Thursday, May 31, 2012

Rare Stagecoaches & Army Wagons

Across the country, stagecoaches were a prominent part of 19th century America.  So much so that these legendary vehicles have become synonymous with a large part of the country’s early expansion.  It’s a story sometimes told with such romanticized intent that accurate images of thoroughbrace stages hitched to a team of mules might seem somewhat sacrilegious to the more public vision of an elaborately painted Wells Fargo coach drawn by six horses.
Certainly, the simplicity of the ‘stagecoach’ term belies a much more diverse reality.  There were many sizes, types and designs of local and overland passenger and mail transports not to mention a plethora of names for these rolling works of art.  Concords, mud wagons, stages, celerity wagons and mudders are just a few of the labels often attributed to specific vehicles in the broad category of stagecoaches.   

While most surviving coaches today have been restored or reconditioned in some way, there are still a few of these western icons in largely original, as-last-used condition.  A few years ago, I had the opportunity along with master vehicle craftsman, Doug Hansen and noted stagecoach historian, Ken Wheeling to review several western mud coaches built and used in California. 

In particular, within the Carriage & Western Art Museum of Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum collections, there are original stages built by M.P. Henderson or M.P. Henderson & Son of Stockton, California.   

Each of the Henderson vehicles mentioned in this blog post represent one of the larger mud wagons offered by the firm.  Well-known throughout the West for quality built stages, express and thoroughbrace wagons, wagonettes, buckboards, carriages and other western vehicles, M.P. Henderson is a popular maker among enthusiasts still today.  An excellent article on the company, written by Ken Wheeling, can be found in the Fall 1993 issue of The Carriage Journal. 

On another note, military historian, curator and author, Thomas Lindmier, recently shared details of another, perhaps even rarer vehicle he happened upon earlier this year.  It’s a 6 mule army wagon similar to the modern reproduction in the photo below and may date to around 1890 or earlier.  At some point in the very distant past, it’s been over-painted an olive drab but; incredibly, just beneath the box, the rocking bolster still sports the original blue paint and yellow stenciled maker’s mark.  The wagon was originally shipped to Ft. Robinson and the builder is noted as Louis Palm from Chicago.  This is a maker seldom heard of today but worthy of additional study.  In Price & Lee’s 1888 American Carriage (and wagon maker) Directory, the firm’s location is listed as 16 South Jefferson.  At the time, over 200 vehicle manufacturers were represented in the city.  Clearly, there was plenty of competition as well as plenty of work in the immediate limits of Chicago’s then population of 800,000.  So, with the company established as a successful competitor and military vehicle supplier, we’re left to question where other Louis Palm vehicles may be today?    

By the turn of the 20th century, Louis Palm ceases to be shown in the same directories.  So, how long was the company in business?  Perhaps a closer look at census reports could be helpful.  Why did it cease operations?  Is this wagon the only surviving vehicle from the factory?  It’s a study full of questions and yet one more reminder that we have much to learn before we have a complete image of American’s first and largest transportation industry.  Clearly, maker identification of these vehicles continues to be the first step in a very large, intriguing and valuable puzzle. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Legendary Makers – Where Are They?

I recently wrote an article published in the May issue of “Wagon Tracks,” the quarterly voice of the Santa Fe Trail Association.  If you don't have quick access to their great publication, you can also find the story in the “Articles” section on our website.  The heart of the piece focuses on the difficulties of locating some of America’s most legendary 19th century wagon brands.  While most of the tens of thousands of horse-drawn vehicle makers in the U.S. were relatively small operations, there were several dozen brands that made powerful names for themselves as the country moved westward.  Companies like Peter Schuttler, Mitchell, Bain, Rushford, Weber, Studebaker, Moline, Milburn and so many more were bastions in the West and are still well-known today.

In addition to those well-known names, there were others that were just as popular.  Brands like Jackson, Kansas, Caldwell, LaBelle, Coquillard, Murphy, Espenschied  and Fish Bros were favorites with ranchers and freighters as well as emigrants moving west.

But, where are the survivors of these brands today?  Too often, they're few and far between.  Even as we search for these icons of yesterday, many have already succumbed to the attrition of time and outdoor exposure.  With such vulnerable wooden foundations, perhaps it’s not all that surprising that so many vehicles seem to have vanished.  Maybe the real surprise is just how many great sets of wheels are fortunately still here for us to study, enjoy and pass on to the next generation.  It's certainly a noteworthy responsibility.  Along that line of thinking, you'll want to check in on us again next week as we cover a few more rare pieces.  In the meantime, if you have a particular brand or specific western vehicle you'd like to share some images of, feel free to drop us a line.  We'd love to hear from you.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

New York wagon…

John Mandel from Amenia, NY recently notified us of a wagon he has for sale.  Below are the photos.  The Birdsell box appears to be sitting on a Weber/IHC stiff tongue gear.  His phone number is 845-249-5450 for more details.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Identifying Wagon Types…

It has a curved body, lynch pins on the axles, twisted chains, forged metal work, side-mounted tool box, raked end gates, more than 8 bows and is known for freighting product along the eastern U.S. – Sounds like a Conestoga, right?  Not necessarily. 
While this seemingly specific description could easily describe a Conestoga wagon from the 18th or 19th centuries, it’s also a general enough overview to cover another wagon style that is sometimes confused with the legendary Conestoga.  These other designs were called ‘Crooked Bed’ wagons, ‘Tobacco’ wagons, 'Road Wagons' or even ‘Southern Schooners’ and were made by a number of builders along the south/eastern coast of the United States.  George Nissen, C.F. Nissen, J.I. Nissen, and J.C. Spach are among the most often mentioned manufacturers today. 
 While similarities in design elements do exist between these vehicles and the venerable Conestoga, the tobacco wagons are significantly smaller and built much, much lighter.  The box frame and bows of a Conestoga can easily overshadow a person alongside it.  However, as shown in the accompanying photos of this post, these Crooked Bed wagons are much more down-to-earth in size.  Those traits translate into a vehicle that is very light, nimble and maneuverable; not to mention that the smaller design also made it economical to own and much easier to remove the box than with a heavy Conestoga freighter.   The important thing to remember in any comparison of early vehicles is that similarity does not necessarily mean 'same'.  Ultimately, raising awareness of these differences helps us develop a more accurate provenance for a set of wheels while underscoring pertinent American history and associated vehicle values.   

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Patents & Patent Models

For close to a century, patent submissions in the U.S. were accompanied by working scale models intended to show both the physical and functional distinctions of an innovative idea.  With thousands of these patents applied for by early wagon manufacturers, many of them were accompanied by a scaled down version of the actual invention.  Even so, it’s rare today to come across these miniature representations related to the construction of 19th century vehicles.

Shown in this post is the actual patent model used to secure the 1880 brake patent for A.C. Fish of Racine, Wisconsin.  Interestingly, the handle on the brake is designed to pivot to quickly release and even ‘feather’ the intensity of the brake setting.  If anyone has seen a production version of this brake ratchet, we’d enjoy seeing some photos of the finished product. 

The ‘Fish’ family was a well-known and widely-heralded family of wagon makers whose products are firmly connected to early farming, ranching, freighting and emigrant travel in the Old West.  As such, surviving Fish Brothers wagons from both Racine, Wisconsin and Clinton, Iowa are popular among enthusiasts still today.  FYI… in case you missed it, we posted some additional information on an early Fish Bros. wagon in our December 19,  2011 blog post

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

How Well Do You Know Your Brand?

Each year, we receive quite a few queries related to how a particular wagon manufacturer painted and striped their vehicles.  They’re great questions but, ones that usually need to be tempered with additional details acquired from primary source materials.  After all, early wagon builders were very similar to modern car and truck makers in that they often changed their production methods and designs.   In fact, I know of several major makers that produced multiple catalogs in a single year just to help show the changes. 

Clearly, it's easy to get bogged down in what might seem like the most basic details.  To get a more concrete understanding of just how a specific wagon brand was adorned with color, we need to go well beyond what we can be gleaned from a single catalog reprint or limited viewing of a few surviving vehicles.  Ultimately, it takes a good cross-section of primary source materials (including early catalogs, broadsides, advertisements and period photos) throughout the entire life of a brand to help confirm just how, what, when and why a maker did certain things.

Leaning on details from just one source can only be effective if it can be documented that the vehicle is from the same timeframe as the literature.  A good example of the challenges to this question can be seen within the legendary Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Company.  In their seven decades of building horse-drawn vehicles, they transitioned through a number of different paint designs and striping styles for their wagons; even subtle changes in wagon types could be just enough to change the striping treatment.  Acquiring enough materials to provide an authoritative conclusion for every brand and circumstance can be tough.  It’s yet another reason why it's important to help preserve original paint on as many vintage vehicles as possible.  Without that commitment, the further we travel from the 19th and 20th centuries, the more difficult it becomes for us and future generations to properly understand America’s wood-wheeled heritage.