Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Learning About Wagons – One End to the Other

Every day old wagons and western vehicles are overlooked and every day more and more of our nation’s history disappears.  These oversights may seem insignificant until we realize just how many millions of wheels have completely vanished or are regularly misrepresented today.  After more than two decades of our own search and rescue missions, it’s become painfully clear that without a consolidated effort to preserve the best and rarest surviving vehicles in America’s first transportation industry, some brands and originality levels will likely be lost forever.  Nonetheless, there are success stories that crop up from time to time. 

One of the first steps in recovering and preserving so much of America’s wood-wheeled history is learning what went into every part of these vehicles and what the surviving pieces can tell us.  To that point, at the front and rear of many farm, freight, ranch, and military wagons were boards typically held in place by rods, pins, clips, chains, or straps.  Similar to the tailgate on a modern pickup truck, these “end gates” were engineered to help provide rigidity to the box while also serving other practical needs.  Hence, a good portion of them were crafted to swing, fold, drop, lift, slide, or remain static.  From dumping and loading to creating easier access to contents in the wagon, many of these innovations were parlayed into patents.  Some were readily accepted and used by numerous wagon makers.  As a result, it’s not uncommon today to run across a wide variety of end gate designs.  This week, I thought I’d highlight a few of the ideas popular more than a century ago. 

Folding end gate...

One of the most promoted and readily accepted end gate styles was the Comstock patent.  Awarded to Charles Comstock in 1870, this was the first ‘folding end gate’ design.  The flexible idea was crafted to allow the lower rear end gate of a farm, ranch, mountain, or freight wagon to be taken out without going through the time and trouble of removing the box rod.  This was especially convenient when the wagon was lifted up in the front, allowing grain to be dumped.  It also assured that the sideboards could remain somewhat stabilized even though one or more end gates were removed.

One of the most popular end gates found on antique farm wagons today was originated in 1870 by Charles Comstock.

Drop end gate...

As a kid and adult, I’ve sat on many truck tailgates.  From restful moments on the farm to social get-togethers at sporting events, the ‘tailgate’ has a long history in American vehicles.  In my younger years, most of those pickup truck tailgates were held up by chains with hooks.  At the time, I didn’t realize that the concept had its origins with horse drawn vehicles.  In fact, there were a number of patented variations of this idea in the 1800's and early 1900's.   Shown below are a couple of them.

This hinged end gate design dates to 1886.  Its use of chains to hold the gate level is similar to the way early pickup truck tailgates were configured.

The two images shown immediately above feature a 1904 patent.  It incorporates hinged, metal straps to hold the end gate.  Many modern truck beds still use a comparable design.  

Spring-loaded end gate...

In 1894, the Peter Schuttler Wagon Company unveiled a patent on a spring-loaded rear end gate.  The idea was focused on protecting the end gate from free-falling on its hinge and slamming against another part of the wagon or some other obstruction.  Many early wagon patents were predicated on a premise of shielding the vehicle from unnecessary stress or damages.  In this case, the notion not only helped protect the wagon but, with the resistance of the springs, items in the box were prevented from immediately dumping once the gate was freed from the side boards. 

This patented, spring-hung end gate was engineered to protect the wagon while also helping with loose loads such as city coal-hauling operations.

Okay.  There it is; a fundamental look at end gates for wagons.  I can only imagine that somebody somewhere is wondering… “Why focus on something as basic as an old wooden end gate?”  Actually, I hope someone is asking that question… a lot!  After all, only by asking questions do we learn and only by learning can we have any hope of locating and recognizing some of the last vestiges of America’s early wheeled history.  So, what ‘secrets’ can an end gate hold?  Well, to a certain extent, the designs can help highlight a particular vehicle style, make, purpose, bed width, and lower sideboard depth.  It’s just the kind of start to collecting data that helps us hone in on identifying and authenticating this part of our nation’s past.  Without that knowledge, all we have are best guesses and speculation… just the kind of direction that’s allowed so much history to disappear.

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