Wednesday, October 7, 2015

What Is It?

Identifying old wagons, parts, and brands as well as related pieces from period blacksmith and woodworking shops can be interesting.  There’s always some unique tool or vehicle feature that tests our knowledge of what it took to design, build, repair, and operate the wheels from America’s horse drawn era.  Even though the road to discovery can be full of diversions and delays, sometimes it all comes together and a little effort pays off in dividends of knowledge.    
As an example – not long ago, I ran across a heavy, cast iron whatchamacallit (I had no idea what it was)  that sat on four ornately sculpted legs.  The legs were set in pairs at each end of a narrow half-moon-shaped trough that included a threaded drain hole in the bottom.  The top of the trough flared out in the middle with long slots that appeared to be positioned to help bolt something else to it.  As I surveyed the piece, I was told that it was a wheel soaker.  At first glance, I tended to agree but after studying it a bit more, I began to wonder if that assessment was true.  The trough looked too deep and the angle of the ends didn’t seem to exactly fit the curvature of a wagon or buggy wheel. 

This surviving framework was developed in the late 1860’s to hold a grindstone, making the tool more productive, efficient, and easier to operate. 

The other thing that was unusual was the ornate nature of the legs.  I’ve seen a lot of wheel soakers in all manner of sizes but none with such an extravagant support frame.  There was a medallion in the shape of a Union shield positioned on each of the longer sides of the trough.  I could see that the shield was accompanied by some words and numbers.  Unfortunately, it was difficult to read because too many coats of paint had been applied over the years.  The paint had filled in the openings of so many letters and numerals that a measure of patience was required to decipher it all.    

These illustrations of an early grindstone frame are part of a patent awarded to Joseph Douglas on September 1, 1868.

My wife and I spent nearly a half hour analyzing the lettering until we finally pieced together what was cast into the metal.  It read, “W. & B. Douglas   Middletown, Conn.   Patented  Sept. 1  1868.”  After seeing an 1860’s timeframe attached to this piece, I was determined to find out exactly what it was.  A few quick queries into the U.S. Patent files and voila!  We had it.  As it turns out, this was not a wheel soaker at all.  Although, it is something that could easily have been used in a blacksmith or carriage shop.  Turns out, the cast iron piece is the base for an early grindstone frame. 

In practice, the grinding wheel was fitted into the trough while side supports held it in place.  The design was engineered to hold the wheel fast while allowing more control and easier, faster, more efficient use of the stone.  The trough is a water chamber and the slotted upper flange was designed for the inclusion of a tool guide/holder, wheel support, protective guards, a slip-resistant shaft, and the attachment of a treadle allowing for foot operation.  Regrettably, some of the upper support structures were missing from the overall frame.  At roughly a century and a half in age, the piece we came across is certainly not something you see every day so it’s understandable that it could be misinterpreted as a wheel soaker.   
Ultimately, that’s the very point that I wanted to make this week... that not everything is always as it first appears.  Some of America's surviving wagons and early western vehicles are a hodge-podge of parts that have grown together over the years.  As a result, looking only at  one section, such as the name on the seat back or box side, does not always give us the whole story for proper identification and valuations.  Many pieces can be mismatched.  Taking the time to discern even minor differences not only helps provide a proper understanding of the piece but, it can mean all the difference in how well we choose and interpret early vehicles for a collection.   

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