Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Tom & Betty Watt’s Antique Vehicle Sale

It will be hard to forget the recent sale held at Tom and Betty Watt’s ranch in Elbert, Colorado.  If you were there, you know what I mean.  From the sheer diversity of horse-drawn vehicles to the great weather and strong prices realized on many pieces, it was an extraordinary event.  Equally memorable was the gathering of so many familiar faces and western vehicle enthusiasts.  In some ways, the event felt as much like a family reunion as it did an auction.  Folks came from all over the U.S. and Canada.  Author, historian, and Concord Coach authority, Ken Wheeling, was there on a writing assignment from the Carriage Association.  The Stagecoach and Freight Wagon Association was on also hand as well as representatives from the American Chuck Wagon Association and the Santa Fe Trail Association.  Collector’s pored over the pieces, examining every part of the whole while sharing details about other vehicles in their own collections.  Needless to say, it was an exceptional opportunity to both view and learn about America’s early transportation history.

Harley Troyer’s well-known auctioneer service worked for months prepping the event and, it seemed, that anyone with even a passing interest in these antiquities had heard of the sale.  The auction had been promoted and talked about for almost a year.  It included almost sixty period wagons and carriages built by some of America’s most legendary manufacturers.  On Friday, June 16th, a steady stream of onlookers flowed throughout the barn as they previewed the wide assortment of wagons, carriages, and coaches.  


Hundreds of folks from all over the United States and even Canada attended Tom and Betty Watt’s auction of antique horse-drawn vehicles.


The sale was scheduled to begin on Saturday morning, June 17th and, as the sun rose, the field near the barn began to fill up with cars, trucks, and trailers.  License plates from a myriad of states dotted the landscape.  Multiple, full-sized semi-trucks with enclosed trailers sat atop a rise overlooking the whole affair, waiting in anticipation for what would be purchased and loaded within their confines.  Barbeque vendors filled the air with the smell of fresh pulled pork while countless attendees speculated on what a particular vehicle might fetch.  It was, after all, a large representation of wheeled history accumulated over the course of fifty years.  Not only was it an opportunity to witness the results of a half century of collecting but it was one of those rare occurrences when an auction was truly more than an auction.  It was a chance to get to know folks and connect with some of the best known and most experienced collectors of these pieces.  Most everyone had their eye on taking something home.  It was a no-reserve auction, meaning that everything would sell, no matter the bid.


The first wagon to sell was this replica of a Studebaker Army Ambulance.  It was built by Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop and brought $44,000.


The first vehicle to be sold was a piano box buggy made by the legendary Mifflinburg Buggy Company.  It brought $1,300.  Following that up, a Park Phaeton with lamps closed with a $4,000 top bid.  The next handful of pieces all sold for less than $3,000 – an Albany Cutter sleigh for $1,400, a three-seat bob sleigh for $1,600, a Hansom Cab for $2,600, a Governess cart for $700 and a Draft horse show cart for $1,900.  It was a start that carried average to expected prices but, for those who might have thought the sale would end up a little soft, the reality was that the room was just starting to warm up. 

The auctioneer’s booth was positioned on a small, three-wheeled trailer pulled along each row of vehicles.  Once that modern transport made its way past the first few carriages and arrived at the wagons, the feverish bidding began in earnest.  Most buyers, it seems, came there for the wagons, coaches, and western vehicles.  First up in that category was a replica Studebaker Army Ambulance built by Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop in South Dakota.  Back and forth competition for this exceptional piece brought the final price to $44,000.  Another top-seller was an original Abbot-Downing Yellowstone coach, commanding $56,000.  A feature-rich, Newton chuck wagon with fully-stocked chuck box, fly, poles, mannequins, and other accessories claimed a $33,000 tag while a full-sized, reproduction Concord Coach built by J. Brown sold for $28,000. 

In another instance, a ‘mud wagon’ – identified by stagecoach historian, Ken Wheeling, as a ‘Florida Wagon’ – brought $30,000.  According to Ken, the stage was cataloged by Abbot-Downing and, despite the geographical-sounding name, Ken shared that the design was not limited to use within a particular region; it was marketed throughout the U.S.  Even so, it's a piece rarely seen.


Built by legendary St. Louis builder, Weber & Damme, this wagon featured excellent original paint and graphics on the box.



The Weber & Damme wagon at the sale brought $12,000.  


Many of Mr. Watt’s quality farm wagons brought 11, 12, 13, 14, and even $15,000, leaving little doubt that the value of good, original wagons continues to climb.  In fact, if there were lessons to take away from this auction, one of the most apparent would have to be that unrestored, wooden wagons with significant amounts of original paint are very much in demand.  While many buyers were drawn to the major builders like Bain, Charter Oak, John Deere, Birdsell, Newton, Owensboro, Peter Schuttler, Weber-Damme, Columbus, and Weber wagons in the sale, other regional brands like Wagner, Lamons, Knapheide, and Rhoads were highly sought-after as well.  In fact, even unrestored wagons with minimal paint seemed to have an abundance of interest.  Moral of the story... if you have a good, original farm wagon – take care of it and keep it that way.  If you don’t have one, you might want to consider acquiring a quality example as part of a diversified investment plan!


The Charter Oak wagon brand has roots to 1856.  This was another high-quality wagon with original paint at Tom & Betty Watt’s auction.


John Deere wagons are popular with many collectors.  This double box example brought $10,000.  


This original Newton farm wagon topped out at $12,000.



This fully-equipped Newton brand chuck wagon attracted a lot of interest.  The final bid totaled $33,000.


While in Colorado, I had the great privilege of not only talking to many good friends but meeting a lot of wonderful folks from all over the country.  Truth be told, that’s one of my favorite parts of traveling, researching, and consulting with collectors on these early vehicles – this country is full of great people.  Actually, it’s refreshing; especially since the news media has a way of making it sound like the sky is always falling.  All it takes is a trip outside our familiar haunts and into the heart of this incredible nation to see why it’s still the most blessed and wonderful place in the world.  At America’s core, there are a host of good, honest, hard-working people who understand the value of our past and the tremendous opportunity we have to live in this Land of Liberty. 

Here’s a special shout-out to all of those I had the privileging of talking to and hanging out with last week.  I appreciate your kind words as well as the encouragement to keep plugging away on this weekly blog.  Next week will be my 300th blog post.  Trust me; there are weeks that it seems like even more.  Ultimately, it marks a lot of time on the keyboard as well as in our Archives and on trips around the country.  From the beginning, one of my biggest goals has been to help others see the value, depth, and extraordinary history tied to these old vehicles and builders.  Hopefully, we’re making some inroads there.  And to the gentleman who asked if I might still have one of the few “Borrowed Time” books we printed – It’s on the way, my friend. 

Have a great week!

Tom and Betty Watt’s historic Yellowstone Coach was the top-selling vehicle at their auction.  It sold for $56,000.  


Multiple bidders battled for this Bain wagon on an original through-bolted running gear.  Ultimately, it commanded just over $14,000.


This Rhoads brand wagon box sits on a Birdsell gear.  The entire wagon is featured in the book, “Borrowed Time.”  It’s a rare set of wheels that brought $15,000.


The Wagner wagon brand was produced in Jasper, Indiana and predominantly served that local region.  This extraordinary survivor sold for $14,000.  


This Standard Oil wagon sold for $11,500 while the J. Brown-built Concord Coach (in the background) brought $28,000.



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, June 14, 2017

Seldom Seen Survivors

From extraordinary barn finds to unexpected research discoveries, the last quarter century has brought us a world of insights into America’s early vehicle makers.  Through it all, we’ve been privileged to meet a lot of great people while helping bring more clarity to an often-misunderstood part of our past.  Even so, there are a lot of pieces from yesterday’s transportation industry that I’ve never seen.  The closest we seem to get to them might be an old drawing or printed description from a period trade publication.  At the end of the day, there are just some elements that remain elusive. Because the pieces I’m talking about are usually fairly small, they can be easily forgotten, overlooked, or tossed aside as junk.  Nonetheless, these modestly-sized artifacts can play a huge role in provenance while adding remarkable interest and value to related vehicles.  With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting this week to go over a few seldom-seen-survivors from the nineteen and early twentieth centuries... 

1.      Archibald Hub Wrench – From water and ice wagons to express, beer, fire, and ore wagons, there were numerous early vehicles that used Archibald hubs.  These metal flanges encased the spokes and were designed to deliver numerous benefits, including more secure wheels and lighter vehicle draft.  After testing the design in the 1870’s, the U.S. military ultimately adopted the Archibald hub for use in a number of transports, including the Army Escort wagon.  Centering the wheels, it’s an easy feature to recognize.  Even so, there’s one element of the Archibald hub that is rarely seen and is one of the most crucial accessories for the design – the wheel wrench.  I’m not talking about a traditional wrench of the style used on most thimble-skein farm wagons.  I’m referring to a specific design(s) created particularly for the Archibald hub.  Some time ago, I was reviewing a special collection of wagons and came across one of these ultra-rare pieces.  One end of this particular wrench is sized for the center nut on the wheel while the other end fits the smaller nuts positioned on the backside of the wheel hub.  Since stumbling across that wrench, I’ve actually located photographic evidence of yet another style the military also used on Archibald hubs.



The inclusion of raised letters on this Archibald hub wrench may be indicative of a presentation piece.



2.      Advertising Print Blocks – Computers, copiers, and digital technology have so simplified the modern-day printing process that it’s easy to overlook the challenges faced in late nineteenth and early twentieth century printing.  Instead of a direct ‘computer-to-plate’ process, many advertising messages from those days were crafted by using movable type and print blocks with raised surfaces that transferred ink when pressed against paper.  While many early print ads and literature produced in this way can still be found, image-laden print blocks generated by the major vehicle makers are much tougher to locate.  Even so, they can add even more dimension to a particular vehicle, brand, and collection.

3.      Patent Models – In the early days of patent registrations, inventors were required to submit a working miniature of their idea.  In 1790, the first Patent Act was established by then-President George Washington with functional patent models needed alongside the accompanying text descriptions and illustrations.  This prerequisite was part of the process from 1790 through 1880.  Finding these pieces of transportation history can be extremely tough in the twenty-first century.  One of the thousands of artifacts in our archives is a miniature model for a brake ratchet.  It was submitted to the U.S. Patent Office in January of 1880 by Abner Fish, one of the brothers in the legendary Fish Bros. Wagon Company in Racine, Wisconsin.  The patent was granted in March of 1880. 



This one-of-a-kind brake ratchet model for Fish Bros. wagons was submitted in 1880.  It was the last year models would be required for patent submissions.



4.      Original Stencils – Vintage wagon makers added logos, names, and numerals to a variety of locations on the vehicle.  Sometimes builders used printed transfers (decalcomines) for the brand name while, in other instances, the signage was hand painted or stencils were employed.  Even though stencils were once a common sight in wagon shops, original examples are very difficult to find today. 


This original stencil was used to paint the brand name on the side of a Lamons wagon.  The Lamons Wagon Company of Greeneville, TN was established in 1868.



5.      State Fair / Exposition Awards – Year after year, numerous fairs as well as regional, national, and international Expositions served as new vehicle competitions.  Manufacturers were judged on the merits of style, design, innovation, quality, and functional effectiveness.  Individual entries were awarded with medallions, ribbons, pins, cash, and other prizes.  Many of those awards have survived, yet, countless others are still unaccounted for.  In one case, almost three dozen medallions survived because they were embedded into a special show vehicle.  In today’s vernacular, we would call that particular set of wheels a concept vehicle.  The medallions are part of the legendary ‘Aluminum Wagon’ produced by Studebaker for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.  The wagon has never been used, other than in promotions.  It's located in the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana. 


Our research of an intriguing wagon shown at the 1876 Centennial Exposition (First World’s Fair) turned up another medallion awarded in 1875 to the maker of that wagon, Jacob Becker, Jr.  We came across an additional medallion from a smaller maker in Peoria, Illinois a few years ago.  Awarded to Geo. Pfieffer & Company, the honor was bestowed upon the firm for having the Best Spring Wagon judged by the Illinois State Board of Agriculture in 1882.  Mr. Pfieffer was also recognized in 1874 for having the Best 2-horse wagon as judged by the Iowa State Agricultural Society.  Like many local builders, it’s difficult to find a great deal of information on the Pfieffer firm.  We did uncover an 1880 historical account of Peoria where Mr. Pfieffer is credited with being the largest manufacturer of wagons and buggies in the city.  While his business began in 1868, we haven’t found any trace of it surviving past the mid-1880’s.


This legendary Studebaker ‘aluminum’ wagon is embedded with 35 medals awarded to the company in its first 40 years of business.


These images were graciously provided by Brian Howard & Associates who did exceptional conservation work on this one-of-a-kind ‘aluminum’ wagon from 1893.



6.      Early Warranties - Similar to vehicle promotions today, early wagon makers often used warranties to help seal the deal with buyers.  The most common length of these pledges was for a period of one year although some can be found for a little longer.  The contracts were tied by serial number to specific wagons, dates, buyers, and sellers.  While some of the art-embellished warranties can still occasionally be found, typically, the wagons they refer to are long gone. 

7.      Salesman Samples – The ‘salesman’s sample’ term gets thrown around a lot these days but, finding an actual promotional sample from America’s earliest vehicles can be tough.  Like virtually all marketing-purposed mock-ups from the era, the pieces were built for a single function – to sell the product and/or feature of a set of wheels.  Once the usefulness of a particular ‘sample’ was over, it tended to be tossed away.  The farther we travel from the time when they were used, the fewer pieces remain to be found.



This original sales model was used by agents of the Milburn Wagon Company to promote the added strength of a steel truss embedded into wooden axles.



8.      Factory-related trinkets – Manufacturers within America’s first transportation industry were savvy marketers.  Beyond the more involved details of event marketing, outdoor signage, competitor challenges, and print ad campaigns, there were many other tools in our ancestors’ advertising arsenal.  Among those were a host of promotional trinkets.  Things like buttons, pins, paper weights, rulers, cups, match strikers, puzzles, cards, tokens, watch fobs, fans, mirrors, whetstones, and many other items that would attract attention were distributed.  One of the rarest and most creative ideas that I’ve come across is a factory tour “Pass” for prospective dealers.  It was issued by Studebaker somewhere around 1877 or ’78 to help grow their distribution network while reinforcing their vehicles as a preeminent and affordable brand.  Not only did the two-sided card grant a free tour of the South Bend facilities but, it included a promise that if the bearer did not feel Studebaker’s prices were lower than anyone else’s for the same quality of work, the company would pay the pass-holder’s way to and from South Bend.  That’s real confidence.  It also shows how astute the company was in their efforts to build a strong sales network while reinforcing impressive brand loyalty.  


This ‘pass’ for a factory tour is an extremely scarce survivor from Studebaker’s early wagon manufacturing days.



9.      Original Decalcomines – These pre-printed transfers were used by both small and large horse-drawn vehicle makers.  The technology was useful in many ways including the ability to keep all logos/brands consistent with high quality, cost-effective results.  Even so, the purpose-driven designs weren’t meant to last forever.  So, finding unused, new old stock examples of these pieces is always a surprise.  Years ago, we were fortunate to run across a few for the Swab wagon brand.  These particular transfers were used on the box sides and rear end gates.  The Swab Wagon Company is one of the few firms with nineteenth-century transportation roots that are still in existence today.  Located in Elizabethville, Pennsylvania, the brand is a well-known producer of police, fire, rescue, and animal transports.  The company will celebrate its 150th Anniversary in 2018. 


10.   Original Blueprints / Technical Drawings – These are virtually non-existent parts of America’s past.  While most builders tended to use hard-copy patterns for their established and successful designs, there are some surviving examples of blueprints being used.  Our persistent digging has managed to locate a few sets of blueprints along with some technical drawings for U.S. military vehicles like escorts, tool wagons, and water wagons.


Week in and week out, it’s a pleasure to share bits and pieces from our research, collection, and travels.  Sometimes, though, I wonder if we’re covering all the subjects you’d like to know more about?  To that point, if you have a specific brand, topic, or question related to America’s early wagons and western vehicles, drop us a line.  We’d enjoy hearing from you and look forward to helping highlight even more history in the coming months.  


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, June 7, 2017

Restoring Wheeled History – A Few Things To Consider

It’s not unusual for us to receive hundreds of questions each year related to horse-drawn vehicles.  Many of those inquiries focus on details connected to the restoration of a particular set of wheels.  Paint colors, striping, design contours, logos, dealer info, and other considerations are among the particulars that can change between vehicles and years.  As a result, for any authentic work to be done, it’s important to know as much as possible about the vehicle while understanding the ramifications of any work engaged. 

As with the restoration of an antique piece of furniture, or even an extraordinarily significant car or truck, the process of correctly refurbishing a wagon or western vehicle should be approached with great care.  After all, with any valued work of functional art, architecture, or history, there is an irreplaceable heritage contained within the parts of the whole.  Stress cracks, age stains, wear marks, and decades of patina all tell a story.  Covering up or removing those connections to yesterday – even with a well-meant restoration – might negatively affect resale values and historic visual appeal.  Ultimately, it’s important to first determine if preservation or conservation efforts might be a better approach. 

Preservation of a piece describes efforts to keep it the same with minimal (if any) changes to the structure.  Exceptionally rare and historically significant pieces are often the ideal candidates for the limited impact of preservation work.

Similarly, Conservation of a set of wheels means that the vehicle should remain as unaltered as possible.  Any repairs or replacement parts should match the original and be removable or reversible in the future if needed.  The maximum amount of original wood, paint, and metal should be retained.

By definition, Restoration involves the bringing back of a piece to a former condition.  While this direction often involves the most change to the vehicle, it should also be entered into with care.  Aptly approached, restoration of a wood-wheeled vehicle requires comprehensive knowledge of the vehicle parts and whole; ultimately ensuring that all elements are faithfully representative of the vehicle as originally constructed.


Retaining the hard-earned look, character, and patina of this nineteenth century stage wagon, the careful conservation work on this rare piece allows it to faithfully represent its last-used condition in California’s gold country.



Among the points that are important to all aspects of preservation, conservation, and restoration projects are...  

1.      Authenticating the brand & maker – There are numerous variables that can make this task a real challenge.  While some identities are fairly easy to point out, others are much more complicated.  Why?  Well, over the years, some vehicle parts have been assimilated with those of other brands, making it crucial to view multiple areas for correct assessments.  In other instances, the primary maker may be known but the actual brand could be more obscure.  Builders like International Harvester, for example, had many separate brands with similar to exact features.  In these types of circumstances, it takes careful, detailed study over multiple decades of manufacture to hone in on the correct brand.  Additionally, even if an original brand name is still visible on the vehicle, it’s important to realize that there often were numerous brands with the same name.  Smith, Whitewater, Keller, Miller, Pioneer, Rushford, and many others are just a few names that had multiple makers. 


2.      Confirming the time frame of manufacture -  This is crucial to analysis of a wagon that's missing all or most of its paint.  Different time frames were often met with different paint colors, striping, seat designs, decalcomines, hardware, wheel designs, gear configurations, wood types & sizes, and other features.  Placing the wrong paint scheme on a vehicle is a poor reflection on the finished piece.

3.      Identifying the type of vehicle – This may seem like an obvious statement but, oftentimes, there is a noticeable difference between the way a farm wagon was painted compared to a very similar vehicle like a mountain wagon, potato wagon, rack bed wagon, or another related design.  As a result, it's important to ensure that all work corresponds to the vehicle type.

4.      Documentation of the areas of originality – Over the decades, I’ve seen a lot of mismatched elements on wagons and western vehicles.  It might be something as small as a box rod or something larger like wheels substituted from another brand or maybe even the wrong doubletree/singletree design.  In the old days, it was easier to assume an old set of wheels was exactly what it appeared to be – an original relic with an untainted connection to days gone by.  Nowadays, all bets are off.  Making things even more complicated, it’s fairly common to see Canadian vehicles mixed in with American wagons as well as almost any imaginable combination of brands thrown together to make one wagon.  Knowing who did what, when, how, and where can be invaluable to assuring you have what you think you do. 

5.      Recording the level of completeness – This can include the notation of missing or damaged pieces.  It’s one more area that can be difficult to determine, especially if primary source confirmations are scarce. 


6.      Chronicling the dealership / region where sold – This information can be especially helpful when determining provenance, time frames of manufacture, and authenticity levels.


7.      Determining wheel, skein, & track sizes – Again, these elements help share an important voice of the vehicle.  Each offers another set of clues to help confirm authenticity, originality, and proper design features. 



This original Peter Schuttler brand wagon may have never been used.  It was found complete with triple box, tongue, doubletree, singletrees, stay chains, and neck yoke.  Finds this inclusive are hard to come by in the twenty-first century.



Due to the continuing escalation of certain vehicle values, we encourage careful consideration prior to changing any aspect of a wooden wagon’s condition.  Original surfaces cannot be duplicated once they are changed.  Valuable provenance and historical integrity as well as the vehicle’s impact on future generations are always important thoughts to reflect upon before deciding which approach is better... Preservation, Conservation, or Restoration?  

Thanks for stopping by today.  By the way, if you haven’t signed up to receive this weekly blog via e-mail, just type your address in the "Follow By E-mail" section above.  You'll receive a confirmation e-mail that you'll need to verify before you're officially on board.  Once that's done, you'll receive an email every time we update the blog.  Please don't hesitate to let us know if we can be of assistance.  We appreciate your continued feedback and look forward to sharing even more wooden vehicle info in the coming weeks.  


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