Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Early Vehicle Provenance – The Reach Plate Connection

Researching ancestral histories and investing in DNA testing to determine an individual’s genetic composition are popular pursuits these days.  It seems that more and more people want to know about the personal history that’s part of their makeup.  Similarly, it’s rewarding to know as much as possible about the history (provenance) of an antique horse-drawn vehicle. 

If you ever want to learn how much is not known (and objectively substantiated) about a piece, start visually dissecting the vehicle and ask what can be confirmed about each part of the whole.  Where did a specific part come from? – Did the builder make the part or buy it?  Was the design ever patented?  Why was that particular part used?  How is it different from other forms of construction?  Is it original to the time of manufacture?  Has a particular part ever been replaced? – If so, when and why?  What, if any, features on the vehicle help define a particular region or purpose for which it was built?  Clearly, asking specific questions about a set of wheels can highlight just how much more there is to know.  Likewise, every piece of an early vehicle has a story to tell. 

Further highlighting the search for information on these functional works of art, let’s look at one of America’s most popular, mass-produced vehicles.  Spanning the 1800’s and early 1900’s timeframes, millions of farm wagons were produced.  Yet, most have largely disappeared and only a small percentage of the brands that were created in the U.S. have survived.  Looking at those that are still here, there are literally hundreds of individual components to review on any given vehicle.  Even if two wagons are of the same make, they will not carry the same provenance since they had different users, use patterns, environmental exposures, and so forth.  As a result, it’s doubtful that most of us will ever know everything there is to know about the history of a particular set of wheels.

This snapshot shows a variety of reach plate designs dating from the 1860’s through the early 1900’s.

One area within farm wagon construction that can be interesting to examine is the reach plate.  For those unfamiliar with the terminology, a reach plate is the metal piece surrounding the mid-portion of the reach or coupling pole.  Looking under the wagon, the center section of the running gear (undercarriage) often includes a reach plate with a drop-in pin that connects the front and rear portions of the running gear.  Of course, not all early wagons were constructed with reach plates.  However, many were and it can be a good place to find clues related to the history of an old wagon; assuming that it hasn’t been replaced and is still original to the wagon gear/box. 

Over the years, we’ve gathered up a number of unique plates, including some of the first ones ever made by a particular brand.  The efforts have been part of our efforts to preserve the countless stories and unique history within America’s first transportation industry.  Oftentimes, original reach plate housings can hold information helpful in determining a vehicle’s timeframe of manufacture, general carrying capacities, design standards, maker name, factory location, and, in some instances, patent records.

To that point, I thought I'd share a few details that can be quickly gleaned from a half-dozen pieces in our collection...

Funck & Hertzler – Burlington, Iowa

Funck & Hertzler (F&H) was the predecessor to the Orchard City Wagon Company.  Both firms built the Orchard City brand wagon.  The company’s factory was originally established in 1856 by John Funck.  Like many early wagon makers, the firm built and repaired other farm implements as well.  Within the first few decades of its existence, F & H was making as many as 1600 wagons per year, almost as many plows, and about 800 cultivators.  By 1882, they employed 90 folks producing 4,000 wagons per year as well as 3,000 plows, and another 4,000 cultivators and harrows.

The company was reorganized in 1893 and, at that point, the firm name was changed to “Orchard City Wagon Company.”  This particular builder closed its doors around 1912.  While these details are brief, they can be combined with addition information on the city’s growth as well as obituaries, genealogical histories, and other points of interest from local libraries and historical societies.  Every element can add intrigue to the provenance of a surviving Orchard City wagon.

This rare Funck & Hertzler plate will likely date to the 1870’s or 1880’s.  

Ed Bain - Kenosha, Wisconsin

I shared a fair number of details related to the background of the Bain Wagon Company in my January 11th blog post a few weeks ago.  Nonetheless, it seemed appropriate to include a mention of the same, very early “E. Bain” reach plate here.  As I’d stated earlier, knowing the history of a particular company can help us recognize rare survivors while gleaning important provenance and passing on the details to future generations. Ultimately, if we don’t do it now, this incredible part of our past will likely be lost.

Ball Bros. - Bushnell, Illinois  

One of the earliest wagon and carriage builders in Bushnell, Illinois and the immediate predecessor to Ball Bros. was Ball & Sons.  The company was launched near the close of the Civil War and remained in business for almost a half century.  It closed down in 1914. Perhaps as a sign of the times, after selling its assets, the building that the business had occupied became a dealership for the Packard automobile.  The reach plate in our collection will likely date to around 1910.   

This rare reach plate for a regional maker in Bushnell, Illinois once belonged to a Ball Bros. wagon likely built around 1910.

Studebaker - South Bend, Indiana

Some of the more interesting reach plates from Studebaker are those dating to the nineteenth century.  Many of these have five-digit numerals cast into them and I’ve yet to run across two plates with the same numbers.  As of this writing, I don’t have any concrete evidence but have wondered if these might correspond to serial numbers attached to the earlier wagons?  I do know that the serial numbers attached to the wagons tended to be five digits.  If any reader has details on this supposition, I’d be interested in hearing from you. 

Phillip Miller & Sons – Edina, MO

The Miller Wagon Company in Edina, Missouri is profiled on our Wheels That Won The West® limited edition print.  It was established by German emigrant, Philip Miller in 1867.  While the firm may be best known for its farm wagons, they also made buggies and spring wagons.  The P M & Sons reach plate (seen in the group photo above) was a rare, earlier find for our collection.

In the 1877 patent submission for this reach plate, Targe Mandt referred to it as a reach brake-plate since it also served as a mount for the brake beam.

T.G. Mandt - Stoughton, Wisconsin

One of the most proficient and prolific inventors within the world of early wagons was Targe (T.G.) Mandt.  His innovations covered everything from wheels, tongues, and brakes to running gears, standards, box tighteners, axles, end gates, spring seats, and more.  He started his company in Stoughton, Wisconsin in 1865.  There’s a fair amount written on the company and original T.G. Mandt wagons in good condition remain popular with collectors.

Targe Mandt passed away in 1902.  While the factory remained in Stoughton, Wisconsin, by 1906, the brand and its innovations were acquired by the Moline Plow Company in Moline, Illinois.  Digging a little deeper, Mandt’s history gets even more interesting as it eventually became a sister brand to the Stevens automobile as well as Willys-Overland. 

One last observation related to the Mandt brand wagon.  Today, some confuse the Moline-Mandt brand with the Moline brand.  The two are as different as the sun and moon.  The Moline-Mandt is directly related to the original Mandt wagons (due to rights purchased after T.G. Mandt’s death in 1902).  The other Moline is a legendary company with roots pre-dating the Civil War.  It is a completely separate firm, eventually purchased by John Deere in 1910.     

There you have it... a brief look at just one part of many early wagons that can hold valuable information and clues to even more history of a piece.  Again and again, information cast into the stamped and cast metal reach plates of wagons can be extremely helpful.  Not only did these innovative pieces serve their initial purpose by connecting the front and rear running gear sections but, today, they can re-connect us to the vehicle’s past as well as showcase what technologies were available when.  It’s one more reminder that we can learn something from every part of an old wagon.  Sometimes, it requires time and patience to glean the information but, if we listen close, these wooden warriors always have something to say.  

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