Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Weekend with the Wagons

As part of our salute to American veterans and their families, portions of our Wheels That Won The West® collection were on display this past Memorial Day weekend to several dozen visitors. 

Donnie & Jo Daniels of Harrison, Arkansas were gracious to cater the event with their century-old Newton brand chuck wagon.  Stocked with a host of period essentials for trail drives in the West, it was an ideal centerpiece for the gathering.  Donnie and Jo have competed throughout the U.S. and taken several awards for their cooking and trail authenticity. It was a pleasure to have their delicious Dutch oven recipes headline the menu.  Slow-cooked brisket, potatoes, beans, biscuits and mouthwatering peach and rhubarb/strawberry cobblers were all made from scratch.  Combined with countless other desserts, a fresh veggie tray, sun-sweetened iced tea, homemade lemonade, spring water and sodas packed in a 19th century ice box all made for a relaxing and unique experience as we savored the memories of yesterday.

With our early vehicle, seat, and sign collection as a backdrop, we also shared a good bit of information on 1800’s-era wagon companies and western vehicles.  Attendees had the opportunity to see original pieces built by legendary makers like Studebaker, Peter Schuttler, Bain, Springfield, Owensboro, Gestring, Florence, Birdsell, American, Weber, Stoughton, Moline, Weber-Damme, Davenport, Nissen, Cooper, Charter Oak, Carver, Newton, and more. 

The weather couldn’t have been better for the event.  Temps hovered in the 70’s and low 80’s with a slight breeze keeping the atmosphere incredibly comfortable.  Under the canopies of large white oak trees and our newly-built vehicle warehouse, we enjoyed a weekend of wagons, food, fun, fellowship, live music, horse-shoe competitions and an old-fashioned rope swing.  None of it could have happened, though, without the sacrifice and dedication of so many American heroes.  We’re proud to live in a nation rich with history and God’s blessings.  In remembrance of all who have pledged to guard and protect the sovereignty of this nation, we thank you for your service and the freedoms that have come to define America. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Freight wagon tires

Last week we shared some details related to the legendary 20 Mule Team freight wagons.  These freighters are as big as the terrain they traveled and, because of their legendary status, may often be perceived as typical of large western freighters.  I say ‘perceived’ because freight wagons differed in many respects.

For instance, the Borax wagons have tire widths of 8 inches.  That’s huge and far from typical.  The reasons for the size go beyond the weight being hauled and also take into account the softer desert terrain.  Several years ago, I wrote an article about the wheel sizes of early chuck wagons and the factors that help determine the tire widths on these and other wagons. Click here for more details.  

The sheer amount of early catalogs and literature in the Wheels That Won The West® collection gives us an advantage in researching these types of questions.  In fact, during one of our recent presentations, we took 8 of the most dominant and well known wagon makers and profiled their standard freight wagon offerings during the 15 year timeframe between 1875 and 1889.  Without exception, from Peter Schuttler, Mitchell, LaBelle, and Bain to the Studebaker, Jackson, Weber, and Fish Bros. brands, the hauling capacities were less affected by tire size and more related to the skein size and type as well as the axle design and geography of the region (sandy, rocky, etc.)  In fact, one of the most common carrying capacities of period freight wagons (often referred to as 60 hundred pounds - 3 tons) was regularly listed within period catalogs with 2 inch tires.  Four and five ton capacities were equally well known with tires measuring only 2 ½ inches in width. 

I’ve often said that these wagons talk.  Looking closely at the individual construction features of specific wagons can tell you a lot about the vehicle.  It’s another reason that no two vehicles are exactly the same and learning to notice those variations can make all the difference in “hearing” what a set of wheels is saying.  From the design of the box to the size of the tires and everything in between, nothing is insignificant when it comes to understanding the way life rolled in the early days of the American West.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

20 Mule Team Borax Wagons

 Throughout America’s history, there are certain early horse-drawn vehicles that have attained a legendary status… even among the general public.  Examples include Wells Fargo’s Concord Coaches, the big hitch wagons (along with the Clydesdales) of Anheuser-Busch, and the 20 Mule Team Borax wagons.  All are well entrenched symbols of renowned American brands.

 Among those of the largest physical proportions are the 20 Mule Team Borax wagons.  Not only did the entire long-line team and wagon train stretch over 100 feet in length but the wagons, themselves, are substantial in size.  In other words, they’re big… correction, they’re huge, massive, colossal, and any other oversized adjective you’d like to apply.   

Built for the ultra-harsh demands of the raw California desert known as Death Valley, these wagons were used from 1883-1888 to haul tens of thousands of pounds of borax over mile after mile of isolated, desolate and forbidding terrain.  Modern travelers within this amazing landscape typically enjoy the comforts of air conditioning and a paved road.  Yet, within the deceptive beauty of the place, there is a reminder that the environment still demands respect.  During our trip, the wind blew constantly.  Sand pelted our car, faces and bodies.  There were places where small sand dunes were in the process of reclaiming the highway.  Mile after rugged mile, this region was equally deceptive as to the wealth it held during the days of the forty-niners. 
According to the book, “The Twenty Mule Team of Death Valley,” gold rush pioneers struggling to make it through this area as they moved farther west, often referred to the region as ‘the dregs of creation.’  They were completely oblivious to the fortune in borax beneath their feet.  The Death Valley find was reported by the Scientific American in 1873 but, it would be another decade before extraction of this particular ‘white gold’ began in earnest.  Since no rail lines were close, it was decided that a mule train of large wagons would need to be created to deliver the precious minerals 165 miles one way to the rails. 

Up close, these wagons easily dwarf the human body while standing as huge reminders of just how big the spirit of the west was (and is)… not to mention the heart of the animals responsible for pulling these loads.  The rear wheels of the lead wagons tower a full 7 feet in height with 1 inch thick steel tires stretching 8 inches in width.  Spokes are over 2 feet in length and the circumference around the spoke bands is 4 ½ feet!  The brake blocks are equally impressive with measurements of 8 inches wide and 43 inches in length.  The box widths ranged between 44 and 48 inches.  Coupled with a 6 foot box height and a 16 foot box length, these vehicles weighed nearly 4 tons standing empty. 

Enjoying early and large vehicle history as I do, these historic sets of wheels are a sight to behold.  Like so many of these giant workhorses from the 19th century, they are but shells of their former selves.  The sun, wind and weather attack them incessantly.  Without further protection, they will one day succumb to the beatings.  I count it a privilege to have been able to be so close to such a powerful symbol of our nation’s heritage.  Today, borax is still a vital material with a wealth of uses.  Areas like cosmetics, medicines, detergents, ceramics, plastics, fire retardants, flux, food additives, putty, insulation, water softeners, indelible ink, swimming pool maintenance, blacksmithing, moth-proofing wool, and even products designed to help stop radiator leaks all lean on the strength of borax.  It’s a product with countless uses and continues to play a significant role in life everywhere.  Ultimately, the story of the 20 Mule Team and Borax wagons is a testimony to the can-do spirit that built this land and a reminder of the value of freedom, the richness of our nation, and benefits of our free enterprise system. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Gestring wagon in Santa Ynez collection

I have a weakness for early St. Louis-built vehicles and have written about that on several occasions.  Some may recall that Farm Collector magazine has published several of my articles about one of the St. Louis firms… the Gestring Wagon Company.  Over time, I’ve been surprised at how this brand in particular seems to keep cropping up.  From calls and emails from individuals who own a Gestring to archaeologists with the Missouri Department of Transportation to museums looking for more information on a particular vehicle, founder Caspar Gestring’s legacy is alive and well in the 21st century.  It’s been especially interesting to me since I enjoy studying these 19th century makers from the “Gateway to the West.”   

With that in mind, over a year ago, the good folks at the Santa Ynez Historical Museum had asked me to be a speaker at their ‘Spirit of the West’ symposium this past April.  I was pleased to oblige and equally enthused that they held an original Gestring wagon in their collection.  I’ve learned over the years that every vehicle has a story to tell and I was anxious to see what more I might learn from this wagon.

Arriving a half day early, I took some time to go over the Gestring and see what I could find out.  A few quick measurements showed the wagon to have the same general box size as every other Gestring I’ve seen… 43” wide and 9’ 10” long (outside dimensions).  Retaining a fair amount of original paint with hand-lettering and striping on the box, the wagon was sold by Belleville Implement & Motor Company of Belleville, Illinois.  In our research, we discovered that this company was apparently a dealer for Studebaker automobiles as well as International Harvester agricultural products at some point.  More importantly, dealer details like this can be helpful in narrowing down a vehicle’s age. 

Beginning with periodicals from the early 20th century, we found Belleville Implement & Motor Company listed on page 881 of the December 16, 1908 issue of The Horseless Age as one of almost four dozen “New Agencies.”  Other available information leads us to believe the company was officially licensed for business as early as March of 1907.  Based on this information as well as a first-hand examination of the wagon along with previous research within our files, we believe this set of wheels to have a circa 1910-12 date of manufacture. 

Like most century-old vehicles, the gear has lost the majority of its original paint.  However, careful inspection shows that some of the initial orange coloring still exists on the axles and other parts of the gear.  While the tire widths measure 1 ½  inches, the broad wheel track stretches 62 inches and wheel heights are 44/54 inches.  One of the most interesting things about this vehicle, though, is the third sideboard on the box.  Not only is it diagonally cut to perfectly match a set of original Gestring-made St. Louis seat risers but, the uppermost sideboards are also trimmed to slope downward from 6 5inches in height at the front to only 2 ¾ inches at the back of the wagon.  It’s a unique and seldom seen design that was clearly built this way at the Gestring factory.  Other notable elements include additional contouring to the outer ends of the seat bottom, a fingerlink clip to the center spreader chain, and a box brake system with a Geisler-style brake ratchet.

We’re pleased to be able to continually share rare imagery and information on relevant early vehicle makers.  Individually and collectively the details help us all to continually learn and appreciate more of America’s earliest vehicle industry.  In keeping with those opportunities, we’re working on another article for Farm Collector that should appear later this year and, if you’re partial to St. Louis vehicles like Joseph Murphy, Weber & Damme, Linstroth, Espenschied, and Luedinghaus, you won’t want to miss it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Wells Fargo Coach #599

With tens of thousands of early vehicle builders documented in our Wheels That Won The West® Archives, America’s early transportation industry was anything but small.  Even so, finding specific examples within the millions of vehicles they collectively created can sometimes be a challenge.  It’s a problem further complicated with questions like… Where is information on individual makers located, how did a particular manufacturer design certain features, when was a given technology first used, what are the best books to read and many more similar queries.

Located throughout the U.S., much of the surviving information is so scattered it requires the stealth of a detective to find it.  In hopes of lessening the conundrum of locating some of the vehicles, several years ago we added the “Destinations” section to our website.  It’s far from complete but does offer a few insights into areas with interesting sets of wheels. 
On our recent trip to southern California, we saw more than a hundred vehicles ranging from Big Wheels (giant logging carts), mud wagons and touring coaches to rack bed wagons, mountain wagons, Concord coaches, buckboards, and tall-sided freighters.  Makers of these early wheels ranged from Studebaker, Schuttler, and Weber to Winona, Bain, Abbot-Downing, M.P. Henderson, Gestring and others.  It was a lot to take in and we took away nearly 2,000 photos of original western wagons and coaches for our archives.
One of the first places we visited was in the heart of Los Angeles.  Centered in the financial district, the Wells Fargo History Museum is home to a very special vehicle.  Coach #599 is a 9 passenger Concord Coach built by the Abbot-Downing Company in 1895.  It was originally used on J.B. Barbee’s stage line from Columbia to Campbellsville, Kentucky.   According to the book, “Time Well Kept,” released by Wells Fargo Historical Services, this coach was later acquired by C.H. Burton for his Monticello to Burnside route – believed to be the last stagecoach line in operation in Kentucky.  As shown in the photos below, the coach – in predominantly original and exceptional condition – is on display at the Wells Fargo History Museum in Los Angeles, CA.

We’d like to extend a special thank you to the great folks at the Wells Fargo Museum for such great hospitality during our visit.  In the coming weeks, we’ll share additional images and information on even more of the vehicles we had the privilege of documenting.  In the meantime, if you haven’t signed up to receive notices every time we update this blog, click on the link in the right hand border and don’t forget to confirm your info.  That validates your sign-up and helps make sure you don’t miss a single posting.  Wishing you the best!