Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Badge of Honor

From early times, artisans and craftsmen have signed their work.  It’s a symbol of pride as well as promotion, calling out to one and all the reputation and desirability of a piece.  Centuries ago, this same practice was established within America’s horse drawn vehicle industry.  Wagon makers not only positioned their names on the sides of their vehicles but also granted space to endorse the selling dealer.  It’s a promotional legacy still felt throughout the world of transportation.  So much so that auto makers have continued to employ both of these marketing features.

When it comes to the most visible placement of a brand name on a wagon, there were several methods involved. Generally speaking, the three most typical methods utilized either transfer decals, stenciling, or hand painting to showcase the maker name.  Sometimes a combination of two or more of these processes was utilized.  Metal tags were also occasionally used, but were not as prevalent as with buggy and carriage makers.
Hand painted names and logos were among the first ways wagons were branded.  As with any type of art, there were various levels of skilled application.    While some makers clearly lacked style and professional lettering ability, other brands took the promotion of their brand quite seriously, hiring accomplished artists and sign painters to reinforce a reputation for excellence.  Today, almost any hand painted logo is a relatively rare survivor.
Using the pre-formed shapes and patterns of metal stencils was another popular method of applying signage to wagons.  Engaged at least as early as the Civil War, stencil use ranged from single metal cutouts for simple paint applications to multiple stencils used to add supplementary colors and/or additional artistic elements like drop shadows and decorative designs.  The Stoughton wagon logo shown above utilized three stencils to add both color and style to the insignia. 
This Birdsell logo is actually a pre-printed transfer.  These pieces were designed to be applied with adhesive and water.  Once they dried on the surface of the wood, they became part of the surface and were impossible to remove without destroying.  Many of the most elaborate logos on surviving wagons are actually these printed “decals” attached by the process of decalcomania.  While it took a little investment in printing for a maker to acquire these pieces, they paid off in production speed, consistency, efficiency and great looks.
Artistically and tastefully applied, any of these three methods can be attractive and effective in helping showcase a particular brand.  Whatever the name, symbol or graphic early wagon makers applied to the vehicle, it was always meant to reinforce the reputation of the firm while simultaneously brandishing a creative badge of honor.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Dodge Mortised Hubs

I recently watched a ‘brain teaser’ television program highlighting a drawing that initially appeared to be a rabbit.  After closer inspection, though, it became obvious that it could also be interpreted as a duck.  To that point, have you ever looked at something and recognized a distinction that others didn’t immediately notice?  That’s just the kind of attention to detail it takes to unravel many of the modern day mysteries of early wagons and western vehicles.  Construction points, in particular, offer many clues as to potential makers, regions of use, purposes of use, rarity, value, and more.

When looking at a western vehicle there can be numerous possible variations in construction, design, and features.  In fact, the wheels alone can harbor dozens of differences.  Many of those distinctions can deal with the way the spokes are attached to the hub.  Some lighter spring wagons may use a Sarven hub while heavier wheels may employ an Archibald hub.  Still others may utilize a metal-clad wooden hub.  The more traditional methods use a painted wooden hub - but even then, there can still be variables in the design.  
- Typical Wood Hub Spoke Arrangement -
Most often in early wagons, wooden hubs are mortised to accept evenly spaced and similarly positioned spokes.  Occasionally though, the spokes may be staggered, with odd/even spokes alternating positions on the hub.  These designs are referred to as “dodge mortised hubs” and they have a purpose beyond the unique and artistic look they deliver.  Early builders utilizing this feature commonly claimed that the arrangement helped brace, stiffen and strengthen the wheel.  In fact, many small child’s wagons from the period also used this configuration on the wheels. 

 - Dodge Mortised Spokes -
Just as with modern day auto makers, early wagon manufacturers used their fair share of innovative design, engineered advantages, and advertising hyperbole to set themselves apart from competitors.  Today, we do ourselves and the individual vehicles proper justice when we notice these unique features.  Ultimately, they’re all clues helping to piece together important stories from America’s early transportation history.   

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Father’s Day 2013

I’m taking a bit of a detour in this week’s blog.  For the moment, these musings will not be about old trails west… wagons… or stagecoaches… or any type of western vehicle for that matter.  This week’s blog is about baseball.  Yep, baseball.  Well sorta anyway.  Now, before you run off thinking that I’ve lost my focus and enthusiasm for all things western, hear me out.

The things that are important to each of us – you know, the stuff that makes us tick, the things that make us smile, get us excited, prop us up when we’re down – all of this comes from somewhere, right?  I mean, there’s a reason we become who we are.  In other words, those pieces of our past, those roads from yesterday, they all play a role in how we define ourselves while also shaping our perception of things.  That’s why this particular blog is focused on baseball, or more specifically, baseball and my dad.  Beyond the hundreds of horses (yep, he’s got it that bad) I estimate that my dad has owned during his life to date, many of my fondest, early memories center on baseball outings with him.  During my childhood days in the 1960’s, he both played with and coached a small semi-pro team in Heber Springs, Arkansas.  

Every so often when visiting my parents, I have a chance to see some of my old stomping grounds.  Almost without fail, I find myself reminiscing; driving by the old ball field and covered grandstand.  The stands have seating for as many as a couple hundred folks – just the right amount for a small southern town in the 1960’s.  Today, though, the aging wood frame structure leans in multiple directions, crippled from decades of exposure, use, and neglect.  It’s a symbol of sorts; an icon from a bygone era, bending under the weight of inattention and faltering from the kind of busyness that often distracts us all.  You know what I mean – those daily diversions that have a habit of rerouting priorities, convincing us that yet another project can wait.    
Stopping along the street running parallel with 3rd base and home plate, I close my eyes and peer backward through history.  For that moment, I’m 8 years old again.  I can hear the low-droning of countless conversations in the crowd.  The night air is cool but comfortable and the big floodlights spilling over the field bring an air of significance to the entire affair.  I catch the smell of fresh popcorn and can instantly picture myself tearing open and assembling a toy from a box of Cracker Jacks.  For a kid, it was a time of few worries and plenty of opportunity to just, well… be a kid.  It was a lot like the lyrics in a song by country singers, Joey and Rory.  The recollections in the tune, "Diamonds Are A Boy's Best Friend" take me back.  It’s a reminder of just how personal and impactful music can be, instantly transporting us to another time and place. 
Back to my daydream at the ballpark… I can still see myself with that coveted Cracker Jack toy.  Below me, my buddies were scurrying under the smooth-worn bleachers looking for loose change that had fallen from those seated above.  Suddenly, there was a sharp crack of a bat followed by the umpire’s cry of “Foul Ball!”  Instantly, I’m fully aware of the game, following the looks of the crowd, and off at a dead run as every one of these horsehides straying from the field is worth 10 cents when brought back to the club manager.  Now let me tell you; that kind of money was a big motivator to a child in those days.  Unlike today, it could buy a lot of valuable things for a kid with few other opportunities to earn some spendin’ cash.  Things like a soda pop – not from a cup or can – but, a glass bottle that was worth another 3 cents when returned!  It was just the kind of incentive that could get the entrepreneurial juices flowing in a young boy and, as a result, there was never a shortage of kids racing to be the first to find and bring back every foul and homerun ball. 

Ultimately, these local competitions were carry-overs from my dad’s love of the sport during his journey through high school, the Air Force, and college.  At Arkansas State Teacher’s College (now the University of Central Arkansas - UCA), dad was more than an honor student.  He was the guy to watch when he stepped up to bat.  Faded and yellowed newspaper clippings tell the stories… “Wallace Sneed slapped a home run…  Sneed collected five hits in five trips to the plate…  Sneed hit a double…  Wallace Sneed was the batting star going three for three… Sneed’s homer landed on top of the gymnasium…,”  and many other similar reports.  A few additional remnants of those days have also survived.  There is a records book from my dad’s games in the Air Force, a few old boxes – still sealed – with new old stock Rawlings baseballs inside.  I even have one of his original uniforms.  Beyond the handful of curled, chipped, and faded photos from a Kodak Brownie, there are 8mm movies as well.  I’ve probably seen those flickering films a hundred times.  The silent black and white frames are dusty, scratched and showered with colored streaks from light leaks in the wind-up camera.  The images are imperfect but they hold something I need.  Something I never get enough of – a connection to something deeper than myself, older than memories, and stronger than a seasoned stick of hickory.  They hold a reminder that life is about relationships and I have my own responsibilities to share with others the same way my dad did with me.  Every day is a chance to add to the roster of those experiences.

Dad played 3rd base.  He was a right handed player that batted left, was quick on base and was good at knocking the ball to open holes.  I always enjoyed the game and had a few moments in school but never achieved success on the diamond like dad.  Incredibly, nearly 60 years later, his collegiate batting average still holds the UCA record as the highest for a single season with a minimum of 50 at bats.  So it was that in 1956, as a sophomore, he batted .493 (33 hits in 67 at bats) and repeatedly scored accolades from area news sources.  I’m told that he was even scouted by the St. Louis Browns.  In those days, though, the road to the big leagues was lined with hard times and little money to survive on, let alone support a family with.  The game, while popular, had yet to mature with the sponsorship levels we’re accustomed to today.  So, while still enjoying the game, dad held to a different road.  One that gave me the absolute greatest mom in the world and a sister and brother I think the world of. 
When it comes to his accomplishments, you won’t hear much from dad.  Like a lot of men from his era, he’s vocal with some thoughts, yet quiet when it comes to talking about himself.  So, in honor of Father’s Day, I’ve written this piece about one of the most important people in my life.  Beyond filling the title role as my father, he gave me a strong work ethic, full childhood, and equally healthy sense of humor.  He was a disciplinarian that taught me to think before I act, stand up for what I believe in, and push myself to grow in areas where I’m weaker.   Today, I guess they’d call it, ‘instilling character.’  For me, it was just the way I grew up.  You worked hard at what you did and never went back on your word.  Reflecting on those times, I see how they helped prepare me for a world that plays hard ball with first impressions and is equally stingy with second chances.

So, while this blog is indeed about my appreciation for baseball – even more, it’s really about thanking my dad for all he’s done.  It’s also about life and the opportunity to make the most of the time each of us has been given.  Like the surviving wagons and western vehicles I write about, there is a day coming when each of us will leave a legacy; legacies that have the power to go beyond memories and change lives for the better.  Thank you, dad, for always pushing me.  For reminding me that challenges are opportunities and a little friendly competition can be just enough to help us out of a rut.  Thanks especially for teaching me to laugh – especially at myself.  That’s one trait that still guides and strengthens me.  Like most folks, there are stories I could tell.  Tales of runaway tractors, motorcycle accidents, bucking barrels, poison oak, thorn trees, wild colts, counting fingers, a horse called Sox and others like Mary Mackett, Sally, and Hank as well as a multitude of horse wrecks scattered throughout the pages of our lives.  (Yes, I know most won’t know what I’m talking about here – but, dad will.  In fact, I’ll bet he’s smiling right now). 
Back on the field, while other kids were hot-dogging with one-handed catches, sometimes with no family in the stands, my dad was always there.  There to watch, there to encourage, and there to remind me – “two hands” while fielding a baseball.  He wasn’t an armchair coach.  He had rounded those bases more times than I could count and the insight he offered was exactly what I needed.  We all need folks reminding us to play and live smart, not get too cocky or too discouraged, and take care of business in a competent, consistent way. 
Here’s wishing every father a special day this coming Sunday, June 16th.  And to my dad – thank you for helping me recognize the ‘diamonds’ of life.  From looking past the long winter hair of a horse to recognizing the value of water on a piece of property, your experience has driven me home many times.  Thanks again, dad, for so many great memories.  I love you and look forward to many more.  Life is truly a ball!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Removing Wagon Boxes

Anyone that’s ever removed or tried to remove a wagon box from the gear (undercarriage) knows that the task can leave one with back, leg, arm and finger damage quite quickly.  Those pieces aren’t just heavy but bulky and difficult to manage without assistance.  While it’s possible for a box (also called a bed) to be removed by one person, using brute strength alone inevitably spawns thoughts like, “There’s got to be a better way.”  Changing out these boxes was often necessary as farmers, ranchers, freighters and others frequently needed a different style of box or just the gear for other purposes.  For instance, while a triple-sided box worked well for hauling corn and grain, it was far from being the right configuration for hauling loose hay, lumber or logs.

Throughout the early wood-wheeled wagon era, there were many ideas as to how to handle this inconvenient and inefficient challenge.  Some dealt with it by trying to design a multi-purpose bed that could be used for virtually any purpose.  In an article entitled, “American Ingenuity,” I wrote about one company’s approach to this in the May issue of Farm Collector magazine back in 2005.  Not convinced that one box could ever work for all purposes, other users insisted that there were almost always times that a box needed to be removed.  Recognizing this, there were multiple devices engineered for aiding in the lifting of the boxes.
One such design was patented in 1886 by William Freeland of Edwardsport, Indiana.  His idea was to use a pivoting boom to lift the box straight off the wagon gear.  Here, we’ve shown his patent drawings demonstrating how the basic machine was to work.  Figures 1 shows an overhead view while figure 2 highlights the end view and the 3rd illustration profiles a perspective from the side.  Collectively, it’s a great use for the ages-old fulcrum and lever design written about by Archimedes during the 3rd century B.C.