Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Another St. Louis Wagon Discovery…

One of the great privileges afforded by the internet is the opportunity to meet so many people from all over the world with like interests in early vehicles.  We’ve enjoyed numerous visits with folks from Australia, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Great Britain, Canada, South America and countless areas throughout the U.S.  Likewise, we recently assisted a French publication with details on early American farm and freight wagons.

On a similar note, this past week, we spoke with a family in Louisiana regarding a wagon brand that had eluded all attempts to have the maker identified.  It’s just the kind of challenge that I love to take on.  Making it a bit more intriguing, when I first saw the name, it was familiar, but I couldn’t immediately place it.  I hate it when that happens.  Yet, with other hot projects on the burner, I filed it away thinking “someday” I’d have time to look for the right information.  Little did I know that this particular “someday” would happen less than 24 hours after seeing the first photo of the wagon.  As irony would have it, while reviewing our archive files for another identification project, I ran headlong into the vehicle name I’d convinced myself I didn’t have time to look for… I wish all my research was this easy.  Sometimes, it seems, a discovery is meant to be.  In fact, this particular 19th and early 20th century builder has made a habit of seeking me out on several occasions.

The brand I uncovered in our archives is called – Hiawatha.  It’s the same brand inquired about by the folks in Louisiana.  Hand painted, the strong vibrant ‘Hiawatha’ logo is centered on the lowermost board of each side of the wagon.  Oftentimes, this can be the name of the manufacturer.  However, many makers built multiple brands, and in those instances, this area is typically reserved for the vehicle brand name.  After reviewing additional construction and design features, I was able to conclusively determine the maker….
Okay, that’s enough buildup.  ‘Hiawatha’ is a secondary brand for the legendary Gestring (pronounced Guess-String) Wagon Company.  Some may recall that I wrote an extensive article a few years ago for Farm Collector magazine regarding Gestring.  Since that time, I’ve had an opportunity to gather even more details on this company as well as view a number of additional vehicles built over a century ago by the Gestring family of craftsmen.

The beginnings of the Gestring Wagon Company date to before the Civil War.  They were located just across the street from the legendary Luedinghaus-Espenschied wagon-making firm… were within shouting distance of the highly regarded Weber-Damme Company… And were just north of one of America’s most notable heavy vehicle builders – Joseph Murphy.  Gestring finally closed its doors in 1935.  At the time, it was hailed as the last of the hand built wagon-making firms.  In all of our years of research, this Hiawatha wagon is the first we’ve been able to document.  Gestring held a trademark on the name with 1878 being listed as its date of first use.  We’d like to thank the Farquhar family for sharing these photos with us.  It’s given us another opportunity to open even more doors of history while adding another exclusive ‘first’ to our identification efforts.   
Got a question or topic for discussion?  Drop us a line at

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Wagon Tires

We regularly receive inquiries as to how to perform a number of necessary jobs related to antique horse drawn vehicles.  From wheel repairs to general maintenance, the search for the best ways to approach a variety of challenges is as earnest today as it was a century ago.  With that as our backdrop for this week’s blog, it’s interesting to see how some of the same tasks were handled ‘back in the day.’  On page 301 of the February 1907 issue of “The Carriage Monthly,” the problem of removing a tight tire from a wheel was discussed.  Below was the recommended solution...

 “If a tire is very tight and must be removed for any cause, it is sometimes a very difficult task.  The removal can be affected by placing the wheel in a warm place and allowing it to dry out.  To aid in the drying process, take pieces of tires ½ x 2 inches and about 18 inches long, put against the shape of the tire to be removed.  Heat them to a red heat and place them against the tire, but take care not to injure the paint on the rims.  This will expand the tire somewhat, and the tire puller will do the rest of the business.”

Clearly, history can be a remarkable teacher.  It’s one of the reasons we’ve devoted so many resources to saving and sharing so much obscure and previously lost portions of America’s first transportation industry.  We’ll reinforce this truth again next week when we unveil another exclusive discovery involving an increasingly well-known St. Louis wagon maker.  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Put The Brakes On

Occasionally, I receive emails asking about markings on the brake ratchet of a vehicle.  While many of these ratchets do not have identifying alpha or numeric characters cast into them, many others do and that’s where the questions begin.  Is this the vehicle maker?  Does this information help identify the age of the vehicle?  Was this brake style exclusive to a particular brand?  The quick answer to these questions is ‘no’ as well as ‘yes.’  What I mean is that every situation can be different and without a detailed evaluation, it’s not prudent to make assumptions. 

With that as our backdrop, there are a few things we can generally address in the limited space of this blog post.  From the time the first brake ratchet was bolted to a wagon sideboard, there have been many different styles created and used.  By the late 1800’s and throughout the early 1900’s, a general consolidation of side board ratchet types took place – at least with most major makers.  Our “Making Tracks” limited edition print (offered on our website) includes an overview of several primary brake ratchet styles. 

Sometimes, it’s assumed that the name on the brake is the actual brake ratchet type.  To my point in the first paragraph above – this can be true.  More often, though, a name cast into a wagon’s brake ratchet will refer to the maker of the part itself.  If all this seems confusing, consider this as well… There was a major manufacturer of brake ratchets by the name of Geisler located in Muscatine, Iowa.  This firm produced countless pieces of brake hardware for hundreds, if not thousands of wagon builders.  In the process, they often cast their “maker” name into the ratchet face.  Complicating matters more, one of the company’s brake designs was so popular it became commonly referred to as the ‘Geisler.’  So, in this case, the part name and brake maker name were both the same.

Hold on because it can get even more confusing.  Hurlbut, another prominent brake ratchet manufacturer located in Racine, Wisconsin, had a patent on an equally popular style of brake that came to be known as the “Hurlbut.”  Similar to Geisler, Hurlbut also cast their name into the brakes they made.  So, like Geisler, there were many ‘Hurlbut’ brakes with the Hurlbut Manufacturing Company name cast into them.  However, once Hurlbut’s patent had expired on the “Hurbut” design, Geisler also offered the Hurlbut design, and in the process, they cast their name - as manufacturer - into the design commonly referred to as a ‘Hurlbut.’  So, it’s not uncommon today to find a ‘Hurlbut’ brake with the Geisler maker name cast into it.  These simple acts of promotion by Geisler - while understood in their day – are sometimes sufficient to cause confusion as to the correct technical name of the brake design.  Just remember… a Hurlbut’s still a Hurlbut – even if it says it was made by ‘Geisler.’    

Hurlbut brake designs made by both Hurlbut & Geisler Manufacturing companies.

If this hasn’t muddied the waters enough, remind me to discuss the “Studebaker” ratchet sometime.  It was copied and sold to countless makers and, other than mirroring the Studebaker design, it cannot be used to conclusively identify a Studebaker wagon. 

This extremely brief overview of just one brake ratchet design clearly demonstrates the complexities involved when assessing cast markings found on vintage vehicles.  Many makers used the exact same or very similar parts as other builders.  It’s yet another reason why reliable research and authoritative identification requires us to slow down and Put The Brakes On.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

New Starts

Starting a new year reminds me that every day is full of fresh opportunities to learn while adding even more interesting experiences to the life we’ve been given.  For western vehicle enthusiasts, it’s another shot at exploring, locating and helping preserve the kind of history that played a vital role in the growth of the American West.  To get it all done, all we need to do is to dig… and dig and dig some more.  It’s a process that takes persistence and a readiness to be open to the facts as they fall.  In the absence of unfounded assumptions, the rewards can be surprising.  It’s a lesson that’s helped us open doors to even more rare imagery and information about brands like Moline, Studebaker, Peter Schuttler, Ft. Smith, Jackson, Winona, Weber, Mogul, Mitchell, Kentucky, Old Hickory and so many more in 2012.

Among the more intriguing finds we’ve had in the past year or so have been a series of rare freight wagon tintypes.  One, in particular, has invoked a fair amount of curiosity with questions related to the vehicle’s design and - more specifically - to possible evolutionary clues between the legendary Conestoga freight wagons and the tall-sided freighters that ultimately dominated so much of the western frontier.  Other interesting acquisitions include several cattle-drive-era chuck wagon images as well as a rare photo we’ve identified as a trio of Peter Schuttler freight wagons on the Fort Pierre to Deadwood trail (circa 1880).  We’ll unveil the first glimpses of this photo as another Wheels That Won The West® exclusive in the upcoming Volume 2 edition of our “Borrowed Time” western vehicle book series.

 As we begin this new year, we’re already actively engaged in researching a surviving Montana freight wagon, studying details on early iron wagons, searching for a specific nineteenth century Studebaker gear, exploring multiple mud coach designs and continuing to collect some of the rarest details on St. Louis work vehicles from the mid to late 1800’s.  It’s a process that continues to yield important insights into America’s first transportation industry and we’re pleased to share from these discoveries within our blog, e-newsletters, publications and speaking engagements.  So stay tuned.  If the past is any indicator, I’m confident 2013 will yield even more answers in our quest to know more about America’s early western wheels.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Steamboats & Wagons

While many wagons and western vehicles can look very similar, the truth is that no two are exactly alike.  For me, some of the most interesting surviving wagons and coaches are those with a solid provenance.  The intriguing stories attached to many of these vehicles reinforce their individuality while often reaffirming their worth and significance to modern audiences. 

Such is the case with what is likely the earliest surviving, factory-built western wagon in America.  Several years ago I wrote a feature-length article on this vehicle for The Carriage Journal magazine and will share even more about it in our upcoming Volume 2 edition of the “Borrowed Time” book series. 

The short version of the story involves the discovery and recovery of a westward bound steamboat that sank on the Missouri River in 1856.  On board were 200 tons of supplies for the American frontier.  Part of that amazing payload was a substantially intact high wheel wagon gear.  As a western vehicle historian, that’s where the story, for me, went from extremely interesting to absolutely captivating. 

After multiple trips to the museum and making arrangements to extensively photograph and document the vehicle, we were the first to confirm the maker to be Peter Schuttler.  Not only is the gear surprisingly solid after being buried for over 130 years but, it also holds the distinction of being the oldest surviving set of wheels from this legendary builder.  As such, it deserves a place on the ‘must see’ list for any wagon and western vehicle enthusiast.  To learn more about the Arabia Steamboat Museum or schedule a trip to visit them in Kansas City, Missouri, check out their website at   -  And for an extensive and close-up look at this recovered Schuttler gear, don’t miss your chance to obtain a Limited Edition copy of “Borrowed Time, Volume 2”.  It’s scheduled to be available in late 2013.