Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Summertime Vacations & Old Wheels

Summertime is just around the corner and with school activities wrapping up for many, there are countless vacations being planned.  It’s the time of year that reminds me of several trips we took with our kids.   Even though we tried to ensure that every retreat included elements for everyone, I’m still accused of planning those getaways in the vicinities of early vehicle collections.  Okay, I may be a little guilty but the reality is that there are numerous examples of period wagons and coaches scattered all over the U.S.  So, our trips to Washington D.C., Mount Rushmore, Pikes Peak, Ft. Worth, Nashville, St. Louis, Kansas City, and even Disneyland always managed to have a stop or two to take in some wood-wheeled wonders. 

One of the most rewarding parts to traveling and viewing vehicles in other parts of the country is that you can see a lot of different features and configurations.  Fact is, specific areas often had particular designs and ways of doing things that aren’t seen elsewhere.  Once you begin to notice those details, it becomes easier to recognize regional styles.  It’s another part of the authentication process that’s crucial for collectors. 

Last week, I shared a few details about an original stage wagon we were conserving with the help of Doug Hansen and his team.  While I was at the South Dakota shop, I had a chance to walk through Doug’s bone yard of wheeled relics.  As we passed by one piece, he mentioned that it was an Indian wagon.  It's a term you don't hear too often but, still yet, the legacy is an important part of Old West history.  These wagons were sold to the U.S. Government as part of provisions made available to American Indians.  While this particular set of wheels happened to be a Studebaker, there were many other brands that also built these wagons.  Competition for the contracts was fierce and sometimes resulted in legal actions when a bid was lost. 

I took special interest in the piece for several reasons.  First, even though there were thousands of these wagons built, they are rarely identified today.  Second, these vehicles can easily date to the 19th century and that construction timeframe is becoming harder to find outside of a collection.  Third, some of today’s most legendary and elusive brands were known to have built these wagons – Caldwell and Jackson being among the most difficult to come across.  So, running across this kind of history in a South Dakota pasture was a bonus I wasn’t expecting.  It’s yet another reminder that you never know what you’re going to see or where.  As a result, it’s best to stay vigilant and take plenty of photos and notes.  Scarce pieces can show up when least expected and aren’t always immediately recognized.  Thorough documentation can be especially beneficial years later when more insights are known about a particular brand or design. 

While heavily deteriorated, this Indian wagon gear is a rare find.  The mountain wagon design is equipped with steel skeins, a clipped gear, tire rivets, bolster iron extensions, and an overlapping reach.

I’ll share a little more about these wagons in a later blog.  My main point here is to encourage watchfulness when you travel.  While millions of America’s earliest wooden vehicles have disappeared, many are still out there.  As an example, in the past two weeks, my travels have allowed me to see dozens of different designs – and even more individual pieces.  Almost all of them were a surprise to find.  Some of the most logical places to run across early wagons and coaches are in museums.  Even so, there are some truly amazing survivors in private collections.  Without a little guidance, though, it can be tough to know what pieces are where.  Joining organizations like the American Chuck Wagon Association, Carriage Association of America, and the National Stagecoach & Freight Wagon Association can be very helpful.  Networking opportunities within these groups can open doors to rare pieces that are seldom seen. 

Ultimately, if you have a vacation on the horizon and time to squeeze in a stop or two focused on early vehicles, do your homework.  Every part of the U.S. has its own share of rare and remarkable parts of yesterday.  My bet is you can weave it into your time off without any other family member knowing you planned the whole trip around these visits – or, at least I wish you better luck than I’ve had!  Have a great week.

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