Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Historically Accurate Wagons

I count it a privilege each week to share with an ever-widening group of folks interested in America’s first transportation industry.  As part of that stewardship, we appreciate your weekly visits and regularly work to highlight a broad range of wood-wheeled history.  This week, I’m focused on some mistakes occasionally inflicted on this subject; innocent-seeming blunders that can go the extra mile to harm the preservation of history.    

Case in point... For decades, I’ve watched America’s modern television documentaries and dramas delve into areas requiring the appearance of wood-wheeled wagons.  This past week, I saw it again; not one but two, recently-produced network programs touting the significance of early American history – yet using wagons vastly inappropriate for the time period shown.  This might seem like a trivial mistake but these types of oversights and indiscretions have helped to continually build a perception that early wooden wagons are overly simplistic, irrelevant, and generic creations. 

The problem with such a universal, one-size-fits-all approach is not only that we lose touch with the innovative genius and design standards that paved the way for other accomplishments but we also lose contact with entire segments of America’s movement west.  I’ll talk more about that in just a bit.  In the meantime, suffice it to say that inaccurate representations of transportation history are a destructive disservice leaving many of our nation’s most relevant wheels – and stories – snubbed and forgotten.      

Any old wooden wagon used as a visual prop for a major communications event – i.e. authoritative documentary – will not suffice any more than any old gun, saddle, train, town, pair of boots, or set of clothes is appropriate.  These vehicles were individuals that could vary greatly depending on the era, brand, user, and segment of the country.  

Early American wagon designs varied by era, brand, features, user, and region. 

There are easily dozens – perhaps even hundreds of obvious differences (depending on the era) – between a wagon used in one timeframe/region of the U.S. compared to another.  Certain design features and technologies weren’t even used until a particular point in time.  In other words, every part of these vehicles had a beginning.  So, if a television program is showing an American wagon being used in the 1700’s, there’s no excuse for including a running gear with cast skeins.  Even if the timeframe being covered is the very late 1700’s, we’re still decades ahead of the first use of cast skein technology.  From the way the vehicles were painted to the individual features and overall designs shown on the box, running gear, and accessories, the differences are real.  Because of that, it’s increasingly evident when shortcuts are taken and the homework hasn’t been done for a particular program. 

Okay... Back to the loss of American history that I alluded to in the second paragraph above.  Can anyone show me one of the purported 200,000 wagons that legendary St. Louis wagon maker Joseph Murphy made?  How about one of the hundreds of giant, Jackson freight wagons used in the West?  How many Studebaker Roundup wagons have been forgotten and left to rot – perhaps all of them?  How many original, high wheel, drop tongue Owensboro brand wagons have you seen?  Yep, they built a lot of them – and they were of a different design than most are familiar with today.  Would you recognize a legendary Espenshied brand wagon if you saw it?  Why is all of this important?  Beyond the responsibility to show yesterday as it truly was is the need to respect and save our wheeled past for what it is.  Much of the Old West was dominated by major vehicle brands.  Even though these wheels were extremely popular most of them are virtually impossible to find now.  In fact, every day, the last vestiges of the legendary brands that carried our 19th century heritage are withering away.  Why?  Because, it’s impossible to actively save valuable history if we don’t recognize and share that significance when we see it.  Then again, it’s hard to ‘see’ something if it's continually promoted as a rudimentary, inconsequential prop.

Reinforcing that point, if all segments of history are equal, then why don’t we just save one early computer and allow everything else to fade away?  That way, 200 years from now, everyone will know exactly what a computer looked and worked like – no need to confuse anyone with details, right?  Okay, you can see the ludicrous nature of that example.  I realize that I’m mostly preaching to the choir.  Hopefully, though, there might eventually be a television or motion picture producer that stumbles across this blog and comes to the realization that an entire, massive industry has been largely misrepresented for the better part of the last century. 

Kuddos to so many of you already promoting accurate western vehicle history and perceptions.  You’re doing a valued service for current and future generations.  I see that kind of authenticity in a lot of places and it’s a tremendous benefit to folks all over the country.  So, keep up the good work and send us an email showing your involvement in cookouts, competitions, school functions, shows, benefits, and the like.  We’d enjoy the opportunity to share your passion and respect for America’s wheeled history within this blog as well.

Take care and have a good week.

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