There are all sorts of reasons people pursue different activities. It may be an escape, a way to wind down, a means for staying mentally and physically fit, spending time with others, satisfying a craving for adrenaline, or a number of other factors. For me, there’s no single draw that continually pulls me into America’s early world of wheels. The intrigue comes from a number of places.
Maybe I’m feeling a bit nostalgic this week (my youngest daughter is getting married) or maybe today’s post is meant to remind us all of the rewards offered by a good sideline interest. Whatever the inspiration for this week’s topic, there are a number of reasons that the study of America’s historic vehicles can be infectious. In order to open the window to that world a little more, I thought I’d share, in no particular order, ten reasons I find myself continually involved in this subject.
1) The Thrill of the Chase – There’s something about the ever-present hope of making new discoveries. It’s a mindset filled with anticipation and rewarded with the excitement of both recognizing and rescuing lost treasures. Likewise, the expectation of uncovering another piece of America’s transportation puzzle has a way of driving us forward through the next obstacle. To that point, numerous historians have contributed countless details that can help us better understand this part of our nation’s growth and development. It’s a foundation of knowledge that’s easy to jumpstart by reinforcing your own library with published works; many of which I’ve covered in previous blogs and articles.
2) Meeting New People & Reconnecting with Old Friends – One of the greatest thrills in chasing history is the opportunity to hear from others and share in their stories. Inevitably, folks from all over our great country have questions and personal experiences of their own. Those individual accounts are always intriguing and go a long way in continually piquing my curiosity as well. After all, each of us tends to work with a little more enthusiasm when we see the same excitement in others. Iron sharpens iron.
3) Traveling to New Places – Trekking across America in search of our country’s earliest wheels is an extraordinary experience. The trips allow us to more fully appreciate the challenges faced by period vehicle makers while also giving us a front row seat to the amazing geography, culture, and natural beauty evident in all parts of the U.S. From the desolation of Death Valley and the gurgling caldrons of Yellowstone to the breathtaking views in America’s rivers, plains, mountains, and wooded cathedrals, the land is full of incredible wonders. In fact, these are the places where the industry of transportation has consistently brought the country together. With that said, what better way is there to connect with the past than to go where so much transportation history took place?
Traveling has always been an exciting part of my pursuit of early vehicle history. Even so, arriving back home to familiar surroundings tends to be an even more welcome sight.
4) Experiencing Other Collections – There are countless public and private collections available for viewing all over the U.S. Featuring not only some of the best surviving examples of America’s horse-drawn transportation, these compilations can also highlight regional manufacturing distinctions, evolution of designs through different eras, and variations between individual brands.
5) New Historical Discoveries – This part of the search process plays a huge role in refueling my determination and drive. There can be long, dry spells in the hunt for history. The occasional ‘finds’ have a way of re-energizing us and instilling hope that more lost artifacts and information can still be found. Lately, I’ve uncovered unpublished primary source details on some of America’s earliest wagon makers and freighters. Names like Hiram Young, Alexander Majors, Lewis Jones, Francois Xavier Aubry, and many more are part of this newest find. It's already filling in gaps of history while providing a more detailed look of transportation in the mid-1800's. Just this week, I’ve also discovered previously unreported details related to Abbot-Downing. Some of this material will be shared in the Santa Fe Trail Association meeting in September. Ultimately, we enjoy helping locate and preserve these all-but-forgotten parts of American history.
6) Adding Provenance to Vehicles in Our Collection – Time and again, our search and rescue efforts have uncovered important details related to brand histories as well as facts tied to individual vehicles in our collection. It’s an exercise that also helps highlight the interest levels and values of vehicles all over the country.
7) New Vehicle Finds – Superficial searches for historic vehicles can quickly deliver the impression that the most significant survivors have already been found. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are still a number waiting to be recognized, recovered, and have their stories told. How many? Who knows? If I learned nothing more from the past twelve to fourteen months, it’s clear that diligent pursuit has a way of increasing the amount of luck we can experience. Throughout that timeframe, we were fortunate to come across several previously unknown pieces dating to just after, during, or immediately preceding the Civil War.
8) Understanding More – With tens of thousands of reported vehicle builders, America’s first transportation industry was a massive institution that we may never fully understand. Nonetheless, every part of the puzzle that can be put back in place helps us paint a more complete picture of a very complex and competitive industry. The industry was so deeply tied to banking, agriculture, forestry, mining, government services, and countless other facets of trade, that it was far from the primitive levels of business savvy that some have wrongly assumed it occupied.
9) Reminders of Opportunity – Quite a few emigrants and others looking for a fresh start in America took up a trade in the field of transportation. Many were already trained in the art of vehicle manufacture but others, recognizing the economic demand, made preparations to learn and benefit from the experience. Just as today, everyone had a need to travel or move goods from one place to another. The early industry was one of tremendous growth (especially in the mid-to-late 1800’s) and quality work was rewarded with even more business. As such, it’s another reminder of the opportunity freedom affords as well as the responsibilities those pursuits carry.
10) Memories – Over the years, we’ve traveled to countless places, meeting so many amazing folks with great stories. It’s a lot to take in and reflect upon. When I started this journey, our kids were young. Through the different seasons, we’ve had our share of family trips, many centered around places where I could see more vehicles. That said, it wasn't exactly a sacrifice for the family to agree to these trips. Believe it or not, there are countless wooden wheels near Disney Land, Washington D.C., St. Louis, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, and so on. I’ve truly had the privilege of having my cake and eating it too. Along the way, the memories have become a treasured part of our family legacy. Special get-togethers invariably have a way of re-sharing those times together. Even instances much closer to home can bring smiles and fond recollections. I’ll forever remember the looks on my young girls’ faces when I would tell them we needed to move some wagons to make room for another. They hated that because, in truth, it was a chore. In typical parental style, though, I always assured them it wouldn’t take long. It was a statement based solely within the guise of wishful thinking with no reality to back it up – and they knew it! Nonetheless, we have memories of doing things together and enjoying the time, wherever we were.
A few years ago, against the backdrop of what I tried to convey as a manly, yet tear-stained face, our oldest daughter was married. This weekend will mark the same occasion for our youngest daughter. She’s no longer a little girl. Where does time go? Wasn’t it just yesterday that these creatures after my own heart were here, standing at the ready, excited to fly kites, ride horses, go fishing, catch June bugs, lizards, and fireflies, play ball, go sledding, share a movie, and still find time to ride in an old wagon? It’s a bitter-sweet moment marking time in so many families; a time of reflection and reminder that the decisions we make and pursuits we follow are impacting others as well.
To that point, there are a lot of reasons that I’ve studied America’s earliest wheels for so long. Not the least of which has been the opportunity for our family to share even more memories together. Unfortunately, like the early transportation industry, life moves on and new directions take hold. Through it all, I’m thankful for the gifts of friends, freedom, and family that God has given. And, yes, I will probably need to carry a handkerchief to this wedding as well. After all, this girl is more than a bride, she’s a product of my past and, like her sister, she’s something good I’m thankful to be part of. That kind of history is the hardest to let go.
Growing up on a farm, our girls found beauty and intrigue in even the simplest things. Note the ‘treasure’ of a shed snake skin held in our oldest daughter’s left-hand grip.
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