue.
In this exclusive original photo from the Wheels That Won The West® Archives, these tall-sided western freighters are being set upright after overturning on a narrow mountain road.
There were countless innovations and features especially designed for the well-being of the vehicle passengers and draft animals. Some of these traits have been covered in this blog while many more are deserving of discussions as well. Even the types of wood used in particular areas were often chosen for their safety and security points. Historically, the designed safety features of early wagons and western vehicles have not received a lot of publicity. Nonetheless, it was an area that many manufacturers focused on and one that gives us great insight into the unique characteristics that helped set individual makers – and even different eras – apart from each other.
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