Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Sweet Victory

Paging through the history of the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were many areas of the U.S. recognized for producing excellent wood-wheeled transportation.  Certainly, the state of Wisconsin was no stranger to accolades for quality vehicles.  In fact, it was home to a number of major wagon and carriage makers that are still highly touted today.  Among those legendary heavy vehicle brands are Mitchell, LaBelle, Bain, Racine-Sattley, Stoughton, Mandt, and Fish Bros.  Also included in this list are makers like Northwestern Manufacturing (Fort Atkinson), Vaughn Manufacturing Company (Jefferson), Smith Manufacturing (La Crosse), White Wagon Works (Sheboygan Falls), and B.F. & H.L. Sweet from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. 

While Sweet was a respected brand – with several wagon-related patents to its credit – the company’s influence was predominantly regional in scope.  Large scale state fairs, however, gave strong but smaller makers, like Sweet, a platform on the same level with major national brands.  Most of the regional firms had nothing to lose and everything to gain by going head-to-head with the large, national brands in these venues.  Thus, in 1888, Sweet dared to step into the competitive limelight with numerous other brands at the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee.  Showcasing their craftsmanship alongside some of the most powerful names in 19th century transportation, Sweet ultimately found the risk to be worth the rewards.

Like most state fairs of the time, the event was rife with rivalry.  Everything from fine art, leather, and textiles to agricultural products, machinery, and household wares like stoves and cabinetry, were judged and awarded prizes.  Not to be left out, manufacturers of carriages, wagons and sleighs were also looking for bragging rights.  After all, not only did these prominent competitions draw large crowds but they also provided fodder for a great deal of advertising and promotional hyperbole that could be effectively used for years to come.  During this state fair, B.F. & H.L. Sweet took first place in a number of areas including the Best Two-Seated Light Sleigh… Best Fancy Lumber Wagon… Best Double Farm Sleigh… and, Second Best Double Farm Sleigh.  They also took top honors for the Best Heavy Logging Sleigh.

Finding the higher quality and best collectible, horse-drawn vehicles from the 1800’s and early 1900’s has become more and more difficult.  It’s a multi-part challenge based in part on the ability to both recognize notable survivors as well as understand what elements contribute to the vehicle’s long-term importance.  Doug Hansen of Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop recently shared a nice “Sweet” wagon find with us.  This exceptional wagon will date to the early 1900’s.  It’s in remarkable condition with strong original paint, transfer graphics on the box, and well-defined wood contours.  It will make a solid addition to about any early vehicle collection.  Our thanks to Doug for passing along these images. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Weight of the Matter

For thousands of years, gross and net weights have helped determine prices on livestock, products and raw materials. It’s an essential part of business that spans from the smallest to the largest items. As with retailers and wholesale operations all over the U.S. today, certified scales were essential to business transactions throughout early America.

Wagon scales, in particular, were used in both pit and pitless configurations. In each scenario, the wagon would be driven across a large, flat and balanced surface which was connected to the balance beam of a scale. The vehicle would be weighed both empty as well as with the entire load. The difference between the two sums told the scale operator the amount of material in the wagon.

Other than images from century-old advertisements, it’s difficult to find these types of scales today. Since many of these wagon scales sat outside, they have typically succumbed to the deteriorating effects of time and weather.

The circa 1880 scale and housing shown here is part of an interpretive presentation within a small portion of the Wheels That Won The West® collection. Incredibly, the scales were found packed inside wooden shipping boxes, still in their original straw and paper wrappings; a rare, unused find that helps reinforce the legendary purpose and legacy of heavier, wood wheeled horse drawn vehicles.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Lost Military Vehicles

It was the spring of 1864.  Years had passed since the onset of civil war in America and time continued to tear at the very foundations of the nation.  Bloodshed saturated the soil, families were ripped apart and nefarious ne’er-do-wells roamed the countryside targeting innocents without mercy.  It was a period of relentless suffering yet more heartache was still to be sewn as this War-Between-the-States would not officially end for another year.

In south central Arkansas , as with other areas of the country, the Union and Confederate armies were on the move.  Echoes of cannons, gunfire and troop movements filled the forests and fields.  Even so, on the last day of April, yet another familiar enemy re-entered the front lines.  It took the form of threatening clouds and distant rumblings.  But, soon enough, the weather would take center stage.  As the sky grew dark, lightning flashed and rocketed over the troops, thunder shook the ground and the heavens unleashed a torrent of rain.  Walls of water poured onto these war-weary veterans. Through it all, thousands of men and mules and hundreds upon hundreds of four-mule army wagons heaved and slogged their way through the old coach road from Camden to Little Rock .  It was a massive effort, full of suspense, void of contentment and all about to come to a head at the Jenkin’s Ferry river crossing.

Here, the northern contingency was in a race.  A race for time.  A race for advantage.  A race for their very lives.  Around them, Confederate soldiers were on the offensive.  The Union troops, led by General Frederick Steele, were beating a hasty but hard retreat to their closest stronghold in Little Rock . Click here to read the rest of the story on the Wheels That Won The West® website.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Horse Drawn Transitions

Throughout 200 years of horse drawn wagon manufacturing in the U.S, there were a lot of innovations and transitions – not just in the vehicle design and production processes but in the development of accessories as well.
One segment that saw a wealth of changes involved the foundation of every wagon - the wheel.  While some of the evolution in this area took place in the 1700 and 1800’s, other modifications occurred in the 20th century.  A good example lies with the conversion by many users from wooden wheels to rubber tires or, more specifically, from steel-tired wooden wheels to rubber-tired steel rims.  The transition was understandable.  Times had changed and, especially during a good part of the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and even 60’s, wooden wagons were predominantly used on farms and/or improved roads.  Users wanted a smooth, quiet ride that was lower to the ground, typically being more stable and easier to load than the higher wheeled wagons. 

While some farmers and ranchers merely cut down the wooden wheels on their wagons and had them placed inside steel rims with rubber tires, others took advantage of skein adaptors that could be bolted to traditional vehicle rims.  These types of adaptors could be purchased from a number of outlets including large catalog houses like Montgomery Ward. 

The photos shown in this blog feature a set of these skein adaptors that were originally purchased in the 1930’s to be used on a high wheel wagon.  These kits included five bolts that connected to the wheel rim while the sleeve, itself, slid over the wagon skein and was held on by the skein nut.  The system was extremely efficient and allowed for quick modifications without permanently altering the original wheels belonging to the wagon.  Simple, effective and modestly priced, these adaptors also allowed the wagon to be used as a trailer on improved roads.  It was one more feature that extended the use of vintage wooden wagons well into 20th century America.