Not long ago, I read a piece estimating that 80% of the world’s gold has yet to be uncovered. It’s one of those thought-provoking assertions that helps remind us of how much opportunity still exists in this world. In a similar way, I believe that the vast majority of what there is to learn about America’s first transportation industry has yet to be discovered. We may know a fair amount but most of us still don’t have all the pages of the early trade publications committed to memory. It’s a humbling reminder of the extreme depth of this subject and how far we have to go to preserve what’s left.
Truth is, in order to save and properly share our heritage, we must first be able to recognize it. The only way to recognize and fully appreciate this part of yesterday is to develop a more solid understanding of the vehicles, brands, parts, processes, people, challenges, innovations, and industry practices.
Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any shortcuts to acquiring so much information. As a result, over the last 20-plus years, I’ve chased more than my fair share of discarded history. Along the way, I’ve logged tens of thousands of hours in the hunt for old documents, forgotten artifacts, and other unknown details related to wheels from the horse-drawn era. It’s an obsession that’s taken me all over the U.S. in a continual search for answers. And, yes, the efforts can seem a little crazy even to me at times. Nonetheless, the process has allowed us to recognize, recover, and gather thousands of period artifacts and images. Along the way, we’ve been able to help preserve and showcase a world of information – including the establishment of time frames pointing to evolutionary differences in wagons and early western vehicles. In other words, every old wagon isn’t the same as another.
Housed in our Wheels That Won The West® Archives, this early photo of a Sheep Camp wagon shows a divided front door. This was a common design, allowing the lower portion of the door to be closed while driving.
Some of these character traits can even highlight ways that competition drove innovation – just as it does today. For instance, did you know that almost every type of early horse-drawn wagon had multiple patents attached to its design? There is one early style, though, that I’ve yet to find a single patent directly associated with… the chuck wagon. Typically built on early farm, military, and mountain wagon running gears (any of which may have had its own patents), these rolling kitchens were truly custom creations for almost every outfit. Studebaker Manufacturing Company in South Bend, Indiana did offer and produce a ‘Round-Up’ chuck wagon for use on ranches in the early 1880’s. Even though it was equipped with Studebaker’s own version of a chuck box and pantry, it was merely a ‘ready-made’ chuck wagon and wasn’t patented. (Although the steel skeins on the running gear were). It’s a different story for a wealth of other wagon styles though. From farm, freight, and business wagons to military and even sheep wagons, each of these vehicle types had some connection to legally protected ideas.
To that point, I recently uncovered what may be the only patents ever granted for Sheep Camp wagons – also known as sheep wagons and sheepherder wagons. As far as I know, today’s blog is the first public notice of these patents in well over a century. Each is a discovery we were fortunate to make and, likewise, each is another reminder of how we’re often required to adjust what we thought we knew about America’s first transportation industry.
The oldest sheep wagon patent I came across was applied for in January of 1899. It primarily dealt with ways to keep the living quarters more comfortable from outdoor conditions. More specifically, the patent describes construction features engineered to keep the wagon interior “absolutely wind-proof and dust-proof.” Additionally, the design was complemented with a large hook mounted on the side of the wagon for holding harness. When not in use, the hook was fashioned to fold flush and out of the way.
Filed in 1908, the second patent also came well after the commonly acknowledged creation of the sheep wagon in the 1880’s. Yet, almost every feature listed in this patent seems to be a replication of elements that were likely already included on many sheep wagons. It’s hard to see a substantial difference that would have allowed for a legitimate patent. Even so, the legal proclamation was granted in 1909.
Like so many other sheepherder wagons, the 1909 patent calls for a bed to lie transverse to the length of the wagon box. A pull-out table was located under the bed, side bunks doubled as seating and storage, an indoor stove was positioned near the door, the door, itself, was divided in half, and the rear window included a hinged and sliding sash. Additionally, there were a host of other commonly-seen accoutrements listed in the patent.
It’s possible that, with large national manufacturers like Studebaker, Stoughton, Mitchell, Milburn, Winona, Kentucky, and Racine-Sattley all taking an interest in Sheep Camp beds, the attention may have caused some to want to secure ownership rights on the most popular designs. At this point, it’s hard to say. We just don’t have enough details to know on what grounds this particular patent was submitted and granted. As is the case in so many discoveries, the finding of one piece of a puzzle may help answer some questions. At the same time, it can open the door to a whole new can of worms.
Today, Sheepherder wagons are still extremely popular. From collectors and resort operators to private guest quarters, working ranches, and competitions, the custom creations have a way of providing a world of unforgettable memories in a truly ‘moving’ design.
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