Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Military Tool Wagons & More

Twenty-one years ago, we began a quest.  You might call it a search and rescue mission; an all-out calling focused on uncovering and preserving as many details related to America’s early western vehicles as possible.  In the past two-plus decades, we’ve been blessed to find a literal mountain of forgotten images, information, vehicles, and parts.  We’ve also been fortunate to assist a number of individuals and organizations seeking this type of authentic connection to our western roots.
The materials we’ve collected have become an amazing foundation, confirming originality and directing us to even more areas of our horse drawn past.  Time and again, the parts for so many of these puzzles have been flushed out.  Like a covey of quail erupting from an otherwise ordinary fence row, these details can come fast and unexpected.  There often seems to be no rhyme or reason as to what comes along or when... something shows up in the mail, we stumble across an unrelated tidbit while focused on a different area of research, or sometimes during a trip we happen across a part of our past that no one ever knew existed.
It’s truly a rush to recognize a vehicle or part as an important missing link and watch the rest of the story come together.  With that said, one of the accounts I’ll be sharing at Colonial Williamsburg this week involves us finding two small photos showing a type of military wagon.  At first, that’s all I could deduce.  Actually, it appeared to be a supply wagon of some type.  The pair of old photos included a number of Escort wagon running gears surrounded by several Missouri mules.  One of the gears was topped with an enclosed wooden box that I had never seen before.  For the moment, it was a mystery.  Like a lot of the images we receive, though, I filed the photo but kept the memory of it close at hand. 

Reduced in size and resolution here, this incredibly rare image of a 100-plus-year-old Tool Wagon is giving us an even broader picture of known U.S. military vehicles.

Years later, I learned of some military-related correspondence which included a set of blueprints for a wagon.  First of all, original blueprints for any type of wooden wagon are scarce to say the least.  Second, what would you say the chances are that these blueprints would be a match to the photos I’d happened upon years earlier?  Needle in a haystack, right?  Most of the time, I’d probably agree but, miracles happen every day.  The blueprints turned out to be a dead-ringer for the photos.  Once again, separated pieces found their way back together and now we have a very solid picture of an ultra-rare military wagon.  So solid, we could completely rebuild this history exactly as it was a hundred years ago.  Along with the blueprints came the official name, “Tool Wagon.”  Knowing the proper title has also opened numerous doors, each helping add even more detail to what had previously been just a couple of old photos with no identity or immediate sense of value. 
As it turns out, Tool wagons were in use inside America’s military as early as the Civil War.  Military accounts refer to the twentieth century version we ran across as a “tool box on an escort frame.”  It’s an apropos moniker for this set of wheels.  The enclosed box could be equipped with a wealth of materials including shovels, lanterns, hatchets, axes, levels, picks, crow bars, calking irons, paint, brushes, cross-cut saws, rope, twine, wire, wrenches, nails, screws, spikes, portable blacksmith outfits, carpenter’s and saddler’s tools, and more. 
As I soon discovered, there were multiple types of Tool wagons beyond this dead axle configuration.  Spring hung Tool wagons were also used.  They were similar to an ambulance with drawers, lockers, and compartments for drafting, surveying, reconnaissance, and photographic gear.  There was also a Pontoon Tool wagon designed to carry materials needed for crossing rivers and large creeks.

Whether on the ranch or range, period chuck wagons were generally a custom-designed vehicle.  Studebaker was one of a select few major builders to cater to ranch wagon needs.

In a similar vein, lately, we’ve been making inroads into other unknowns.  With 2016 being the 150th Anniversary of Charles Goodnight's construction of the first chuck wagon, I thought I’d pass along a little teaser.  Over the years, a lot of discussions have taken place as to what that wagon looked like.  While we don’t have actual imagery of that legendary set of wheels, we have grown closer to understanding how the old wagon would have appeared.  It’s not been easy but, piece by piece, we’ve slowly been able to dig through enough early reports and documents to begin dividing fact from fiction.  Sometimes, a dead end in one direction can open up in another.  In other words, when we don’t know exactly what something looked like, coming at it from another angle can at least tell us what it didn’t look like.  Ultimately, these exercises placed alongside primary source documentation have produced enough fruit that one day soon we may be able to share even more about America's first chuck wagon. 

In the meantime, we continue to roll along an incredibly historic road, looking for the lost and legendary parts of our wood-wheeled western heritage.  From rare logos and design specifications to original images and promotional samples, we're working hard to help bring it all back together in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

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.