Wednesday, May 24, 2017

An Omnibus Overview

America’s first transportation industry included more than a million different variations and sizes of vehicles.  If that sounds a bit far-fetched, consider the fact that, at one time, Studebaker claimed to have offered over 500 different sizes and configurations of farm wagons alone!  Add to that the fact that most of the tens of thousands of known vehicle builders had their own way of doing things with every vehicle they made and it’s easy to see how the math can quickly add up over a couple of centuries.  Overall, it’s just part of the reason that any serious study of America’s early vehicles can be challenging at best.

Among the diversity of wheels used in the Old West were a host of city transports.  Drays, grocery wagons, business wagons, carts, beer wagons, ladder wagons, police vehicles, and an entire host of other specialized designs not only dominated the eastern cities but also quickly made their way west.  Among the custom creations used was a special configuration for city transit and hotel hospitality.  It was referred to as the Omnibus. 

Don Berkebile in his book, Carriage Terminology: An Historical Dictionary, defines an omnibus as a “public street vehicle intended to carry a large number of persons.”  He further outlined features including longitudinal seats, paneled sides, and a rear door allowing easy ingress and egress.  Ultimately, it’s a vehicle purpose and basic design need that’s still in use today.  In fact, it’s where we get the term ‘bus’ to begin with.

This extremely rare, original manufacturer photo shows an omnibus built by Andrew Wight.  It’s another example of the kind of scarce history preserved in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

Often graced with elaborate lettering and ornamentation, these large, early ‘buses’ were built in different sizes.  Many were designed for around a dozen passengers while, perhaps, the largest one in America measured thirty-six feet long and was reported to have a capacity of 120 passengers (talk about a stretch limo!)  Some double-decker omnibuses were also used in the U.S. but even more so in England.  Another note of interest is that advertising messages for businesses eventually found their way onto many of these vehicles – just as buses and city cabs still incorporate today.  Again and again, we see how much our modern society has been affected by ideas and designs originally drawn by horses.

So, where did the concept for an omnibus come from?  The August 1895 issue of The Hub – picking up an article from London-based Cornhill Magazine – indicates that this style of vehicle had its origins with the French... 

The ‘germ’ of the omnibus was of course an old one, and was to be found in the various ‘stages,’ coaches and diligences, where a number of persons were conveyed long distances in one common vehicle.  Mr. Charles Knight, indeed, recalls some experiments made in the year 1800, when a lumbering vehicle running on six wheels and drawn by four horses was plying in London for short distances, but was not very successful.  An old Irish reminiscent also ‘minded the time’ when a stage of similar character, on eight wheels, worked in 1792 between Dublin and Seapoint, a suburb about four miles off.  There was here a boarding-house or hotel of some fashion, where Charles Matthews was fond of staying.  The truth is, however, that we owe the invention to our so-called ‘lively neighbors.’  A retired officer named Baudry, living at Nantes, had established baths at Richebourg, which, he found, were patronized not so extensively as he desired.  He accordingly, in 1827, started a sort of general car to transport his customers, which plied between the baths and the center of town.  Baudry, later, set up his vehicle at Bordeaux and also at Paris; but as in so many other cases where the community is benefited, the invention flourished, though at the expense of the inventor.

In 1829 forage was dear, the roads bad; the undertaking ruined the luckless Baudry, who is said to have died of disappointment.  It was in this year that the enterprising undertaker sent out the first London ‘bus, which, according to a now defunct Dublin newspaper, Saunders’ Newsletter, “excited considerable notice, from the novel form of the carriage and the elegant manner in which it is fitted out.  We apprehend it would be almost impossible to make it overturn, owing to the great width.  It is drawn by three beautiful bays abreast, after the French fashion.  It is a handsome machine.”  It then describes how “the new vehicle, called the omnibus, commenced running this morning from Paddington to the city.”  It started from the “Yorkshire Stingo,” and carried twenty-two passengers inside, at a charge of a shilling or six-pence, according to the distance.  To carry eleven passengers on each side it must have been nearly double the length of the present form of vehicle, and of the size and appearance of one of the large three-horse Metropolitan Railway ‘busses.  An odd feature of the arrangement was that the day’s newspaper was supplied for the convenience of the passengers...


According to John H. White, Jr. in his 2013 book entitled, Wet Britches and Muddy Boots: A History of Travel in Victorian America, the first use of omnibuses in the U.S. can be traced to New York City.  While there were a number of American builders of these vehicles, the most prominent is likely to have been John Stephenson, also located in NYC.  Stephenson is not only the builder of the massive, thirty-six-foot omnibus mentioned above but his firm is estimated to have constructed over 25,000 streetcars and countless horse-drawn vehicles in its roughly 85-year history.  The firm found its niche in 1832 with the construction of a streetcar for John Mason, a well-known banker and merchant.  The design included numerous features making it easier and more stable to use.  It was an instant hit with the owner and the public.  The rewards didn’t stop with simple accolades.  On April 22, 1833, Stephenson was granted a patent for the design – America’s first streetcar (tram) on rails.  Even so, his innovations didn’t stop there.  For the next half century, he was granted numerous patents for streetcar designs.  One of the most detailed histories on Mr. Stephenson can be found in the online archives of the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom, Wisconsin. 

Andrew Wight was another notable builder of omnibuses as well as street cars, express, business, and freight wagons, and also circus wagons and cages.  Wight had been an ornamental painter for John Stephenson’s legendary firm in New York and, likewise, held horse-drawn vehicle patents.  In 1858, Wight had the itch to move west, settling in St. Louis and opening his own vehicle manufactory.  By 1874, he provided work for 100 employees with street cars sold throughout the West and omnibuses permeating the Mississippi Valley region.

This image shows a portion of an early advertising card used by Andrew Wight.  It’s also housed in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

Another organization involved in the creation of omnibuses was located in Cortland, New York.  The company was founded in 1881 by W.T. Smith, originally of Homer, NY.  After three decades of carriage-building and manufacturing omnibuses for roughly a half dozen years, Smith found himself enticed to move to Cortland.  Once there, he entered into a co-partnership with the Cortland Wagon Company to form the Cortland Omnibus Company.  Within a decade, the firm was building as many as 175 omnibuses per year and shipping them all over the U.S.  During this time, the vehicles ranged in price from $300 to $500 each.

Courtesy of the Long Island Museum of American Art, History, and Carriages, this photo shows another type of omnibus design.  The ‘Grace Darling’ was used in the New England region for a variety of excursions and event transportation needs.

This blog, in no way, is meant to be a detailed study of omnibuses.  There is a great deal more to the story of these vehicles, including the early design evolution from ‘Sociables’ and ‘Accomodations’ as well as a myriad of builders, the industry as a whole, and the vehicle’s transition into today’s bus configurations.  Ultimately, my intent here has been to help shed some light on other vehicle types and their contribution to municipalities and businesses all over the country – including the West.

Just as nineteenth century resorts and hotels used horse-drawn omnibuses to transport passengers to and from the train depot, many hotels still use a ‘bus’ to pick folks up from the depot (i.e. airport terminals).  Similarly, municipalities also continue their use of modern-day buses for both intercity and intracity transportation.  Times may have changed but transportation needs will always be a priority; the result being that many ideas started in the horse-drawn era remain as an equally important part of modern society.   

Horse-drawn omnibuses were a common sight on America’s well-populated streets in the 1800’s and early 1900’s.  In many cities, they numbered in the hundreds.

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Springfield Wagons

When I grew up, the phrase – “I’ll have a Coke” – was general language that could have been referring to about any soft drink.  Similarly, as I grew up in the Ozarks, almost every wooden wagon was called a ‘Springfield’ wagon.  It was such a ubiquitously-applied term that it was similar to calling every facial tissue a ‘Kleenex.’  Others, in different parts of the country, can likely make similar statements about horse-drawn vehicle brands from their own area.  In fact, regional popularity of some vehicle makes was so strong that other brands found it difficult to effectively compete in those places.  Such was often the case with the Springfield brand.  Even so, the early days of the firm were not so easy.  Today, numerous examples of Springfield wagons have survived and can be found throughout the U.S.  As a nod to the roughly 70-year history of the firm and in recognition of the 145th anniversary of its founding, we thought we’d share a bit of background on the company.  The remainder of this blog is drawn from a story I had posted on our website years ago and subsequently shared with the American Chuck Wagon Association... 

This portion of an early 1870’s map of Springfield, Missouri shows the location of the city’s wagon factory and plow works between Mill street and Wilson’s Creek.

A crossroads to territories west, Springfield, Missouri was part of the historic Butterfield Overland Mail route.  During the Civil War, the area was the scene of several heavy battlefield engagements. The location also lays claim to what was easily one of the few true, one-on-one, fast-draw gunfights in the entire Old West.  It took place in 1865 between Wild Bill Hickok and Davis (Little Dave) Tutt from Arkansas.  Into this heritage-rich western backdrop, in 1872, the Springfield Wagon Company hung out its shingle and announced its entrance into the wagon building industry.  Surrounded by quality hardwood forests, the region was a ready-made market for quality farm, freight, ranch, log, and business wagons. 

From the start, the going was anything but easy.  Floods, fires, economic depressions, banking scares, and distribution challenges were regular obstacles.  True to the area’s convention, though, Springfield was as stubborn as a Missouri mule and never gave up.  Their gradual successes caught the serious attention of numerous competitors, including the Studebaker Brothers of South Bend, Indiana.  In spite of price wars and public challenges by the larger manufacturers bent on running Springfield out of business, the company struggled on.  In 1883, the firm was hit especially hard as it suffered the ravages of a massive fire.  Through the sobering reality of charred remains, the company picked up the pieces and carried on.  At the end of the day, the investors were in too deep for failure to be an option.  Even so, this would not be the last of the brand's hardships.  Legal battles for technology and construction features flared up from time to time and after the turn of the 20th century continuous pressure from the motorized farm and transportation industry began to take the heaviest toll.

Like many other major brands, Springfield often emblazoned its name on the end gates, axles, sideboards, spring seats, and even some hardware.

By the mid 1930’s, during the twilight of its most successful years, the Springfield Wagon Company had outlasted most all of its major competitors while also becoming the sole remaining source for replacement parts to many of the most recognized names in the history of western transportation.  Legendary icons like Peter Schuttler, Fish Bros., Bain, Pekin, Smith, and Ebbert all eventually found a home inside the powerful and resilient Springfield brand.  In a bid to gain even more business and market share, Springfield branded wagons, boxes, and running gears under a variety of trade names including Springfield, Ozark, Missouri Mule, Ironmaster, Jack Rabbit, Acorn, and even Bain and Schuttler.  Often the only difference between the vehicles was the painted name.  As a result, and in spite of the fact that a Springfield wagon has numerous unique construction features, if the paint has disappeared on a later model Springfield farm wagon, it’s possible that what might be thought of as a Springfield today, might actually have been originally built and branded as a “Schuttler.” 

As with many other early vehicle brands, the design makeup of a Springfield wagon did change over the years.  One of the places where some of these evolutionary adjustments can be seen is in the design of the standards (bolster stakes).  While most of the earlier Springfield farm wagons used rings in the standards, later models used multiple variations of metal bands serving as pocket stakes in the standards. 

How many Springfield wagons have survived?  It’s hard to say.  But, after building hundreds of thousands of both wood-wheeled and (later) rubber-tired wagons during its near seventy-year history, those that do remain are certainly part of an elite minority.  Some were even part of America’s war efforts.  True historical icons, these rare wheels stand as a lasting tribute to a time when steady resolve and patient persistence paved the way to the survival of the fittest. 

Additional information on Springfield wagons can be found in the book, “The Old Reliable, The History of the Springfield Wagon Company,” by Steven Stepp.  This book as well as a reproduction copy of the company’s 1915 catalog are also available through our website.

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

More Stage Stories & More on Concord Coach #259

Over the years, countless reports have been shared regarding the challenges of stage coach travel in the American West.  One of my favorite books cataloging many of these events was authored seventy-five years ago, in 1942, by Mae Héléne Bacon Boggs.  The title of the large tome is My Playhouse Was A Concord Coach.  The anthology includes a vast collection of newspaper accounts and related photos.  It’s not a piece that comes available too often but if it’s not a part of your early vehicle library, I’d encourage you to stay vigilant for a copy. 

Reinforcing the obstacles to coaching in the West, the book includes numerous stories profiling encounters with weather, water, bandits, animals, rock slides, mud slides, and generally poor roads.  Complications from soft edges on mountain paths, rocks, holes, and even strong winds consistently wreaked havoc on the drivers, horses, passengers, and vehicles.  As a result, the rugged terrain was littered with problems from axles, hounds, tongues, brake beams, rough lock chains, wheels, king bolts, and other weakened or broken vehicle parts.   

While many of these hurdles were unavoidable, there were times when a little extra attention to detail could have made a huge difference.  Such was the case in 1874 when a loose brake block rendered the downhill trip of a coach into a catastrophe.  As reported by the Yreka Journal on December 30, 1874...

“...  It seems that the block on the brake had come off, and in descending Myrtle Creek hill the horses became unmanageable and ran away.  Near the foot of the hill, in making a curve in the road the stage upset, and was uncoupled.”

In this particular incident, the loss of a brake block allowed the coach to push and spook the horses as they felt the vehicle bearing down and hitting them.  It was an oversight with life-altering results.  It’s a good reminder that regular attention to vehicles and equipment is important – even in the seemingly small things. 

Mud wagon stages ran throughout the West.  This original image was taken in Casper, Wyoming and is one of several hundred period coach photos preserved in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

Another old article tucked within the pages of My Playhouse Was A Concord Coach contained a brief reference to Abbot-Downing’s coach #259.  On page 511, the photo of the legendary shipment of thirty Concord Coaches to Wells Fargo in Omaha was accompanied by a note indicating that Coach #259 was part of this shipment.  As of 1935, the coach was still located “on the portico of the museum in Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone Park, Wyoming.”  This is yet another bit of published data tying the coach that is now at the Gateway Arch Museum in St. Louis to the famed shipment made on April 15, 1868.  The information from this brief account bolsters the vehicle’s provenance while filling in some missing historical time frames.  For those who missed it, you might want to look closer at Abbot-Downing’s coach #259 by checking out our April 5, 2017 blog post.  As we’d mentioned in that post, we believe the original photo of the coach (in our Archives) will date to 1893 and not only includes largely unknown heritage of the coach but what is likely the most detailed history of the surviving stage. 

While many stage lines had facilities dedicated to repairing, re-painting, and maintaining coaches, the pressures of schedules, general forgetfulness, and other obstacles could contribute to maintenance oversights.  Clearly, vehicles in regular and heavy use tended to need more attention than those only rented from the livery on rare occasions.  As we’ve already discussed, the consequences of negligence could range broadly; from minor inconveniences to financially costly or even life-threatening results.  In 1901, Frank Root and William Connelley published a work entitled The Overland Stage to California.  Relatively early on in the book, an encounter is described that took place during the summer of 1863 near the Little Blue River...

“...Now and then some rather strange things occurred on the ‘Overland.’  It was imperative that the stage-coach axles be greased (or rather “doped” as the boys used to call it) at every ‘home’ station, and these were from twenty-five to fifty miles apart.  This duty had time and again been impressed upon the drivers by the division agents, but occasionally one of them would forget the important work.  As a natural consequence the result would be a ‘hot box.’

One afternoon early in the summer of 1863, while we were on the rolling prairies near the Little Blue River, one of the front wheels of the stage was suddenly clogged and would not turn.  On examination, it was found to be sizzling hot.  The stage had to stop and wait until the axle cooled off.  As soon as practicable, the driver took off the wheel and made an inspection, the passengers and messenger holding up the axle.  On further examination, it was found that the spindle had begun to ‘cut,’ and there was no alternative but to ‘dope it’ before we could go any farther.  But we were stumped; there was no ‘dope’ on the stage. 

The driver, an old-timer at staging, suggested, ‘since necessity is the mother of invention,’ that as a last resort he would bind a few blades of grass around the spindle, which he was certain would run us part way to the station, and we could stop and repeat the experiment.  But one of the passengers chanced to have a piece of cheese in his grip sack, and a little of it was sliced off and applied; and it worked admirably, and was sufficient to run the coach safely to the next station, where the difficulty was quickly remedied by application of the proper ‘dope.’”

This century-plus-old illustration was included with the “hot box” story above from The Overland Stage to California.

So much has changed over the last 150 years but vehicle maintenance and lubrication is just as important to all forms of transportation.  More pertinent to the stories above, wheel bearings can still overheat and brake systems always deserve regular attention. 

Finally, with so many airline ‘seat’ issues being covered in the news these days, I thought I’d pass along one more story from The Overland Stage to California.  In this case, the passenger not only paid for her seat but made it clear her spot was not available to any other...

“...  A rather amusing and somewhat ludicrous scene occurred in the summer of 1864 at Cottonwood Springs.  There had been some fresh Indian troubles along the Platte between Cottonwood and Fort Kearney, and the division agent had prudently exercised his prerogative by holding for two or three days all the stages at the former place until the road was deemed safe to travel.  While the agent was getting the first east-bound coach in readiness for its departure, he stated that the through passengers would have precedence over those from Denver.

It happened that there was a woman from Denver... she was ‘chief engineer of a millinery shop and ran a sewing machine.’  After listening attentively to the agents remarks, and when the coach was about ready to depart – the passengers discussing among themselves who would and who would not go on the first coach – she opened with her ‘chin music,’ as follows:  ‘Here are passengers from California, Nevada, Salt Lake, Idaho, and Montana.  I suppose Denver is nowhere; but I’ll play that I take the back seat’; and into the coach she climbed – and she ‘held the fort.’  She had paid full fare, had arrived at the Springs from Denver on the first coach, and, being armed with a revolver, dared them to detain her.”

While seat reservations are still in strong demand within commercial travel, we definitely don't advise packin' heat on your next plane ride.  Times and safety considerations have changed dramatically and the outcome would clearly be a lot different today than with the determined coach rider above.  Nonetheless, from business to politics and everything in between, there were all kinds of happenings surrounding America’s first transportation industry.  The term ‘Wild West’ was certainly well earned.  Over and over again, the vehicles and brands from these days had a front row seat to virtually all of the action.  Discovering who was doing what, when, where, how, and why makes up a large part of our everyday studies.  It’s a pursuit that not only helps us better understand our nation’s first wheels but, increasingly, separates fact from fiction while opening even more doors of drama and opportunities to preserve history.

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

John Wayne on INSP

FYI... We recently received the following press release from INSP and thought we’d pass it on – especially to all fans of John Wayne and his films.  The INSP channel has proclaimed May as “A Salute to the Duke” Month.  As such, during every weekend of this month, the Family-Entertainment Network will feature movies that honor the legendary work of John Wayne.  Below is the release...

(Indian Land, SC – April 25, 2017) – INSP today announced that during the month of May their weekend western blocks will feature legendary screen star John Wayne – better known as “The Duke.”  Wayne, an American film icon whose career spanned four decades, appeared in more than seventy movies.  The movies to air on INSP include many of his most popular films, such as The Shootist, She Wore a Yellow RibbonEl Dorado, The War Wagon and Rio Bravo.

“Western movies are the preferred choice of our viewers,” said Doug Butts, SVP of Programming at INSP.  “In first quarter alone, we had more than 32 million viewers (representing 20+ million households) tune in to watch Westerns on INSP.  INSP has quickly become the go-to network on weekends for Western programming, and we are excited about being able to feature so many great John Wayne movies.  We know they will resonate well with our audience.”

About INSP

INSP is available nationwide to more than 81M households via Dish Network (channel 259), DirecTV (channel 364) Verizon FiOS (channel 286),  AT&T U-verse (channel 564) and more than 2,800 cable systems.

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Answers to Remaining True/False Questions

As part of our continuing efforts to show the depth of America’s first transportation industry, we’ve taken the last four weeks of our blogs and focused on three dozen questions.  It’s been an interesting journey, peering through a series of small windows into the vast number of topics related to early wagon makers.  Today, we’ll look at the answers to the final dozen questions, sharing insights into a subject that remains largely unexplored and still far too full of false impressions and speculation...

25)  Wagons built in the U.S. between 1865 and 1895 changed very little in design.

While many tend to lump all wooden wagons into a single category of primitive uniformity, the truth is that there were many differences in these vehicles throughout history.  The thirty-year period after America’s Civil War saw countless changes in wagon building.  In many ways, the war served as a catalyst of sorts; stirring innovative ideas, designs, functions, and features of these heavier transports.  As a result, patent applications grew substantially following the Civil War.  Vehicle companies took ownership of proprietary distinctions and intellectual properties, reinforcing those purported advantages in advertising, sales promotions, and even event marketing efforts. 

26)  Stencils for painting brand names on wagons were in use as early as the 1870’s.

Prior to the 1880’s, most builders of name-brand wagons were painting the striping and ornamental designs free-hand on their vehicles.  Even as this ‘personal touch’ was taking place, the brand name, itself, was often applied with the aid of stencils.

27)  The famous showman, P.T. Barnum, helped promote the Jackson Wagon Company.

Absolutely true.  This is another case of a firm within America’s first transportation industry recognizing the power of celebrity and capitalizing on it.  As the story goes, in 1882, P.T. Barnum finalized the purchase of Jumbo the elephant from the London zoo and wanted to ship him to America as a new addition to his circus.  At the time, the elephant was promoted as the largest known animal in the world – nearing 7 tons.  According to Mr. Barnum, due to the massive weight channeling through each of the elephant’s legs, the city would not allow Jumbo to walk on the city streets.  To get around the obstacle, Barnum claims he wrote for and received a Jackson brand wagon with its new truss rod axle.   Jumbo was loaded onto the wagon and moved to the steamship bound for America – purportedly with no trouble.  Countless promotional flyers, catalogs, editorials, and other advertising recorded the event as the Jackson firm made the most of Barnum’s endorsement for years.  As a side note, our common use of the word ‘jumbo’ can be traced to the name of this elephant.

This rare flyer illustrating 'Jumbo' the elephant in a Jackson wagon was produced by the company to help promote the strength of their truss axle wagon.

28)  The Luedinghaus Wagon Company used a peacock as a brand icon.

While Luedinghaus wagons were made in St. Louis, it was another firm in that city that used a peacock for its brand icon – That being the Linstroth Wagon Company. 

29)  No wagon companies in America were building large freight wagons after 1900.

Au Contraire.  This statement is also false.  Many of America’s best known wagon builders were still producing huge freight wagons during the first decade of the twentieth century.

30)  The first Chevrolet and Buick vehicles built in the U.S. were manufactured in the buildings where Flint brand wagons had previously been made. 

Sharing the history of America’s first transportation industry has long been a passion of mine.  So, when we came upon an opportunity to add a transitional piece to our collection, I jumped on it.  In this case, the ‘transitional’ piece I’m referring to is one of the last Flint brand wagons built in the same factory that America’s first Chevys and Buicks were built in. 

After producing thousands of wagons, the Flint Wagon factory became home for many of the first Buick and Chevrolet autos produced in the U.S.  This exceptional survivor is part of our early vehicle collection.

31)  The term ‘dead-axle’ wagon refers to a vehicle with a weakened axle.

This is false.  ‘Dead-axle’ refers to an animal-drawn vehicle that does not utilize springs or thorough-braces.  Some early, colloquial mentions of this term actually shortened it to the phrase 'dead-ax'.

32)  International Harvester revolutionized the wagon industry with the first swiveling reach patent applied for in 1919.

Even though IHC widely touted their patented swivel reach in the late teens and throughout the 1920’s, the concept had received multiple patents during the half century prior to IHC’s design improvement.   

33)  The Lindsey Wagon Company in Laurel, Mississippi was the only U.S. builder of eight-wheel logging wagons.

While Lindsey is certainly one of the best-known builders of eight-wheel logging wagons, they were far from being the only manufacturer of these designs. 

34)  Harrington Manufacturing Company of Peoria, Illinois was a significant manufacturer of Rural Mail wagons.

Rural Free Delivery (RFD) mail wagons became a common site on America’s backroads and more scenic routes after 1890.  Numerous builders focused their efforts on the manufacture of these vehicles.  They were especially designed for hauling mail along rugged, unimproved roads as well as throughout notoriously unpredictable weather.  Among the many notable brands concentrating on this trade was the Harrington Manufacturing Company of Peoria, Illinois. 

Beginning in the late 1800’s, the U.S. Postal Service began free delivery of mail to rural customers.  This RFD (Rural Free Delivery) service opened up a whole new market for horse drawn vehicle makers. 

35)  Using prison labor to manufacture wagons was seldom done in the 1800’s.

On the contrary, there were a number of wagon makers (and other industries as well) that made significant use of prison labor in the 1800’s.  The practice was decried by builders using labor from traditional markets.  Why?  Because, prison labor was extremely inexpensive compared to the costs required to hire workers in the free market.  As a result, the scales of competitive price advantage were often tipped in the favor of those using prison labor.  It was a practice that, ultimately, was overturned through legislative action.  A large percentage of those that had been successful in building wagons with prison labor were not able to compete when forced to hire outside the walls of confinement.

36)   Fires, while feared, were seldom experienced by wagon makers.

This is a grossly false statement.  Early wagon and carriage makers were plagued by fire.  Wood frame structures, seasoned wood parts, flammable solvents, live coals, open flames/sparks, oil-stained floors, and greasy rags often conspired to generate the ultimate disaster.  The problems were so rampant that monthly trade publications regularly published the massive losses and associated challenges for individual makers and the industry as a whole.

The last few weeks have been full of diverse topics as we’ve taken a little different tact to help highlight the vastness of the subject we’re researching.  Along the way, we’ve worked to include details on several different styles of vehicles as well.  As we continue sharing all-but-lost details from America’s wood-wheeled past, we’re working on even more stories and have a great deal more to unveil in the coming months.  Stay tuned.  There’s a lot on the horizon.    

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

More Answers to Wagon Questions

Seldom does a week go by that I don’t receive a number of questions related to early wagons.  It’s a subject of constant curiosity and fascinating connections to America’s movement west.  This week, we’ll provide the next dozen answers from the original list of questions we shared on April 12th.   If you have a particular question related to an early wagon brand or the industry as a whole, drop us an email.  We’d enjoy hearing from you... 

13)  Nineteenth century military forces were sometimes accompanied by ‘Balloon wagons.’ 

Very true.  The term, ‘Balloon wagon,’ refers to a four-wheeled escort-style wagon (some with undercut wheels) equipped to carry the necessary fittings and gear, including thousands of feet of wire rope, necessary for military balloon operations.  Also accompanying the balloon wagons were Cylinder wagons holding the gases for the balloons.  As early as America’s Civil War and for more than a half century afterward, tethered balloons were raised with personnel on board to help provide aerial reconnaissance of the enemy and surrounding terrain.  From design to operation, it’s a subject that warrants greater attention than what we have time for in this brief blog. 

This rare, original photo shows four different types of military transportation used during WW1 – balloon, airplane, wagon, and automobile.  The image is part of our collection highlighting early military transportation.

14)  The Springfield wagon company only used one style of seat - a lazy back. 

While many are familiar with the ‘taller’ lazy back seat (with backrest) that is fairly common on a Springfield wagon, the firm actually made several different styles without a raised backrest.

15)  To keep a skein from having too much longitudinal wear, there should never be any slack when the wheel is rocked side to side.  

This one is false as the wheel is supposed to move roughly a quarter inch on the longitudinal axis of the skein.  It’s a design feature that helps distribute the axle grease.  I wrote a blog back in September of 2013 that included period documentation highlighting the fact that some longitudinal movement isn’t just normal – it’s necessary.  Click Here to see that research.

16)  Tongue supports or springs (for wagons) were in use as early as the 1850’s. 

Absolutely true.  Our files include multiple patents for tongue springs and various other methods of supporting a wagon tongue.  The earliest patent for a tongue spring that we’re aware of dates to 1857.  The purpose for a tongue spring was to take the pressure and weight of the wagon tongue off of the draft animals while still allowing hinged movement of the drop tongue.

17)  While a wagon is being drawn forward, the pressure on the reach pin makes it impossible for it to work itself out of the reach plate and coupling pole

Anyone who’s ever driven much or looked closely at a reach pin knows this to be a false statement.  Most reach pins have a slot for a cotter-type key, nail, wire, or some other ‘keeper’ in the hole on one end.  The reason?  As a wagon travels, rough terrain and jarring motions of the vehicle can easily dislodge an unsecured pin.  The results can be unsavory to say the least.  Some wagon builders, like the Stoughton Wagon Company, even used a reach pin that screwed in, making it especially tough to loosen up and fall out. 

Many Stoughton brand wagons utilized a reach plate with a threaded pin and tension plate.  The design was originally created by T.G. Mandt.  

18)  The running gears of Bain brand wagons were always painted orange.

Orange was the predominant color of most Bain wagon running gears.  That said, yellow was also used in a number of instances.  In fact, in November of 2014, we highlighted a very nice Bain rack bed wagon located in the Angels Camp Museum in California.  We share these types of small details to help increase awareness and limit erroneous stereotypes that can often be applied to these early wheels.

19)  Wagons with Bois d’arc (Osage Orange) wheels were not desirable on the plains.

This statement is a complete falsehood.  Bois d’ arc is also referred to as ironwood or Osage orange.  It’s well-documented throughout the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as being an important wood for use in wagon wheels.  Inside the pages of “The Prairie Traveler,” published in 1863, those heading west by wagon are given numerous recommendations for overland travel.  Among the valuable tips in this guide was this counsel...

“Wheels made of bois-d arc, or Osage orange-wood, are best for the plains, as they shrink but little, and seldom want repairing.  As, however, this wood is not easily procured in the Northern States, white oak answers a very good purpose if well seasoned.”

According to period publications, the natural range of the tree was from southern Arkansas through southeastern Oklahoma and down to southern Texas.  A wider range of economic planting, though, reached out much farther, including the middle western states from Illinois 
southward and then westward to eastern Colorado and New Mexico.  It’s possible to be grown in more northern climates but harsh winters take a toll on the tree.  Due to the continued interest in this wood, we’re considering writing a lengthier article on its history, use, and significance.    


20)  Not all period chuck boxes utilized a folding leg(s) to support the hinged table.

While most period chuck wagons do appear to have used some variation of a folding leg to support the chuck box lid/table, there were exceptions to the rule.  In our collection of pre-1900 and turn-of-the-century imagery, there are several original photos showing a chuck box equipped with either ropes or chains to hold the table level when lowered.

This portion of an original cabinet card photo shows the chuck box table held in place by ropes.  Time and again, our extensive collection of period imagery helps paint a clearer image of how things were done back in the day. 

21)  Round edge tires were common on wagons used during the Civil War.

This is a false statement and is one of the design technologies that can be helpful in narrowing down time frames of manufacture in early wagons.  Notable manufacturers were touting round edge tires as new and innovative designs in the early 1880’s.

22)  Not all king bolts were made of a single, solid piece.  Some were designed to bend.

As crazy as it may sound, this is true.  Clearly, most king bolts on wagons were made from one, straight and solid piece of metal.  Sometimes, though, the pin was shaped like a ‘T’ to allow the rocking bolster to move side to side without putting pressure on the main pin.  Similarly, in 1884, Richard Blackwell of Kentucky created a king pin with a hinged joint to allow more fluid movement of the rocking bolster without undue pressure on the main pin.   

23)  George Milburn (Milburn Wagon Company) was related to the Studebaker Brothers through marriage.

In 1857, George Milburn needed help fulfilling a U.S. Army contract for wagons needed in the Mormon conflict in Utah.  Milburn subcontracted the completion of 100 wagons with the up-and-coming Studebaker Brothers in South Bend.  It was the beginning of an even closer relationship between the brands as Milburn’s daughter, Anna, married Clement Studebaker in 1864.  By 1868, the Studebakers had incorporated the business with Clement as president. 

With roots to 1848, the Milburn Wagon Company was a significant vehicle maker throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  More history on the company can be found by checking out our March 16, 2016 blog.

24)  The California Gold Rush was started by a wagon maker.

This is a relatively obscure fact.  James Marshall was a wagon maker long before he discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill.  Reinforcing that point, here’s a brief article from the July 1890 issue of “The Hub”...

“The original discoverer of gold in California was a Jersey man.  He had learned the wagon-maker’s trade of his father, and went to California in 1845, when he was thirty-two years old.  On the 19th of January, 1848, while engaged in the construction of a millrace at what is now the thriving town of Coloma, his attention was attracted by the glitter in the sand that had been washed down by the stream.  He was a man of considerable practical knowledge, and soon came to the conclusion that the bright particles were gold.  Not appreciating the significance of his discovery, he revealed it to his fellow-workers.  Very soon afterward gold was found in paying quantities in several parts of California and the great rush to that State from all parts of the Union began.  His name was James Wilson Marshall, and quite recently a monument was erected at Coloma, Cal., to his memory, near the spot where he first found the hidden treasure.  It bears the inscription:  ‘Erected by the State of California in memory of James W. Marshall, the discoverer of gold."

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC