Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Uncovering Another Legend

Researching the lesser known parts of America’s early transportation industry is a challenge full of anticipation, surprises and excitement.  Unfortunately, it’s usually wrapped in layers of dull, monotonous study mired in puzzles of missing information.  In other words, it’s a lot of work.  Successful discoveries require constant vigilance and access to plenty of primary source materials.  From the original vehicles and parts, themselves, to business papers, photos and written accounts from the same period, it’s all especially helpful.  As a result, over the years, we’ve worked to gather a literal storehouse of supporting elements for our writings and evaluations.

As part of those efforts, our Wheels That Won The West® archives are also privy to our vehicle, sign and seat collection.  These survivors lived much of their days outside and hearken to a time when wheels were wood, tires were steel and horseflesh dominated the road.  Consisting of brands like T.G. Mandt, Weber, Studebaker, Schuttler, American, Springfield, Owensboro, Gestring, Florence, Birdsell, Bain, Weber & Damme, John Deere, Nissen, Cooper, Newton, Overland, Carver, Charter Oak, Winona, Pekin, Milburn, Moline, and others, this part of the collection is equally important when it comes to assistance with identification and authentication efforts. 
As part of our research, Peter Schuttler vehicles and background materials have long been of particular interest to me.  So much so that documenting early pieces from this maker has become a priority.  Recently, we were fortunate to locate another century-plus-old Schuttler.  This high wheel wagon includes its original manufacturer impressions dating it to the year 1900.  While it has been well used, it was apparently well taken care of too; at least until a few years ago, when it seems someone attempted to cover the wagon with numerous layers of thick and dirty linseed oil.  The result transformed the surface of the entire gear into a depressingly dark and rock-hard, black coating.  At our core, we are preservers of history so we took a chance to see if we might help this aging piece to once again show its original colors, patina and finish.   

Once we had the wagon on site, I made a closer examination and the extent of the treatment was unbelievable.  This wasn’t just a tough, dense and heavy caked-on finish that clung to the gear, it appeared to be multiple concentrations of encrusted tar or perhaps even deposits of creosote.  The solid coating was applied directly over the existing grease, dirt, manure, grain, sand, paint, hair, seeds, and feathers (yes, feathers!!) that were stuck to the wheels and undercarriage.
I’ve seen similar situations of darkened gears before, but never anything to this extreme.  So imposing was the covering and texture that any attempts to remove this “treatment” seemed likely to destroy possible surviving paint underneath.  Nevertheless, over the years, we’ve experimented with numerous techniques to improve the presentation of original wagon paint.  In the process, we’ve been able to develop several multi-stage approaches to vehicle conservation and cleaning that can prove beneficial to many of the most discouraging situations.  I had no idea if we could help bring this gear back to life but, we were compelled to give it our best efforts.  Surprisingly, section by section, the tragic coating is coming off.  It is a methodical process, but the results are certainly cause for celebration!  When we started, there was a solid gear with a black tar-like covering that made it impossible for the vehicle to be properly evaluated or appreciate in resale value.  Now, the original orange Schuttler paint, crisp, well-defined wood contours, and even faded elements of the vehicle’s early striping patterns are emerging.  Its visual presence is certainly much more engaging.  

The photos above show the before-and-after look of one of the 52” rear wheels.  While there are still details to finish on this wheel and the rest of the gear, it’s easy to see the difference.  What a transformation!  The reversal of so much over-treatment to the surface means this piece will soon be able to be showcased as a rare, turn-of-the-century high wheel Schuttler in exceptional condition.  Its ultra-narrow 1 ½” tire, through-bolted construction, near full circle iron, and wider 60” track all add to its legacy as a unique and noteworthy example of early wagon design.  As time allows, we’ll try to share even more progress by occasionally highlighting the work involved in bringing back the surviving finish of this Chicago made legend on wheels. 

In the meantime, if you have any questions or would like to see us cover a particular topic within this blog, feel free to drop us an email at

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Many Faces of Studebaker

Again and again, I’m asked to describe the paint scheme of a particular wagon brand... Kentucky, Winona, Milburn, Nissen, Owensboro, Springfield, Moline, Weber, Luedinghaus, Weber-Damme, Champion, Olds, Stoughton, Schuttler, Mandt, Troy, Flint, Pekin, South Bend, Coquillard… the list could go on and on.  The truth is that there is rarely a simple answer to understanding the proper look of a vintage wagon.  Just as auto makers have always introduced new paint designs and styles, early wagon builders did so as well.

Typically, the correct paint and construction styles of a particular manufacturer depend not only on the type of wagon and region of use, but also the timeframe in which it was produced.  Studebaker farm wagons, for example, had no less than a handful of distinctive variations in the paint schemes between 1852 and 1921.  Within those variations, not only did the base color design change over time but, the striping, stenciling, logo styles and positions of these elements were also evolving. 
In fact, during the 1870’s and early 1880’s, Studebaker’s paint style was so unique, the vehicle could actually be identified as a ‘Studebaker’ without seeing the name or any other construction features.  It’s one more part of the history of these early vehicle builders that makes authoritative evaluations a bit more challenging. 
Ultimately, the more we know about these early vehicles and their makers, the easier it is to understand how complex the industry was and the vehicles continue to be. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Champion Wagon

Life is full of surprises.  It’s a truth that came to light again earlier this year while I was scouring a collection of vintage farm equipment.  Tucked away in a shed at the back of the property were several old wagons.  One, in particular, immediately caught my attention.  The front axle was bordered by steel joints attaching the wooden wheels to the axle.  While there were multiple patents and even other brands with similar designs, this gear carried all of the earmarks of an early Champion brand wagon.  Originally built in Owego, New York, the place this wagon calls home today is more than a thousand miles from where it started.


The Champion Wagon Company dates to 1888 when it was re-organized from the original firm going by the name of Gere, Truman, Platt & Company.   Both firms built the same basic “Champion Wagon” with the unique steering system.  In this design, both the front and rear axles have several important features.  First, the front axle is engineered to allow only the wheels to turn while the axle remains fixed.  It’s a technology that was truly distinctive on a farm style wagon and an idea that early automobiles capitalized on.  However, with multiple patents on similar wagon and carriage technology dating at least as early as the mid 1850’s and 60’s, the roots of this system are firmly fixed in the horse drawn era. 
One big advantage to this ‘auto-steer’ design is that it provides a more stable foundation for the box and load since the front axle and bolster are always aligned and in the same position, fully supporting the width of the box.  The design was also touted as one that turns easier and tighter while simultaneously helping reduce the effects of the tongue whipping and jerking the horses on rough terrain.  Also mimicked by early automobiles, both sets of bolsters and axles are equipped with coil-style springs to help dampen the shock of rough roads and uneven terrain. 

Complementing the value of original literature promoting these designs, it was good to get an additional firsthand perspective of this century-plus-old design.  Not only do these types of encounters help us all to better understand the needs of the day and how the products were marketed, but they consistently show how the early wagon industry provided a springboard of innovation to America’s first automobiles.

Speaking of autos, the Champion Wagon Company was an early competitor in this market as well.  They introduced their first electric vehicle around 1902 and ultimately followed with custom bodies built for Ford, Studebaker, Overland and other chassis.
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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

International Harvester Axle Innovation

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, International Harvester Company began acquiring and marketing their own wagon brands.  Legendary names like Weber and Columbus were soon joined by Bettendorf, Buckeye, International Harvester, Steel King, Sterling and others.  All were part of the IHC stable of wagon offerings.
In the ensuing years, there were a number of wagon-related patents the company applied for and received.  In 1907, for example, Samuel Dennis - working with IHC - submitted a design to the USPTO for a new style of steel axle and gear that – from a distance – looked very much like the more traditional parts of a standard wagon gear.  From a marketing perspective, it was one more distinction that IHC could point to as an advantage in both product excellence and consumer confidence.
Recently, I ran across this same metal gear and thought I would share some photos as well as a few purported features and benefits. The all-metal construction was said to provide optimum strength throughout the axles and bolsters while simultaneously creating a durable and virtually maintenance-free product.  While it’s covered by at least three different patents, this invention doesn’t seem to have achieved wide acceptance.  Its limited success may have had as much to do with timing as with consumer acceptance.  After all, changing perceptions can be a hard obstacle to overcome.  Wagon users wanted strength but, they also wanted some resilience and elasticity as provided by wooden gears.  Helping overcome some initial wariness, the shape of the steel axle and other parts were built to mirror more conventional styles made of wood. 

Ultimately, this innovation likely served as more of an evolutionary design, pointing toward future farm trailers and other equipment built by International Harvester.  When looking at the span of the entire wooden farm wagon industry, it was nearing its peak and rapidly headed toward an irreversible decline by the time this patent was issued.