Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Early Vehicle Maintenance, Mysteries, & Musings

September has been an interesting month.  We’ve both sold and purchased some early vehicles and have made headway into a number of research projects.  Here in the Ozarks, leaves are beginning to fall, tree colors are slowly turning and, as I’m told, the persimmons have ‘spoons’ in them.  For the uninitiated, that formation within the inner realms of persimmon tree fruit is purported to forecast a heavy dose of snow this winter; never mind the fact that the same thing occurred last year with minimal accumulations and extremely mild temperatures.  We shall see, I guess.

In the meantime, as the seasons once again go through a change, it made me think of all the changes antique wooden vehicles go through.  As custodians of these pieces from yesterday, it’s up to each of us to help maintain and preserve them for future generations.  With that in mind, I thought I’d run over a few tricks-of-the-trade, so-to-speak, and highlight some areas of maintenance that may prove helpful to others. 

Removing Dirt Dauber Nests...

If you’ve ever come across an old set of wheels that’s been stored away in a drafty barn, shed, or outbuilding, you know that dust isn’t the only thing that can accumulate on these rolling icons.  Animal droppings, rats’ nests, and mud dabber homes can overwhelm a piece if left unattended in the wrong environment.  While the first two issues can be addressed with a careful sweeping and light cleaning, the last point needs a little more attention.  After all, knocking off the earthen incubator of mud daubers might seem simple enough but, if done carelessly, there can be problems – chiefly, the loss of paint.  Oftentimes, these hollow huts can be so firmly affixed to the wood of a wagon that the simple act of taking them off can also destroy valuable paint and stenciling.  Once original paint is gone, there’s no such thing as a ‘do-over.’  So, it’s important to exercise caution.  One method I’ve found helpful is to take a spray bottle of water and lightly soak the entire mud dabber nest.  I allow time for the nest to become saturated yet still maintaining its original shape.  This softening of the dirt allows a thin putty knife to be gently slid between the paint and the dabber nest.  The nest can then be pried off without creating a mess of mud or losing valuable original paint.

Knocking dry and hardened mud dauber nests off of antique vehicles (as was done here) can contribute to the permanent loss of original paint and stenciling.

Powder Post Beetles...

Period wagon makers faced a slew of challenges beyond the basic need to pay the bills and meet payroll.  One of the greatest threats to the trade was a tiny critter known as a powder post beetle.  If you’ve looked at very many wagons over the years, you’ve likely seen evidence of just how much havoc these tiny insects can wreak.  Drawn to virtually every part of a wagon’s wooden structure, these wood-boring critters are not only known for riddling wood stock with countless circular holes but they can also reduce the infected wood to a fine powder.  Many times, when we see these peppered perforations, the bugs have long since departed.  However, at other times, the wood is being continually re-infested and destroyed.  You definitely don’t want to allow this problem to continue unabated.  While the insects are very small – typically 1/8 to 3/4 of an inch in length – you’ll instantly know you have a problem with live insects if you start noticing a fine layer of dust under a wagon or running gear.  The easiest way I’ve found to deal with this challenge is to spray on a coat of household bug spray.  Then keep a watchful eye out to make sure the powder-making has stopped.  The chemicals in the spray seem to do an effective job without damaging the vehicle further.  You may want to try it on a small area before tackling large sections.    

As shown in these photos of an old wagon axle, insects can be merciless to antique wooden vehicles.  Proper treatment of the vehicle and environment can help to minimize damage.

Careful application of insecticide can help eliminate issues with powder post beetles.

Loosening Rusty Bolts...

Anyone that’s ever needed to repair or replace part of an early horse-drawn vehicle knows the challenge posed by frozen, rusty nuts and bolts.  Heat, oil, a hammer, a cheater bar, and sometimes fits of rage are among the most commonly-employed ways we try to loosen what decades of neglect have sealed.  Several years ago, a good friend of mine, Gerald Creely, introduced me to a product called, “Aerokroil.”  The company’s tagline says this is the “oil that creeps.”  I’ll have to say that when coupled with a little patience, this fluid is absolutely amazing.  (Thanks Gerald!)  I’ve seen it loosen bolts that no other lubricant would touch.  Needless to say, I try to keep several cans of this stuff around the shop at all times.

Loosening age-old nuts and bolts can be simplified by allowing Aerokroil to soak into the frozen parts.

Mold & Mildew...

My blogs for August 17 and August 24 of 2016 focused on ways to both remove and prevent the blight of mold on antique, horse-drawn vehicles.  I’m not going to re-write that two-part series here but, I thought it might be helpful to include the links.

As for the ‘mysteries’ mentioned in today’s blog title, there are countless unknowns in any study of America’s first transportation industry.  I’ll be talking about some of these (and some recent discoveries) in my presentation to the Santa Fe Trail Association next week.  Hope to see you there.  Oh, and one other thing.  I recently had the rare opportunity to conduct a bit more research into the legacy and legend of St. Louis wagon maker, Joseph Murphy.  What a privilege!  I hope to be sharing more on that in the near future.

Have a great week!

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, September 13, 2017

Finding Unique Antique Wagons

Most folks have likely heard the phrase, “You have to kiss a few frogs to find a prince.”  For collectors of early transportation, we can often apply the same principle to the process of finding truly unique western vehicles.  It’s easy to locate the common stuff.  Those rolling works of art that consistently stand out in a crowd, though, are not only in high demand but, by definition, are in short supply. 

Over the years, we’ve managed to assemble a few dozen wagons and western vehicles in our collection.  As with any significant gathering of history, it takes a lot less time to view it than it usually involves to bring it all together.  Like so many other collectors out there, we’ve committed a fair amount of resources to research as well as shelling out healthy doses of patience and persistence.  Along the way, we’ve seen a number of good, bad, and ugly pieces.  Even so, every vehicle I’ve been privileged to see has been a valuable encounter.  Why?  Because, each one has taught me something.  One of the main things I’ve learned is the value of unceasingly searching for the best pieces.  It sounds simple enough but, I know a number of collectors and enthusiasts that limit their efforts, rarely expanding their searches beyond a fifty or sixty-mile range.  The old adage about people getting ‘luckier’ the harder they work for something is true in this case as well.  Focused commitments may strike out a lot but they’re also in a great position to make it home with the best pieces.

This heavy-duty Moline Mandt gear with original bolster extensions is a relatively new addition to our collection.  It was built with a 56-inch track and 3-ton capacity.

I’ve been chasing these wheels for more than two decades and, from time to time, I’ve heard folks express frustration over an inability to find the right piece at the right price.  First off, IF a person has truly found the right set of wheels, the price may need to take a back seat to personal satisfaction.  In fact, for collectors, personal satisfaction may be the most important consideration when looking at a set of wheels.  I remember a particular gentleman at an auction years ago that purchased a piece, then began to really look at it and was immediately disappointed in it.  At that point, it really didn’t matter how cheap the old vehicle was.  Truth is, I’ve never come across anyone with buyer’s remorse that had done the appropriate research and knew exactly what they were buying. 

So, how many special pieces are still out there waiting to be appreciated for the uniqueness they possess?  Who knows?  One thing I’ve become convinced of is that there is still A LOT of America’s transportation past waiting to be discovered.  Since my pocketbook won’t allow me to buy every good piece I come across, I’ve learned to enjoy the thrill of the chase and opportunity to learn.  After all, the chance to see so many different pieces as well as a wide variety of construction styles employed over the years is an important part of recognizing what was done when, where, and by whom.  Reinforcing that point, this week, I thought I’d share a few of the latest pieces I’ve come across. Best of all?  Each of the examples below are available for purchase as of this writing...

This exceptional Bain wagon gear retains almost all of its original paint.  It’s a rare treat to find pieces of this quality.  For more photos, visit


When it comes to locating some of America’s best western vehicles, Doug Hansen, in South Dakota, has a knack for gathering exceptional early pieces from all over the country.  As of this writing, the “In Stock” section of his website includes one of the finest high wheel running gears that I’ve ever come across.  I’ve seen it in person and, honestly, I’m not sure the photos do it justice.  He even has a brand-matching, lazy back spring seat that would be ideal for this piece.  The gear is a Bain brand wagon – which also happens to be one of the most legendary western vehicle names on the planet.  For collectors, competitors, and serious enthusiasts, this is a piece that instantly commands attention.  After all, true quality is a feature that almost everyone can recognize.  Plus, it’s a truth that often bears significant fruit when it comes to resale values. 


Some of the historical features I’ll be covering in my upcoming presentation to the Santa Fe Trail Association involve how to spot generational differences in dead axle wagons – especially those used in farm, freight, trail, and ranch applications.  Generally speaking, we rarely see as many wagons that were made in the 19th century as we do those from the 20th century.  In fact, even with an extensive travel schedule over the last two-plus decades, I can probably count on one hand the number of 1800’s-era Peter Schuttler brand wagons I’ve come across.  Nonetheless, that challenge doesn’t stop me from continuing to search for these elusive survivors. 

Not long ago, I was traveling through Oklahoma and stopped in to see Jim Doyle with Doyle’s Antiques in Lawton.  As is usually the case, his grounds were covered with antique farming equipment, old windmills, early horse-drawn graders, and period wagons.  Jim knows I’m a fan of Peter Schuttler pieces so he tempted me with a few wagons and a spring seat, then told me he’d just gotten another Schuttler gear in that he hadn’t cleaned up yet. 

As we walked into a side bay of one of the enclosed buildings, I instantly noticed several features that got my attention; taller standards, through-bolted construction, three-quarter circle irons, and more.  I’m always looking for older pieces.  Yet, as I’ve mentioned, they are few and far between.  Leaning over to check the date stamp on this one, the year “1894” was clearly visible on the front axle.  For me, it was exciting to see this ultra-rare, original condition, true 1800’s, high wheel Schuttler.  After taking a few photos for our Archives, I thought I would share the find with our readers.  I suspect someone out there is looking for a nineteenth-century piece from a major western wagon maker like Schuttler.  For anyone interested, Jim’s phone number is 580-574-9570.

This rare, high wheel Peter Schuttler is almost 125 years old.  It dates to the same year that four members of the Dalton Gang were killed in Coffeeville, Kansas and actually pre-dates the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch.   


Another person that seems to have an uncanny ability to uncover barn-fresh wagons is Tom Elliot.  A few weeks ago, I stopped by Tom’s place and he shared one of his finds.  It’s a wagon with an amazingly well-preserved Buerkens box.  For anyone that might not have heard of the company, it was located in Pella, Iowa and may have been the longest continuously operated business in Pella.  Mr. Buerkens began building wagons in the town during the mid-1860’s.  The company survived well into the twentieth century.  In fact, industry directories still list the firm among active makers as late as the early 1930’s.  If you’d like more information on this vehicle, feel free to drop Tom a note by visiting his website at 

It’s tough to find this much original paint on surviving wagon boxes.  

Even the end gates of this Buerkens box retain a significant amount of original paint.

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, September 6, 2017

The Espenschied & Luedinghaus Wagon Companies

Several years ago, I wrote a feature article on a half-dozen of the most legendary wagon makers in St. Louis.  Even though some vehicle builders in Mound City (as St. Louis was once called) were in business for close to one hundred years, automobiles and the Great Depression ended the dreams of most of them.  Among the wheeled icons in the city were two names with establishment time frames dating to the 1840’s and 50’s.   Today, both are tough-to-find examples from America’s first transportation industry.

Once a common sight, high-wheel Luedinghaus brand wagons are hard to come across these days.

The Espenschied Wagon Company

Of all the early St. Louis-built wagons, there is likely none that gave mega-legends like Joseph Murphy greater competition than those made by Louis Espenschied.  In the city directory of 1859, sixty-five wagon makers were listed but only two paid for advertising space – Murphy and Espenschied.

Established in 1843, the Espenschied Wagon Company is eternally tied to the growth and history of America’s movement west.  From emigrant travel to the needs of the gold fields, freighters and army, Espenschied wagons carried a huge reputation for quality and dependability.

As part of that leadership, Louis Espenschied headed a group of four wagon makers that solicited the U.S. Army in 1861, offering to build as many wagons as were needed by Union forces.  Espenschied proposed construction of six-mule wagons with two-and-a-half-inch iron axles.  The wagons were designed to carry five to six thousand pounds and the same configurations were said to have been used by freighters traveling to New Mexico and Utah.  Espenschied priced them at $125 each and pledged that they were better than Army regulation wagons.  The proposal noted that the companies’ “many years’ experience in making Wagons for the Great Plains” enabled the four of them to craft the very best vehicles.

According to period reports, the proposal was immediately accepted and an order for 200 wagons was placed within ten days of the July 6th offer.  No other bidding took place as the needs of the Civil War were urgent and the reputations of the four wagon makers – Louis Espenschied, Jacob Kern, Jacob Scheer, and John Cook were unquestioned.  The wagons were promptly built and, by December of the same year, Espenschied made another proposal to the Army for another one thousand wagons at the same price.

Like other makers of his time, Espenschied’s attention to detail not only showed in quality but also in design innovations.  In 1878, he was awarded a patent for a built-in grease reservoir on the axle skein.  That feature allowed the wheel to go longer periods with less worry over the need for lubrication.  Furthermore, in an 1882 company profile, Espenschied is also given credit for an even earlier advancement in wagon design – the thimble skein.  Dating to the 1840’s, this invention was adopted by virtually all wagon makers.

Louis Espenschied passed away in 1887, leaving an estate valued at almost a half-million dollars (close to $13 million in today’s money).   Soon after, his firm merged with that of Henry Luedinghaus, forming the Luedinghaus-Espenschied Wagon Company.  Today, there are still a few existing Luedinghaus-Espenschied wagons, but an Espenschied dating to the original firm has yet to be identified.  Complicating this point a bit more is the fact that Luedinghaus appears to have resurrected the stand-alone Espenschied brand for a brief time during the 1920’s.  So, determining whether an Espenschied is a nineteenth or twentieth century survivor requires awareness of the product’s features and evolution.

As with most major wagon makers, Luedinghaus also built a popular line of huge freight wagons.

The Luedinghaus Wagon Company

Henry Luedinghaus started his own wagon manufactory in 1859.  The Luedinghaus Wagon Company was located just across the street from his original partner in the business, Casper Gestring, – pronounced “Guess-String” – founder of the Gestring Wagon Company.  In fact, the areas once occupied by Luedinghaus, Gestring, Espenschied, and Weber-Damme were all within blocks of each other.  I’ve had the privilege of walking the grounds of three of these builders and it’s hard to imagine how challenging the competition was with each of them so close to the other. 

Henry Luedinghaus’ company distinguished itself by making high-quality farm, freight, business, log, and lumber wagons.  Within his second decade of operation, Luedinghaus was not only building to order but also maintained an inventory of wagons that could be purchased on-site.  Around the same time, the company began bidding on government contracts but, by this time, there were a number of builders vying for the same business.  An 1880 Luedinghaus proposal of $61.50 per wagon was soundly beaten by the Austin, Tomlinson & Webster Manufacturing Company (Jackson Wagons).  The winning bid from this Jackson, Michigan company was $57.  It was a price advantage that was hard for traditional makers to overcome – primarily because Jackson wagons were built by state prison workers operating at a fraction of the labor rate paid to law-abiding citizenry.  Ultimately, these unfair practices would be frowned on by the courts – and the general public.  For a number of years, though, the use of prisoners to gain a competitive edge was a serious problem for many wagon builders. 

In spite of the challenges associated with nationwide competition, Luedinghaus continued to grow.  One company motto was, “The wagon will speak for itself.”  It’s no wonder the vehicles were so popular.  Luedinghaus claimed to be the first major manufactory to offer the exceptional strength and reliability of bois d’ arc (Osage Orange) wheels.  All wood in the wagons was said to have been thoroughly seasoned for two years before use and the paint was painstakingly hand-brushed, not dipped.  Dipping was a faster process but some found the resulting paint adhesion to be inferior. 

At the 1904, World’s Fair, Luedinghaus displayed a pyramid of eleven wagons.  The massive exhibition dominated the competition and generated a huge amount of publicity.  The spectacle was a physical duplication of the company’s official trademark and tagline that proclaimed, “We Tower Above All.”

For a brief time in the 1920s and early ‘30s, Luedinghaus built auto bodies, trailers, and even trucks.  It was a valiant attempt to change with the times, but the challenges of the Great Depression were just too much to withstand.  The firm closed its doors in 1934.

Shown in 1904, this tower of wagons was a head-turning display for the Luedinghaus Wagon Company of St. Louis, Missouri. 

For years, I’ve been interested in finding examples of as many old St. Louis brands as possible.  As the ‘Gateway to the West’ and home to so many early vehicle builders, it would seem that these brands might be fairly easy to locate.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  We do have quality, early examples of both Gestring and Weber-Damme wagons in our collection.  However, we continue to search for significant pieces from the Murphy, Linstroth, Luedinghaus, and Espensheid firms.  It would also be a  bonus to someday find an original piece built by John Luking or Peter Wagner.  It’s entirely possible.  Patience, diligence, and keen observation are among the greatest assets to locating the rarest of rare survivors.

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, August 30, 2017

American Transportation – The Whole Story

As an early vehicle collector and historian, I’ve had a number of people ask me what I gravitate toward when adding wood-wheeled transportation to our collection.  Many expect the answer to center around a popular make or type of vehicle – and I can easily provide a response like that.  Beyond my intrigue with the heavier work and western-themed vehicles, though, perhaps the real question should be ‘why’ I collect what I do.  In that case, my response will touch (at least partially) on the selection of pieces with the best investment potential.  You’ll also probably hear me share some stories related to the thrill of the chase.  Even so, there’s still another driving force behind what we do – the stories.  For me, this is where the real rewards are.  The background behind each of the transportation pieces we collect is full of drama, struggle, failure, and triumph.  It’s real life adventure we can watch unfold and learn from.  Growing through these discoveries is what really fuels our efforts.  As a result, our collecting isn’t limited to just vehicles or brands but to almost everything that surrounds the unique history of America’s first transportation industry.  After all, that’s essentially what gives anything intrigue – those feature-rich, back-stories highlighting interesting details we never knew.   

This small stage wagon once plied the trails around California’s most lucrative gold mine – The Utica at Angels Camp.  From the incredible rags to riches story of the mine to the exceptional rarity of the vehicle, this mail stage is an extraordinary survivor from America’s Wild West.

It’s a focus that sounds simple enough but the truth is that, in roughly two hundred years of travel in the New World, there’s an extraordinary amount of depth and breadth to this topic – far beyond the old vehicles, themselves.  The ‘extra’ pieces I find myself searching for and stumbling across do more than tell their own story, they help flesh out the overall accounts while reinforcing the vastness and complexity of this old trade.

This traveler’s guide dates to 1836.  While it provides details of stage, steamboat, canal, and railroad routes in those days, we have other western guidebooks that once supplied important information related to western overland trails.

So, while we have a few dozen vehicles in our collection, the supporting elements that help profile the entire industry will measure in the thousands.  Original photos related to makers, patents, lifestyle activities, brands, vehicle types, and special events are among the countless black and white remnants we’ve salvaged and assembled.  These pieces are complemented by several hundred period brochures and promotional pieces.  Even multiple hardware variations within the categories of skeins, wrenches, drag shoes, brake ratchets, reaches, rub irons, springs, chains, maker tags, and the like can each have stories associated with them.

This new, old stock sign was designed to be applied to the inside of glass windows.  It was made by Palm Bros. & Co. and was referred to as a translusign.

Other elements of our collection include vehicle-related patent documents, maker ledgers, manufacturing equipment, antique signs, hames bells, unique wrenches, and other all-but-forgotten-but-once-important elements from yesterday.  It’s a collage of commerce that consistently helps bring a prominent part of our past back to life.  We’ve even assembled some horse drawn transportation pieces as a result of their relevance to the beginnings of the auto industry.  After all, this part of history heavily relied on the wagon and carriage business to get themselves established.  How so?  In some cases, as with Chevrolet/General Motors, the motorized upstarts needed others who could help secure financial capital and production insights.  In other circumstances, brands like Ford and others, depended on the body-making skills from craftsmen who had learned the trade from wagon and coach building.  Still others, leaned on the engineering acumen from period machine builders, blacksmiths, and wheel makers.  The truth is, the American automobile story can’t be completely told without sharing the foundation of the whole enterprise – the horse-drawn vehicle industry.  In many ways, it was a good news/bad news kind of relationship between the two.  It was an opportunity for some employees and entrepreneurs to embrace the next generation of vehicles.  In the beginning, they each capitalized on the other, although one was destined to lose during the transition.

Many early innovators hired a photographer to capture patented advancements while using the image within sales promotions.  This image highlights a unique, folding step that could easily be attached to the sideboards of wagons.  

The criteria for inclusion within our collection often requires us to look beyond the individual value of the single piece.  If it’s a unique element that helps tell the story in a more detailed and interesting way, there’s a fair chance we’ll try and include it with all of the other artifacts we house.  

As is so often the case, the history we’ve assembled has a way of finding us as much as we find it.  It's a truth we discovered some thirty years ago when we purchased the acreage we live on.  The place is an old farm with roots dating back hundreds of years.  A well-worn wagon road still runs alongside the original stone farmhouse on the property.  Over the years, we’ve found numerous transportation-related artifacts along this road; a heavy, 56-inch steel tire (likely from an ore or freight wagon), an early-style rub iron, a brake lever, box rod parts, brake shoe, and other similar parts.  The truth is that wheeled transportation has always been a big part of this country’s history and only through continued research will we be able to pass along the most accurate details about period vehicles.  Surely, we owe that much to future generations.

An extraordinary find, we were pleased to add this original catalog of Pabst Beer wagons to our collection years ago.

Period photos can be helpful to restoration professionals as well as historians by providing a clearer understanding of what a particular vehicle looked like during the different seasons of its life.

Many will be traveling this week and next, enjoying the blessing of a long Labor Day weekend.  We wish you safe journeys and encourage you to keep your eye out for unique parts of our wheeled past.  There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle still out there but, it often takes intense focus to help locate and understand all of what we find.  Slowly and collectively, we’re putting everything back together, growing appreciation for a huge and immensely complicated industry.  Good luck in your own collecting endeavors and send us some shots of your ‘finds’ from time to time.  We’d enjoy seeing the fruits of your labors.  

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, August 23, 2017

Trail Wagons

America’s early growth was shaped by a host of transportation routes.  From the National Road in the eastern U.S. to numerous western trails like the Santa Fe, Oregon, California, Chisolm, Goodnight-Loving, Western, and Sedalia, there’s a great deal of our past that still surrounds the present.  Reinforcing America’s tie to legendary trails, I have a fair amount of early vehicle information that I’ll be unveiling in just a few weeks.

To that point, have you ever really thought about all it took to go from point A to point B one hundred fifty to two hundred years ago?  Excruciating summer heat, violent storms, piercing winters, and very few creature comforts were a regular part of cross-country transportation via equine or oxen.  Merciless environments were inescapable, making long-distance trail travel largely incomprehensible today.  Absent the comforts of air conditioning, GPS maps, modern weather forecasting, convenience stores, and even legal protection, countless wagons moved along these corridors throughout the nineteenth century.  While there were a lot of differences in the vehicles, one thing they all had in common was that each one was a product of its time.  In other words, every set of wheels on these trails was subject to the technology available up to and including the time of its use.  As an example, this means that a wagon built in the 1860’s typically carried noticeable differences when compared to one crafted in the 1890’s.  Due largely to the driving force of competition, virtually every era was full of advancements and distinctions in these wooden warriors.  As a result, we’re able to use many of the variations as part of an authentication process.  The same information is also crucial when determining timeframes of manufacture.

Freight wagons on the Santa Fe Trail varied in a number of ways, including by design, size, and construction features.

Ultimately, the differences in every set of wheels are important points to anyone interested in the real story of these transports – and America’s growth.  In the absence of these details, every old wagon is typically treated the same as another.  In fact, rarely a week goes by that I don’t find myself re-explaining this truth.  Blanketing every wagon with the same history is an all-too-common, backward, and wholly inaccurate way to look at these vehicles.  Think about this example for just a minute.  Would you say that a pickup truck produced in 1967 is the same as one built in 1997?  Clearly, they both have four wheels, a tailgate and bed, hood, lights, a transmission, and motor.  That makes them the same, right?  Of course, the statement is wrong.  They’re nowhere close to being the same.  It’s the same situation with early horse-drawn wagons.

Still, there are deeply ingrained perceptions that persist in lumping all wagons together into one mass heap of indistinguishable identities.  Perhaps that’s why few – if any – major western films are known for using period-correct wagons.  The presence of wood in the wheels seems to be the only criteria many use to automatically pigeon-hole a wagon as a member of the 1800’s.  On one hand, there’s a case to be made for rolling with the flow and ignoring the lack of accuracy.  On the other hand, what is the history we pass along if it’s not accurate? 

This photo of an early freighter shows a number of transitional design elements.  Each helps show how America’s heavy vehicle industry evolved beyond the traditional Conestoga styling.   

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be finishing up an extensive study that’s part of a presentation to the Santa Fe Trail Association and National Stagecoach and Freight Wagon Association.  The conference is open to interested parties (although there are registration fees) and takes place toward the last of September.  It will include a host of speakers covering topics from American Indians, surveys, soldiers, harness, wagons, and more topics related to the history of the Santa Fe Trail. 

There’s a fair amount of information in my presentation that won’t be available anywhere else.  Some of what I’ll be sharing centers around new discoveries that have not been reported in nearly two centuries.  If you haven’t signed up for the event, I’d encourage you to do so.  It will be a rare opportunity to ride along for a special look at early wagons on the Santa Fe Trail as well as these nineteenth century vehicles in general.  The timeframes covered will stretch from the 1820’s through the 1880’s.  The on-line registration ends on September 15th so there’s not a lot of time left to make plans to be there.  

The only real disclaimer I’ll give is that the presentation is limited to an hour.  In that small amount of time, we’ll be rushing through a lot of information and, undoubtedly, will not cover all there is to know.  Even so, it should be a great time to step back into the past and not only profile more of what these vehicles looked like but a good number of the differences as well.   

Looking forward to seeing you there!

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, August 16, 2017

Blacksmiths, Wheelwrights, Wainwrights, & Painters

Nearly a quarter century ago, I set out on a quest to learn more about America’s first transportation industry.  It’s been quite a journey since those early days when I was struggling to find primary source materials. 

Today, I’m convinced that, as much as we’ve uncovered, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to learn about this industry and how it prepared the way for the automobile.  One of the biggest hurdles we had to overcome in the beginning was the perception that the wagon and carriage industry was fairly small with only a few thousand manufacturers scattered over the whole country.  Over time, I was able to locate period books, directories, trade publications, and other resources that added clarity and valuable insights.  Now we know that there were literally tens of thousands of horse-drawn vehicle builders and repairers in the U.S.  In fact, Clement Studebaker (then-president of Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Co.) stated in 1887 that he conservatively estimated the United States had at least 80,000 vehicle makers.  Talk about competition!

It’s a tough industry to fully study since the majority of these builders were small and often didn’t stay in business for an extended time.  Some engaged in carriage and wagon making as a sideline to another primary business like hardware, lumber, and even undertaking! Complicating matters a bit more, most did very little, if any, promotion beyond the local shop signage and word-of-mouth advertising.  The end result is that there tends to be very little (if any) surviving information on many builders.  In tribute to the small and mid-sized vehicle makers, I thought we’d share a few more of the countless manufacturing-related images we have in our collection.  There’s a wide variety of subject matter in those photos since horse-drawn vehicle production required at least four categories of skillsets – blacksmiths, wheelwrights, wainwrights, and painters.  Enjoy!

This extremely rare photo shows how A. Meister’s shop in Sacramento, California looked in 1872.  The well-known firm survived into the early 1920’s.

This old image shows the employees of Short & Smith.  The firm built carriages, spring wagons, and sleighs in Syracuse, New York.

Note the workers in the second story of this building.  These upper sections were often used for painting as they had less dust and debris compared to the ground floor where blacksmithing and woodwork were done.

This super-scarce image shows a group of wagon and carriage makers comprised predominantly of African-American craftsmen.  They're standing in front of wood stock that's being air-seasoned versus the kiln-drying process.

Small blacksmith shops were common to almost every community across the United States.  This one was located in West, Texas.  It was owned by Frank Divin, the inventor and patentee of a 2-row cultivator.

This 1880 photo provides a rare glimpse of a period, Jackson-brand wagon as well as the legendary J.A. Polley vehicle shops in Topeka, Kansas.  Photos like this are invaluable when determining levels of originality and authenticity.

Dated to 1896, this photo shows a builder in Ashfield, Massachusetts.  Note the stepped ramp allowing vehicles to be moved upstairs for painting and striping work.

The artwork on the entrances of some old blacksmithing buildings was amazing.  This one includes a mural of the builder’s wagons.  To the right, additional signage promotes “Horse-Shoeing, Wagon Work, & Plow Work.”

Comparatively little is known about the Holmes wagon brand built in Barry, Illinois.

The Pitts & Blume operation was a decent-sized shop for a small community.

While early vehicles were designed with their share of art and style, additional creativity was displayed in other areas as well.  Either of the 1890’s-era signs on this building would be a great addition to an early vehicle collection today.

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, August 9, 2017

Antique Vehicle Interest & Pricing

Not long ago, I was reminiscing with my parents about my growing-up years.  It was certainly a unique time in the history of our nation.  During those days, my mom and dad owned a small gas station/grocery store – kinda like Ike Godsey’s country store on The Walton’s television series – only smaller.

That store was a connection to people, events, and social interactions that were part of the close, friendly feel of the community.  It was a place where people were down-to-earth and kids could be kids.  As such, it holds a number of memories for me.  I remember when gas was 27 cents per gallon, water and compressed air were free for the asking, soda was a dime and came in a 10-ounce glass bottle (3 cents of which was refunded upon return of the bottle), someone always pumped your gas while you waited and, many times, checked your vehicle’s oil – just as a courtesy.  ‘Those were the days’ as the old song says.  Of course, back then, we didn’t have many of the modern conveniences that we do today.  Reinforcing that point, my sister and I were the forerunners of a TV remote control for our family.  We had a total of three free channels (sometimes four if the local PBS signal was clear enough).  It all came in through a metal antenna to our black and white, small-screen TV.  Cell phones and personal computers were non-existent, cars often had no seat belts, and phone lines were shared resources referred to as a ‘party line.’  Somehow, we survived and each of us, at one time or another, has probably wished for elements of the good old days to be back again.

This old country store holds a lot of fond memories from my childhood. 

What does all of this have to do with this week’s blog?  Bear with me for one more story.  About a month or so ago, I was talking with a fella who related an account about a wagon he saw back in the 1970’s.  It seems the old wooden warrior had been found in a barn, completely covered by hay.  It had sat that way for decades; dry, undisturbed, and forgotten until the property sold and new owners took over.  The wagon was taken to an auction and that’s where this gentleman had seen it.  As you can imagine, it attracted a lot of attention.  Even in those days, the condition of the piece was a novelty for most to see.  Seems the wagon was a high wheel John Deere – new old stock – still having the shipping tags attached to the wagon and seat.  So extensive was the original paint that the man remembered it still looked brand new.  As the slew of onlookers watched the sale, the auctioneer worked hard to get the highest price for the showpiece.  When the bidding ceased, $700 had bought the wagon.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard a story like this but, it’s one of the few times I’ve had someone say they witnessed the event.  It’s been the better part of a half century since that vehicle sold and most early vehicle collectors would love to find something like that (especially for the same price) today.  Like another song, this one by the duo, Montgomery Gentry, those days are ‘Gone.’

The purpose for this intro is to say that, while we can wish for things from days gone by, generally speaking those moments have happened and aren’t coming back.  This past week a friend of mine was bemoaning the rocketing prices of good antique wagons.  He told me that they’ve gotten too high for the average person to afford.  He’s right that some have reached record heights but, isn’t that what the best investments are supposed to do?  Even with that point agreed upon, I believe we often miss opportunities to add great vehicles to a collection because we’re fixated on a very narrow group of survivors.  I’ve shared parts of this narrative before but I thought I’d go over some other elements this week.  My hope is that I can help others see that there are still plenty of quality, affordable wagons and western vehicles out there – whether you’re looking for something for a collection, competition, or some other want/need.

First things first and make no mistake – when it comes to art and antiques, the best of the best tends to consistently climb in financial value.  In fact, every early vehicle owner likely wants these resale values to grow because, ultimately, those higher prices of the elite pieces also pull along the prices of others.  I’ve yet to meet a person that actually preferred to buy things that would lose money.  Without realizing what he was saying, my friend was really just stating the obvious.  That point being that, these days, even the most casual enthusiasts can often look at a wagon and pick the better ones – thereby helping drive them to the higher price tags.  Additionally, the very best ones are often already in a collection or are spoken for.  In other words, a great deal of the low-hanging fruit has been picked. So, when a piece in extraordinary condition does come along, it will likely draw a fair amount of interest. 

With or without paint, this original Winona Sheep Bed wagon would be a great find and rare addition to any collection today.

Whether a person finds a great piece at a bargain basement price or a higher cost, have you ever thought about what happens to money invested wisely in one of these rolling works of art?  Consider this... What you pay for one of these vehicles is not really what it costs you.  That’s right.  Because, what you pay is eventually offset by what you get back when you sell the vehicle.  So, let’s say you spend $4,000 for an old set of wheels, keep it for a number of years and then sell it for X amount, you’ve either made some money, broke even, or possibly not gotten all of your money back.  In every case, though, the vehicle is virtually assured to have cost you less than what was initially paid – not to mention the enjoyment you reaped during those years of ownership. 

In the past several years, I’ve added a number of very special pieces to our collection and spent far less than others competing for the few-and-far-between, premium specimens (which are almost assuredly twentieth century pieces).  As collectors, we have to get past the point where we only see one element of the vehicle.  The most obvious thing that most people notice is the ‘condition’ of the piece.  Understandably, everyone wants the highest quality and so do I.  As I’ve already mentioned, though, the pieces that are clearly extraordinary are the most likely to attract the most attention of others.  The good news is that to successfully compete against those with deeper pockets, sometimes all you need to do is look around you.  What do I mean by that?

Okay, I’ll quit beating around the bush and ask you, ‘What are the features you look for in an old vehicle?’  From my perspective, there are a number of important elements to review; many of which I’ve covered in our Borrowed Time book and I’ve also shared in several blogs.  You can put most of that criteria, though, in the acronym – CUP.  For me, C-U-P stands for Condition, Uniqueness, and Provenance.  When all three of these are optimized, you’re likely to have a truly impressive survivor.  That said, I have some extremely unique pieces that are not in mint condition.  Like most one hundred to one hundred fifty year old artifacts, they have some age spots.  Yet, they still carry significant value.  How?  Well, they may have a great historical background, time frame of manufacture, unique construction features, be one of a select few from a well-known maker, or some other rare aspect of historical provenance.  The most important thing I’m getting to here is the need to train ourselves to recognize opportunity when it comes along.

This Texas town scene shows a number of wagon brands including Peter Schuttler, Racine, Fort Smith, and Springfield.  It’s part of a vast story highlighting fierce competition among wagon makers.

As enthusiasts, if we want to continually enhance our collections, it’s important to push ourselves to grow beyond the obvious choices run after by so many others.  Admittedly, part of the reason for this is selfishness – so we can find special pieces and improve our own investments.  However, part of the reason is completely unselfish and I’ve also shared details on this thought in previous posts.  When we get to the point that we truly understand identity and the impact of the personal history these pieces carry (Provenance), then we can start connecting with these old wheels in a way that everyone will appreciate more. 

Several years ago, I co-judged a Sheep Camp wagon competition in Douglas, Wyoming.  One of the most impressive things the organizer did was encourage the entrants to include the personal histories of a piece whenever possible.  It was an intriguing insight into the personalities of the vehicles and, as such, was highly lauded by the public (and the judges).  I’m convinced that the end result of looking deeper into these wagons is that more amazing history will be uncovered and fewer of the feared-lost pieces will be passed over as insignificant.  In other words, sometimes the easiest way to find a better deal is to get more curious about these vehicles and work to discover what sets each one apart.  That process and the history it unfolds continues to pleasantly surprise visitors viewing our collection.  Ultimately, it brings a world of history, intrigue, and uniqueness into the vehicles we've gathered. 

These days, most of us have more access to information about these old transports than ever before.  Unfortunately, though, we tend to get distracted by just one feature in collecting – the Condition (good or bad).  In other words, we don’t really see the individual tree because we’re looking too broadly at the whole forest.  If I could give just one piece of advice to new or long-time collectors/enthusiasts, it would be to quit wishing for the prices of yesterday and start looking for the treasures that are going unnoticed today.  They are out there and I’ve been extremely fortunate to come across my share again and again.  Over the years, I’ve had countless calls and emails asking for insights and recommendations about a particular antique vehicle.  By passing along my own observations, it’s been a blessing to help so many improve their collections while also preserving the maximum amount of history for future generations.

I have a great deal more that I can share on this topic but will wait for a later date to dive into the details.  In the meantime, I’d encourage any that don’t have a methodical evaluation process to consider broadening the search.  Acronyms like C-U-P can be a good reminder to be even more diligent when reviewing a set of wheels – no matter the Condition.  

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