What we know about America’s first transportation industry is just a fraction of what there is to learn. It’s a virtually bottomless subject. Why? The reason, in part, is that the industry was massive and it survived a long time. Wooden wheels dominated U.S. transportation for centuries.
While it seems reasonable to believe that anything lasting that long would be a familiar topic today, time has proven that that idea is wishful thinking. With tens of thousands of builders creating millions of vehicles in thousands of styles with countless patents and more individual histories than can possibly be tracked, there is clearly a lot we still don’t know.
For over two decades, we’ve been sharing details on this industry from our extensive archives. We’ve done it to help reduce speculations while also growing greater appreciation for the vehicles and the industry’s impact on the country. Likewise, much of the same information we uncover is vital for early brand identification and authentication as well as overall evaluations.
The process of ‘digging’ for history is sometimes a literal description. We were privileged to be on the site of the old Luedinghaus - Espenschied wagon factory when archaeologists were excavating it years ago.
The process of finding this history is often challenging. It reminds me of an old western television show I watched as a kid. The Guns of Will Sonnet, starred Walter Brennan as Will Sonnet and Dack Rambo as Will’s grandson, Jeff. In each episode, the two searched throughout the West for Jeff’s dad (Will’s son, Jim). The premise of seeking out and trying to find lost roots allowed the program to feature a variety of western adventures with numerous near-sightings and ‘he-was-just-here’ kinds of misses. Crisscrossing the 1870’s western landscape, this duo was determined to find and restore a valued relationship. The overall story of the American West is full of parallels related to horse drawn vehicles. Ultimately, it’s tough – if not impossible – to correctly relate America’s movement west without highlighting the wheels used for virtually everything – coaching, mails, agriculture, business, military, freighting, mining, logging, ranching, etc. Each helps tell a crucial part of our nation's growth. Yet, the vehicles and industry are rarely profiled within mainstream media sources.
Even so, these wheels didn’t come together by magic. They were created by people and corporate organizations filled with rapt stories of their own. Brands were born, fortunes were made, and dreams were dashed in a powerful industry often moving with a winner-take-all kind of aggression. By 1850, the discovery of gold in California had lit a match to vehicle production in the U.S. Transportation, especially that for moving resources and working in the West, had taken on a whole new level of prominence. Likewise, the Civil War stoked even more need for wooden wagons. By the end of the War-Between-The-States, America’s vehicle makers were armed and ready for a take-no-prisoners focus on market share and business.
Massive quantities of these wheeled designs were largely manufactured through factories scattered across the country. With aggressive competition, large-scale marketing efforts, strong brand loyalties, and wide-spread distribution, it’s easy to see the influences nineteenth century trade had on modern-day transportation. Many of the same business requisites – from advertising to customer service, dealer networks to product exports – have become valued parts of modern-day auto manufacturing.
In the opening scenes of each episode of The Guns of Will Sonnet, Walter Brennan recites a poem. In it, the character of Will Sonnet is recounting his earlier life and how he now recognizes the importance of helping find his son. It's a haunting, yet important message related to perspective and what we sometimes undervalue in our early lives – only to look for ways to rectify those choices as we grow and mature. The introduction to the show always ended with the words, “...So we ride, Jim’s boy, and me.”
As all of us ‘ride’ through the 21st century, there will be near-misses; times when we come close to finding and saving pieces of history. At other times, we may feel like there’s not enough reason to continue a search. Yet, the purpose is still there and if we stay vigilant, there will be discoveries. Better still, with each find, there are still untold numbers of stories to tell. Stories of the West that have likely never been told. Like hidden clues from an all-but-forgotten time, aging artifacts and previously unknown records are waiting to be uncovered. The historic relevance is there... IF we have the persistence to dog the cold trails before it’s too late.
A decade ago, we were fortunate to be able to personally examine and document the 1856 Peter Schuttler running gear in the Steamboat Arabia Museum. To our knowledge, it is the earliest surviving, factory-built wagon in America.
As a nod to the efforts of so many collectors, museums, organizations, and enthusiasts, we thought we’d share some early vehicle details a little differently this week. Below is a list of three dozen statements – some true and some false. Take a look, record your thoughts and we’ll provide the correct answers along with some additional history in an upcoming blog...
1) The American Wagon Company only made wagon boxes – not running gears. True or False?
2) A sure way to identify a Winona wagon is through its exclusive use of iron clad hubs. True or False?
3) Peter Schuttler offered more than a dozen sub-brands of vehicles. True or False?
4) You can identify a wagon as a Studebaker anytime you see the Studebaker name cast into the skeins. True or False?
5) The Ft. Smith Wagon Company was among an assortment of firms receiving contracts to build vehicles for Native Americans during the early twentieth century. True or False?
6) The giant western wagon referred to as the “Fortuna” featured 6-inch-wide tires, 8-foot-tall rear wheels and an overall height of 13.5 feet. It was built by M.P. Henderson in 1899 and sold to a man who purportedly used fortune tellers to guide him in his mining decisions. True or False?
7) Henry Mitchell first started building wagons in Chicago in 1850. True or False?
8) Horse-drawn wagons can be equipped with different tongue configurations. In the nineteenth century, a hinged, ‘drop tongue’ was also referred to as a ‘falling’ or ‘shifting’ tongue. True or False?
9) In 1848, a seasoned freighter made the roughly 800-mile trip from Santa Fe to Independence, MO in just under 6 days. True or False?
10) Of the 200,000 wagons said to have been built by Joseph Murphy in St. Louis, only a handful are known to have survived. True or False?
11) We have no way of knowing what the first chuck wagon did or didn’t look like. True or False?
12) The U.S. Army used dozens of different types of wagons. True or False?
13) Nineteenth century military forces were sometimes accompanied by ‘Balloon wagons.’ True or False?
14) The Springfield wagon company only used one style of seat - a lazy back. True or False?
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. True or False?
16) Tongue supports or springs (for wagons) were in use as early as the 1850’s. True or False?
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. True or False?
18) The running gears of Bain brand wagons were always painted orange. True or False?
19) Wagons with Bois d’arc (Osage Orange) wheels were not desirable on the plains. True or False?
20) Not all period chuck boxes utilized a folding leg(s) to support the hinged table. True or False?
21) Round edge tires were common on wagons used during the Civil War. True or False?
22) Not all king bolts were made of a single, solid piece. Some were designed to bend. True or False?
23) George Milburn (Milburn Wagon Company) was related to the Studebaker Brothers through marriage. True or False?
24) The California Gold Rush was started by a wagon maker. True or False?
25) Wagons built in the U.S. between 1865 and 1895 changed very little in design. True or False?
26) Stencils for painting brand names on wagons were in use as early as the 1870’s. True or False?
27) The famous showman, P.T. Barnum, helped promote the Jackson Wagon Company. True or False?
28) The Luedinghaus Wagon Company used a peacock as a brand icon. True or False?
29) No wagon companies in America were building large freight wagons after 1900. True or False?
30) Many of the first Chevrolet and Buick vehicles built in the U.S. were manufactured in the buildings where Flint brand wagons had previously been made. True or False?
31) The term ‘dead-axle’ wagon refers to a vehicle with a weakened axle. True or False?
32) International Harvester revolutionized the wagon industry with the first swiveling reach patent applied for in 1919. True or False?
33) The Lindsey Wagon Company in Laurel, Mississippi was the only U.S. builder of eight-wheel logging wagons. True or False?
34) Harrington Manufacturing Company of Peoria, Illinois was a significant manufacturer of Rural Mail wagons. True or False?
35) Using prison labor to manufacture wagons was seldom done in the 1800’s. True or False?
36) Fires, while feared, were seldom experienced by wagon makers in the 1800’s. True or False?
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