Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Chuck Wagon Discovery – Part II

A significant part of the research coming out of the Wheels That Won The West® Archives is committed to locating and studying early western vehicle imagery.  After all, period photos have the potential of sharing a great deal about what was and wasn’t done with the wheels of the Old West. 

To that point, over the years, questions have persisted as to how certin types of wagons and equipment were used.  One of the more often-asked queries we’ve received is whether period chuck wagons were ever equipped with bolster springs.  Recognizing that bolster spring patents were granted as early as the 1860’s, it’s clear that the technology was certainly available during the post Civil War timeframe of the great cattle drives (1865-1885).  But, did anyone put this equipment on an early chuck wagon used in the West?  Part of the challenge in answering this question comes from so much written history being lost over time.  Equally frustrating is the serious shortage of original imagery available from that historical genre. 

Early Bolster Spring Patent

As we mentioned last week, the photo we’re analyzing does show a wagon with at least a forward-mounted pantry and quite likely (due to other evidence in the image), a rear positioned chuck box as well.  Assigning a date to a particular 19th century image is not always possible but, with a little detective work, the era can often be narrowed down. 

The image we presented last week could not have been taken prior to the Civil War.  That is easily known due to the establishment date of the company that originally published the photo.  We also know the image location is somewhere in Colorado due to the printed information on the photo mount.  To further assess our own evaluation of the archive image, we contacted two experts in 19th century clothing and frontier equipage.
Thomas Lindmier spent years as the curator of the Ft. Laramie and Ft. Bridger museums as well as managing numerous other Wyoming State Park and Historic Sites including the Wyoming Territorial Prison.  As the author of multiple books including, “I See By Your Outfit” and “The Great Blue Army Wagons,” Mr. Lindmier has a tremendous amount of experience analyzing just such mysteries as the date of our photo.
Likewise, with a Master’s Degree in textiles and historic clothing, Connie Lindmier’s credits include historical preservation and oversight work for numerous major museums such as The (Gene) Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.  Her expertise in early clothing has also been showcased in numerous major motion pictures including Ironclad, The Patriot, City Slickers and Dances with Wolves.  Additionally, she has served as curator of the Laramie Plains museum and the Wyoming National Guard museum.

Each reviewed the photo separately and in detail that is often overlooked.  Boot seams, heel positions, pant cuts, collar shapes, vest designs, coat patterns, hat styles, camp provisions and weaponry shown were all individually assessed.  Their conclusion?  The image will date to the late 1860’s or early 1870’s. 
This evaluation is a direct match to our original conviction that the image easily fits a circa 1870 definition.  Equally significant, to our knowledge, this rare photograph is the earliest known depiction of a western chuck wagon fitted with bolster springs.  How many actual trail wagons – if any – used this technology?  It’s a question that has yet to be fully explored and may never be sufficiently answerable due to the overall lack of surviving primary source materials.  That said, with this follow-up photo analysis, we are able to conclude that at least some chuck wagons used during the time of the great cattle drives made use of bolster springs.  These details add even more significance to Studebaker promotions from 1883 showing their “Round-Up” chuck wagons likewise outfitted with bolster springs mounted above both the front and rear bolsters.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Chuck Wagon Discovery - Part 1

Without question, one of the most important aspects of sustainable research is impartiality.  It’s the same commitment to objectivity that has helped our Wheels That Won The West® Archives uncover so many early wagon-related facts and details.  One of the latest finds is a photograph that we initially believed would date to around 1870 (We’ll share more about that in next week’s post).  The image shows a group of men in a camp setting, gathered around a wagon fitted with chuck boxes.  From the weapons and clothing shown in the photo to the wagon, candle lantern and overall trappings, the period image is rich with material for study. 

At first glance all seems normal about the wagon; high wheel, square edge narrow tire, pantry up front and what appears to be a hasp for another chuck box at the rear of the wagon.  Closer inspection, though, clearly shows a bolster spring positioned between the rocking bolster and wagon box.  Another can be seen mounted above the rear bolster.  This is significant because it appears to be the earliest image known to show bolster springs in use – especially on a wagon with chuck boxes.

We’ll cover more on this rare, information-filled image next week as we profile some of the process utilized in determining a date for the image.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

It’s a Small World

When it comes to the fields of marketing and advertising, the basics of these crafts today are amazingly similar to practices employed more than a hundred years ago.  Take work vehicles for example.  Today, auto makers still tout hauling capacities, craftsmanship, innovation and ruggedness features.  Each still purports to have the edge in ease of maintenance, strength and reliability.  Plus, the selling dealership still tags his name on the vehicle – a practice started in the early wagon days.  Surely competition is no more aggressive than it was for a market glutted with thousands upon thousands of wagon makers during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. 

Another area of similarity between sales promotions of the different eras is the segment of miniature vehicles.  While it’s been nearly two decades, I’ll never forget how much fun my kids (along with my wife & I while watching) used to have with those battery-powered, ride-in cars and trucks that are still so popular today.  Branded with logos from different well-known vehicle companies, these rolling fun machines provide a steady source of income for retailers as well as solid brand exposure for the full-sized sets of wheels they represent…just the way it was a century ago.

Looking back to both sides of the turn of the 20th century, many wagon makers were doing the same thing… reinforcing their brands and lining their pockets with sales from small child’s wagons.  Sometimes they were promoted as toys and at other times they were given the added benefit of being helpful around the house, farm, lawn and garden.

Today, surviving examples of these pint-sized creations can command healthy price tags as they’re consistently sought-after by collectors and enthusiasts.  As with full-size, vintage wagon values, there are a number of elements that help dictate overall prices.  (See the “Borrowed Time” book sold on our website for more details on vehicle values).  Of course, as is the case with classic vehicles today, primary brands almost always receive the most attention.  Often, that attention alone can result in higher prices. 

Perhaps the most commonly seen small wagons like this are the “Studebaker Junior” designs.  Heavily promoted beyond the master catalogs, these Studebaker survivors are highly coveted.  Just as much in demand are the tiny creations from other legendary wagon makers. So, when we came across this century-plus-old Peter Schuttler child’s wagon, we were fascinated by the discovery.  While not totally obscure, small wagons like this are far from commonplace today.  In fact, rarely does one see a Peter Schuttler brand child’s wagon.  (As of this writing, I’ve seen a total of two in nearly twenty years of collecting, travel and research).

While some makers purchased generic, off-the-shelf miniatures from toy wagon makers and applied their logos to them, others manufactured their own.  This “baby” Schuttler carries very distinctive wood and metal work that clearly shows a custom design meant to reinforce and complement the legendary Peter Schuttler name.  Important marketing steps for a big and small world.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Stuck in a Rut?

Each year, we receive hundreds of emails seeking reviews on a wide range of wood-wheeled vehicles.  Some are in remarkably sound condition while others are mere remnants of their former selves.  The images shown here represent one of the most extreme cases we’ve seen when it comes to “protecting” a wagon from theft.  (Yes, it’s exactly what it looks like.  The wheels are embedded in concrete).

While effective in protecting the wagon from theft, anchoring it outdoors in a pool of concrete also set this vehicle’s course for sure and rapid decomposition.  Thankfully, the new owners of this wagon have freed it from the clutches of its concrete custody and are committed to providing it with new life…  sans the permanent ruts.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What's in a Name?

One of the great aspects of research is the process of discovery itself.  I love learning new things and studying early heavy vehicles is an area full of opportunity and ‘aha’ moments.  On the flip side of that same coin are the countless details we have yet to learn.
That said, personal growth in any subject requires a solid foundation in the basics.  Unfortunately, when it comes to early wagons, locating authoritative details in every circumstance can sometimes be difficult.  When I began my research nearly 20 years ago, determining specific vehicle part names seemed all but impossible.  Only after years of collecting vehicles, original sales literature and countless period images was I able to start dissecting the what, why’s and wherefore’s of heavy vehicle nomenclature. 
Knowing that this area of study can still be confusing, from time to time in this blog we’ll cover some of the vehicle parts, discussing correct period terminology, meanings and what a particular feature is designed to do.  To get things started, let’s isolate a part on the gear (undercarriage) of wagons that were built with a square front hound. 

Looking under the wagon box and just behind the front wheels… The lowermost, transverse wooden part connecting both sides of the forward hound is most often referred to by early wagon makers as the “sway bar.”  It runs below the reach or coupling pole and is designed to help stabilize the front axle, tongue and entire forward gear assembly.  Without this feature, the front axle can roll under the stress of the tongue, terrain and overall vehicle movement - ultimately creating severe stability and structural dependability challenges.
Sometimes (as shown in this photo) there is another upper transverse section of wood located just above the reach as well.  That piece is generally called the “slider” or “top sway bar.”  As common as these part names once were to the American populace, they are equally obscure today.  Knowing these labels is essential to effective communication as well as understanding the complexity of the wagon’s design.