Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Rescuing History

As many will recall, we acquired an early Peter Schuttler wagon several months ago.  The wagon’s design is true old school Schuttler.  It was made in 1900 and is one of the few surviving examples of the way these vehicles were built during the last 2 decades of the 1800’s.  From the through-bolted gear and curved circle iron to features on the box itself, the construction of this wagon sets itself apart from the vast majority of “Chicago Wagons” still intact today.  Further distinguishing this high wheel wagon is its wide 60” track, hand forged hardware, and 10’ 9” box length.  In many ways, it’s exactly the kind of ultra-rare history we search so hard for.

Unfortunately, when we came across this set of wheels, it had one major drawback.  It had been coated with a thick and extremely heavy, creosote-like substance.  On top of the hardened deposits, another dense, sticky layer of linseed oil had been added.  Not only was it impossible to determine the condition of the wood beneath the unsightly mass, but I had serious reservations as to whether any of this unnatural and invasive shroud could be reversed.  Nevertheless, we took a chance, hoping against hope that we might discover a way to rescue this piece from its tomb of tar.

While we’ve had some positive results when removing secondary paint coatings, concentrated linseed oil, and other ill-advised applications on other vehicles, this Schuttler provided the ultimate test.  The good news is that we’ve been incredibly successful in uncovering the original, surviving paint of this wagon.  The photos above show some of the progress on the rear hounds and brake hanger.  As the dark and dirty gunk began coming off, we quickly discovered a fair amount of century-plus-old paint along with some blue and white striping, skein size information, and numbers stamped into the reach, axles, hounds, and bolsters.  I’ve seen similar four-character numbers on other Schuttler vehicles and have briefly entertained them as part numbers.  Since all of the numerals on this gear are an exact match and also located on almost every section of the gear, it’s possible that they may be an order number.  Ultimately, it’s one more question we’re working on answers to with this legendary manufacturer.
So, after roughly 25-30 hours of meticulous work, the business of liberating this Schuttler from its shell is almost finished.  Immediately above and below are the near-finished results.  We’ve been fortunate to find so much original paint and all of the wood has turned out to be solid.  For the moment, I’ve kept the left front wheel in the same state as the entire gear was found.  It’s a visible reminder of how easy these connections to our past can be lost.  Equally noteworthy, the finished piece is an enduring symbol of the rewards of rescuing history.  For more information on this rare wagon, drop us a line at

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

M.P. Henderson

As a research source and repository for so much of America’s early transportation history, we regularly add to our files of primary source literature.  Not long ago, we acquired an early lumber and hardware catalog from Hickinbotham Brothers located in Stockton, California.   The firm was established in 1852 as the West was still booming with gold fever.  Coincidentally, it was during this same timeframe that legendary stagecoach builder, Milton Henderson, first traveled from Maine to explore the possibilities of the West for himself.  Ultimately, this first trip did not prove successful and he returned to the east to regroup and refinance.  By the late 1850’s, Mr. Henderson again traveled to California.  First working with his brother and others, within a decade or so, Henderson had joined forces with another carriage maker.  By the mid-1870’s, he had begun promoting his own shop at Stockton. 

The image above is from an extremely rare 1870’s billhead from the company.  The firm advertised itself as a carriage manufactory at the time.  Their specialties included carriage and buggy work as well as construction of express and thoroughbrace wagons and stages.  Mr. Henderson also touted his firm’s proficiency in carriage painting, trimming, wood work and blacksmithing “of all kinds.”  By 1885, Milton Henderson’s son, Orrin, had joined the organization and the name was changed to M.P. Henderson & Son.  While the company built a multitude of different vehicle styles, they became well known for their stage work.  The firm survived through the first decade of the 20th century.

Today, M.P. Henderson vehicles and stagecoaches can be found throughout California and the West.  Among those we’ve had the opportunity to profile are coaches within the collections at the Carriage & Western Art Museum of Santa Barbara, the Parks-Janeway Carriage House at the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum, and also Scotty’s Castle near Death Valley.  
A circa 1888 photograph in our Wheels That Won The West® collection shows an M.P. Henderson light mud wagon labeled as an 8 passenger coach.  An illustration which appears to have been drawn from this photo is shown in the Fall 1993 issue of The Carriage Journal.  The accompanying description labels the coach as a No. 35 Concord.  There is some discussion as to whether the No. 35 Concord was a 5 passenger coach or whether it had an 8 passenger alternative.  The photo we’ve examined is clearly from the late 1800’s and there’s no mistaking the accompanying description, leaving us to believe the No. 35 coach had variables in passenger capacity.  It’s the kind of information we enjoy uncovering as we continue to help provide more details on America’s earliest and most legendary transportation industry. 

For more details on the background of the M.P. Henderson company, see Ken Wheeling’s excellent article in the Fall 1993 issue of The Carriage Journal.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

An Old Springfield Wagon

The morning light was sifted by fog as it poured through the cracks in the wooden walls.  Spider webs and loose hay were scattered everywhere, but I was focused on one thing.  Making my way to the back of the barn, I found myself staring at an old Springfield wagon.  It was void of the bulk of its original paint yet every part was covered in character.  The aged wood carried a visual charisma clearly marked by a life of hard work, long hours, and a shortage of TLC.  The box was a bit out of square, faintly askew from its traditional rectangular form.  It made me wonder about a potential mishap that could have shifted the original shape. Was the distortion caused by something pulling against a corner of the box or perhaps it was the remnants of a runaway?  Either way, the piece had seen its share of action before finally being retired.  By contrast, when this set of wheels first left the factory, its gleaming green box with yellow striping and a bright orange gear would have been the epitome of craftsmanship and precision. 

Time never rests, though, and sometime back in the 1940’s, this tired workhorse was pulled into the barn for the last time.  Sitting silent and alone through another sixty or seventy years of freezing winters and hot, humid summers, the wagon had been a favorite target of mud daubers, mice, dust, and birds.  Not to be outdone, the earth had slowly and deliberately devoured the lowermost felloes.   The aged tires were worn incredibly thin, rolled over the edges of the wheel rims like fresh dough in a pan.  The constant pressure of hard ground and heavy loads had pushed the steel tires to the brink while an even thinner pocketbook had kept them from being replaced. 
Peering over the upper sideboard, the bed still held the dirty, brittle, and sweat-stained harness - last worn by a pair of mules long since gone and forgotten.  Incredibly, the wagon had escaped being adapted for service behind a tractor.  The near century-old tongue was solid, uncut, and still accompanied by the original Springfield-built doubletree and singletrees.  The seat sat atop the box just as it was left.  Through the years, it had been repeatedly attacked by water from a leaky roof.  The end gates had also been ambushed by rain creeping in through another hole.  Topping the rare, serial-numbered find, it was equally surprising that two original bows had remained intact and with the wagon for almost a century.    
For many, this vehicle is a piece of the past whose time has come and gone.  But, even with its working days done, it still has a lot to give.  After all, totally original and complete pieces are increasingly hard to come by.  Beyond the historical value gained by studying its makeup, this Springfield carries a rich, untouched patina applied over multiple generations.  It’s a look and feel unmatched by new or restored pieces.  By encompassing the years from 1872 through 1952, the Springfield Wagon Company managed to outlast many of its toughest competitors, including legendary wagon firms like Studebaker, Cooper, Bain, Fish Bros., LaBelle, Mitchell, and many more.  Ultimately, discoveries like this one not only reinforce Springfield’s legacy, but help preserve the literal roots of America.  How many more can we save?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hunting for History

Who invented the thimble skein?  How early were iron wheels and gears used in wagons? Other than International Harvester brands like Weber and Columbus, did other wagon makers offer gears with oscillating reaches?  Those questions and at least a thousand other queries form the roots of so much of our research.  After all, there is no general store we can drive up to and find these answers.  So, every day, we roll up our sleeves and go hunting - Hunting for history, hunting for answers, and hunting for some of the rarest survivors on wooden wheels.

It’s a passion for preserving American history that regularly brings us face to face with some of the most exciting finds on the planet.  Couple that with the opportunity to meet amazing people all over the world and it’s never a dull moment.

So… beyond sharing with others and locating so much history, why is it important to find answers to questions like those listed above?  Ultimately, that’s where things can get even more intriguing because the discovery of scarce pieces of history can be absolutely crucial in authoritatively identifying and authenticating early vehicles.  These points can also add significant content to the provenance of a particular set of wheels.  Year after year, digging for details has led us to extraordinary finds – discoveries that cover virtually every major maker in the U.S. and many smaller ones as well. 

By the way, while we know the answers to all three questions at the beginning of this blog, I won’t reveal everything here.  That said, for the answer to the originator of the thimble skein, check out my latest article inside the October 2013 issue of Farm Collector magazine. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Happy Birthday America!

As we celebrate the 237th birthday of our nation, it seems appropriate to share another anniversary coming up next year.  2014 will mark 250 years since the founding of St. Louis, Missouri.  It’s an important milestone for many reasons, including the city’s role as the ‘Gateway to the West’ during 19th century travel.   

Recognizing St. Louis’ connection to so many early wagon and carriage makers, Farm Collector magazine has scheduled one of my original articles to be published in their October 2013 issue.  Whether you’re a collector, enthusiast, or just looking for more information on early wagon makers like Weber & Damme, Gestring, Luedinghaus, Espenschied, Murphy, and Linstroth, this piece will likely be of interest. 
I’ll share a bit more about the piece just prior to its release.  In the meantime, we wish each of you a wonderful holiday and safe travels during your July 4th celebrations.  We’d also like to take a moment to thank all the men, women, and families of our military.  From times past to today, we salute and honor you for your service.  May God bless you as you stand in the gap, protecting all we hold dear.