Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Finding & Losing America’s Rarest Vehicles

I’ve been closely studying America’s early western wheels for decades.  Yet, the last half of that time has been the most visibly productive.  I’ve learned more, found more, and shared more during those years.  For me, the single-most important factor helping my growth has been the act of communicating my findings to others.  Why?  Well, if you want to discover how much you really know about a topic, start writing about it.  It’s a process that, ultimately, requires intensive and continual research.  For historians, the need for homework remains a vital part of any serious study. 

When we commit to fully explore a topic, the experience has a way of stretching and growing us.  It certainly has me.  Far from knowing all there is to know about wagons and western vehicles, the last few decades have shown me how much there is to learn and how little of it I’ve actually mastered.  Nonetheless, the process has made it much easier to recognize, identify, and evaluate even the smallest details.  To that point, there are countless construction variations on wagons made in different parts of the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries.  Knowing who did what, when, why, and how helps develop the true personality of a piece while overcoming misconceptions and putting a structure in place for accurately assessing America’s wood-wheeled icons. 

With millions of wood-wheeled wagons created throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some near-forgotten survivors are still tucked away in secluded sheds, barns, and outbuildings.

Ultimately, mentally parsing every old set of wheels has become something of a Rumpelstiltskin-style chess game for me.  I love to match wits with an antique wagon, going piece-by-piece through its makeup to see how much can be conclusively determined.  Score marks, brush strokes, hammer strikes on ironwork, the custom shaping of a particular part, patented designs, and so forth...  Everything on these old wheels has something to say.  Whether we understand the language or are as attentive as we should be is a different story.

Sometimes, even when a vehicle is recognized, we may be too late to save it.  More than once, I’ve borne the brunt of an opportunity missed.  In fact, it’s happened to me multiple times in the last year.  In one case, I missed saving an ultra-rare piece by just a few hours.  Put into perspective, in the time it would have taken to watch the movie, Open Range, the ancient vehicle was given up, parted out, and hauled away.  Dismantled, demolished, gone, and forgotten, the withered wreckage was scattered to the wind.  That’s all the difference there was in the preservation of irreplaceable history and the complete loss of an untouched artifact from another time.  It’s a scenario that’s hard to shake.  Another one lost.  Another firsthand link to the Old West purged.  Another opportunity to share the way things were with future generations – completely eliminated.  It’s a scenario that happens all too often in our search for the rarest connections to America’s western history.

Leading up to all of this, I’d been sent a series of photos showing an ‘old wagon’ that the owner wanted to clean off of the property.  As I looked at what was left of the hand-made hulk, I recognized the work fairly quickly.  The unique design, specially-contoured wood, and hand-forged irons all contained conclusive evidence from another place and time.  The elements not only told me the brand of the old wagon but placed its date of manufacture as early as the 1870’s – maybe late 1860s!  Pieces from these eras are extremely hard to find.  Knowing the wagon was made by a St. Louis builder during or before the period when George Custer and the 7th Cavalry met their demise made it an even more unique part of the story of America.  Unfortunately, by the time I was able to finally catch up with the owner, the pieces had already been disposed of.  For those curious to know, the vehicle brand was a very early Weber-Damme.  The remaining elements of it would have made an exceptional display.

From guns and knives to clothes and tools, society has learned to recognize and respect historical treasures tied to the life and times of America’s Wild West.  Even so, there seems to be an exception for the wheels that actually made every part of our western growth possible.  Oh, I don’t believe it’s a deliberate slight.  I’m convinced it has everything to do with understanding what separates one make and era from another.  While most folks wouldn't confuse a 1971 Mach 1 Mustang with a 1991 Taurus, those same twenty years' difference in an antique wagon are often portrayed with no difference whatsoever. Clearly, there’s a difference in value as well as history between the two. 

Wagons built within the individual decades of the 1800’s can vary greatly.  Understanding when certain design elements came into use is an essential part of any authoritative evaluation.  

So, why have we not been as successful getting the same message across about America’s early transportation?  At the end of the day, I believe this shortfall is the real reason so many of these pieces remain unrecognized.  Too often, the results lead to valuable pieces being categorized as rudimentary minutiae.  From modern westerns to casual auction listings and even representations in museums, there has long been an epidemic of misguided mindsets on early wagons.  We've drifted so far into vague, surface-level generalities that it’s a common occurrence for twentieth century farm wagons (even farm 'trucks') to be displayed as nineteenth century western relics.  In fairness, I’m confident most don’t realize the mistake - even though there can be numerous differences. Ultimately, though, what I’m asking is... Shouldn't we want to keep the right history with the right pieces?  Don’t we owe that to future generations?

Reinforcing that point a bit more, this past year I traveled to a half dozen museums – some in the east but, most were west of the Mississippi.  Of course, each had at least one type of exhibit in common – antique wagons.  I enjoy looking at vehicles all over the country as there is often a great deal to be learned.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot of ‘un-learning’ that needs to be done in some circumstances as well.  I’m referring to a lack of objective research that sometimes accompanies a vehicle’s supposed provenance and interpretive signage.  Again and again, I’ve come across inaccurate details attached to a particular vehicle.  In many cases, the background of the vehicle claims to be from such and such a date and made by so and so maker.  Sometimes this information is well documented.  Unfortunately, I could give countless examples of times when the professed ‘facts’ have not been properly vetted.  One encounter from last year epitomizes these types of challenges... 

Clearly, no one is perfect and mistakes can and will occur.  Even so, one oversight I stumbled upon was a doozy!  I visited a large museum last summer with quite a few early vehicles.  After paying to enter, one of the first pieces the self-guided-tour brought me to was a metal-geared, covered wagon purported to have brought a family from Ohio to the Dakotas in 1882.  The details were so specific that it sounded as if there must have been some corroborating documentation.  After reading the signage, I began to visually dissect the wagon.  First, I’ll say this... metal wagon gears were in existence during (and well ahead of) the 1880’s.  So, in and of itself, that point is not an issue.  Looking over the gear, though, it quickly became clear that this was no ordinary – or necessarily early – running gear.  It was a highly identifiable Bettendorf brand, made in Bettendorf, Iowa no earlier than, and likely well after, the mid-1890’s.  If I’d had greater access to the piece, it’s quite plausible I could have confirmed that the undercarriage would date to several years after the turn of the century.

Okay, that was the running gear.  Looking at the box, it was devoid of original paint or obvious markings.  However, as I scanned the piece top to bottom and side to side, it too was full of recognizable design elements.  Without exception, it was an exact duplicate of Studebaker’s “Twentieth Century” wagon box.  These boxes (beds) were promoted as the industry’s most advanced designs and were featured in Studebaker promotions for over a decade.  Reinforcing the prominent marketing of this design, the box possessed exclusive and patented features dating no earlier than the immediate timeframes surrounding the turn of the twentieth century.  I get no enjoyment from debunking purported history and, in reality, the truth is often much more interesting than hearsay generalizations passed on as fact.  From the beginning, my own focus has been to help others with supportable documentation and appropriate details related to a particular set of wheels. 

Beyond the obvious thought that erroneous information should be corrected, why should these slip-ups be a concern to any of us?  Well, if we don’t share accurate information, society tends to make up its own stories, effectively lumping every one of these vehicles into a single, catch-all class of sameness.  It’s a process that has historically positioned these vehicles as a relatively irrelevant part of our past.  The end result is that we miss out on the evolution of transportation design and how/when it was being used during some of the most stirring days and events of the Old West. 

Like many other brands, ‘Weber’ wagons were crafted in a number of design and paint configurations over the years.

Over and over, we all see antique wagons viewed as overly-simplistic, ubiquitous creations with little more to offer than a quick photo op in a simple yard display.  It’s exactly how the casual perception of these pieces can lead to them being burned up, melted down, parted out, or buried in a forgotten hole somewhere.  When true identities and authoritative provenance are lost, devaluation can quickly follow.  Over the years, I’ve restrained many of my thoughts on this subject out of respect for those placing these pieces on display.  More and more, though, I’ve come to believe this restraint has actually helped in the loss of key parts of American history. 

Some of the most popular searches for wagon history on the internet involve folks looking for details on Murphy Wagons.  Have you ever wondered why there are no confirmed, period examples of brands like Murphy, Espenshied, Jackson (I’ve actually seen one), or other legendary brands that played such a strong role in building the West?  Is it because they’re already gone?  I don’t believe that’s totally true.  Yes, attrition has taken a hard toll on these wooden warriors.  Even so, the most important point, I believe, is that we often don’t recognize the identity of an old piece when we see it.  All wagons look the same, or so society tends to think.  So, time and again, we look at an old piece and allow ourselves to be satisfied with not satisfying any element of curiosity.  In some cases, the lack of action (or a delay) is a death knell for a rare and legendary piece. 

This September, the Santa Fe Trail Association will hold a symposium in Olathe, Kansas.  There will be a host of topics covered.  As part of the event, I’m privileged to share some details on early wagons and their development.  The hour-long presentation will include points not typically available – even in my blogs or articles.  If you have an opportunity to attend, I’d enjoy seeing you there as well as the chance to hear about your finds and challenges.  In the meantime, if you happen across an old wagon with features you don’t recognize or maybe seem to be a little different – shoot me an email with some clear photos.  At the end of the day, it takes all of us to preserve history.  YOU could make all the difference in helping showcase an ultra-rare part of our past or losing it forever. 

When closely evaluated, it’s fairly easy to point out differences between wagons produced in different time periods of the nineteenth century.  

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