Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tom Watt Tour

While my introduction to horse-drawn vehicles can be traced to a runaway experience in my early teens, my dad and grandad grew up using wagons and horse-drawn equipment – on a daily basis.  Sometimes I have to remind myself that, even though America enjoys a host of modern conveniences today, it wasn’t that long ago that motorized wheels were an unaffordable luxury. 

Like a lot of folks across the globe, my grandad’s wagon-related stories were highlighted by runaways and wrecks.  Of course, my dad would want me to add that grandpa often fueled the problem by purchasing green (unbroken) mules to work the fields and wagons.  For obvious reasons, they were cheaper.  Dad laments that just about the time they would get a single mule or team working well, grandpa would sell them.  No doubt, for a good profit.  During the process of breaking them, though, there were times when explosive excitement and quick action ruled the day! 

After hearing the old stories and having my own ‘incident’ behind the traces, it took a while for me to come back to wooden wheels.  Still yet, I couldn’t shake the history of these pieces and in the mid-1990’s, I began a more serious focus on researching and collecting unique vehicles.  Since the internet was relatively unknown at that time, it wasn’t always easy to find details on antique horse drawn vehicles.  My earliest ‘guide’ was a used book store in Springfield, Missouri.   Visiting it a half dozen times a year, I was blessed to some across a number of important primers.  “Conestoga Wagon 1750-1850” and “The Prairie Traveler” were among the pieces found there and they continue to be valuable assets in our Wheels That Won The West® library. 

As the years progressed, I became acquainted with more folks of a similar bent.  Turns out, my intrigue with discovering and preserving this segment of American history is not so unusual.  Over and over, I’ve met collectors and enthusiasts from all walks of life and all parts of the U.S. as well as several foreign countries.

Positioned at the entrance to Tom Watt’s collection, this Newton brand chuck wagon is fully equipped and set up as an authentic display.

A number of years ago, I was introduced to Tom Watt.  Tom is a long, tall Arizona Coloradan – meaning he spends about equal time between properties in each state.  Not only is he one of the friendliest fellas I’ve run across but he’s also an astute businessman and early vehicle collector.  The pieces he’s helped preserve include several dozen historic wagons, carriages, and stages.  In fact, one of the small thorough-brace vehicles he owns is purported to have carried President Theodore Roosevelt during the 1904 World’s Fair at St. Louis.

Years ago, I wrote a brief history for Tom outlining the background of another equally rare, hand built vehicle he has on display – a Rhoads brand wagon from Anderson, Indiana.  Some of that particular brand’s heritage can be found in our “Borrowed Time” book which also covered other hard-to-find details from national wagon brands like Birdsell, John Deere, Peter Schuttler, Weber, Newton, Studebaker, and more.

Not long ago, Tom hosted a large group from the Larkspur and Cherry Creek Valley Historical Societies.  Walking them through his collection is akin to stepping back in time to a day when horseflesh ruled the road and the big ‘three’ in transportation was more like the big 50 or 100.  All total, there were tens of thousands of horse drawn vehicle makers in the U.S.  While most were small makers, a number of them became strong regional, national, and even international forces.  Tom’s compilation includes an impressive lineup of notable brands and wide variety of vehicle types including those built as a farm wagon, chuck wagon, sheep wagon, hearse, sleigh, mail wagon, buckboard, buggy, carriage, mountain stage, mud wagon, Concord coach, stock rack, and military ambulance.  Seldom do we have a chance to see so many different vehicles in one setting. 

Business wagons, such as this one promoting early Watkins products, were once a common sight as peddlers hawked their wares to rural sections of the U.S.

Making the most of every opportunity to pass on knowledge, appreciation, and insights from America’s first transportation industry is just one of the unspoken duties many collectors gladly embrace.  After 50 years of collecting, Tom Watt and his wife, Betty, have put together some of the country’s most impressive vehicle survivors and, in the process, have preserved a tremendous amount of history.  From rare brands to unique designs, we are all the richer for it.

Beginning in the late 1890’s, light wagons such as this one carried the mail via Rural Free Delivery (RFD) to farm families living distances from town.

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