Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Irons in the Fire

Maintaining a website can be a daunting task.  If you have one, you know what I mean.  No matter how often you add to the site, there’s always a section that needs updated, a link that needs fixed or a new idea you’d like to incorporate.  One of the biggest obstacles can be just finding time to continually keep things fresh.  It’s why we’ve focused on posting so much content to this western vehicle blog, reinforcing both the depth of our collection as well as the subject as a whole.

While we’ve managed to keep a steady flow of blogs related to early wagons and stagecoaches, it’s always a bit tougher to keep a rein on the overall site.  Over the last few months, we’ve been working on ways to share even more of who we are and what we do.  From helping other collectors and businesses with special projects to digging up all-but-forgotten facts, it all boils down to having a passion for locating, sharing, and preserving some of the rarest wheeled history America ever produced.  So, whether it’s period photography with exceptionally rare subject matter, wagon maker ledgers holding insights into some of the heaviest travel west, exclusive early advertising and industry business materials, or even the rolling works of art themselves, the 19th and early 20th century world of western vehicles has a familiar home within the Wheels That Won The West® Archives. 
Last week, one of our photographer friends stopped by to help us capture a few shots of a small part of our collection.  We’ll share several outtakes from those sessions in a future blog.  In the meantime, some of the new photography will be used to help profile the exclusive and scarce materials within our files.  Other happenings here include the appearance of our latest article within the October 2013 issue of Farm Collector magazine.  This one will center on a half dozen early wagon makers from St. Louis.  Since next year will mark the 250th Anniversary of the city’s founding, the piece should serve as a suitable tribute. 
In the coming months, we’ll be visiting a number of locations throughout the U.S. as we continue our search for rare wheeled treasures.  With a fast-paced day job and no shortage of extra ‘irons in the fire,’ Volume 2 of the Borrowed Time book series has slowed a bit.  This profile on Peter Schuttler is definitely worth the wait, though, as it contains a fair amount of previously unpublished imagery and information.  We have a few additional company histories we’re working on and even a pair of additional book possibilities that have come our way.  We’ll share more as it develops.  In the meantime, drop us an email and let us know what’s going on in your part of the world.  We look forward to hearing from you. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

John Deere & Keller Wagons

With a history dating to 1837, John Deere has a rich heritage and lengthy legacy of leadership.  In fact, when it comes to agricultural products, the brand has acquired a strong reputation for quality.  That said, it took some time before this business giant took the leap toward producing one of the most prominent early farm vehicles – the wooden wagon.  While the company began with plows and expanded their offerings to include many other farm implements, their production of wagons came much later, especially as compared to most other builders.

During the late 1800’s and very early 1900’s, John Deere was relatively content to sell other nationally recognized brands like Mitchell, Fish Bros., Old Hickory, and Moline.  In fact, even before Deere began building their own wagons, their branch houses in various parts of the country were selling other brands and even private labeling their own.  “Deere & Weber” was one private label and serves as a good example of how a branch house could take full advantage of opportunities to sell even more wagons.

While the corporate office helped market well-known, non-Deere brands, other wagon makers also saw sales potential and worked to curry the favor of John Deere and the large branch distributors.  Among those suitors was an upstart firm by the name of “Keller.”  Located in Joplin, Missouri, the Keller Manufacturing Company is purported by some sources to have started in 1908.  However, as shown below, we came across this January 1907 report in The Carriage Monthly indicating that the firm was already in business at least a year earlier.  
“The Keller Mfg. Co., Joplin, Mo., who have recently completed a large wagon plant, 100 x 450 feet have just made their first shipment of wagons to the John Deere Plow Co., Omaha, Neb.  The plant has a capacity to turn out 5,000 wagons monthly.  At present, there are 700 wagons in process of manufacture, and orders are on file for 3,000 more.”
The report doesn’t list how many wagons were sent to the Deere branch.  However, it appears they had little chance to send many more.  Unfortunately for Keller, John Deere was about to finally devote some serious resources to making their own wagons.  By the time of the above report, Deere was in the process purchasing the Fort Smith Wagon Company.  Three years later, Deere bought the Moline Wagon Company and a year after that the Davenport Wagon Company became part of the business.  Wagon sales were strong and Deere was looking to optimize opportunities by creating its own wagon brands; ultimately allowing greater control over quality, costs, and profits.  By all indications, the company wasted no more time in getting their name on the side of these vehicles.  Near the time of the Ft. Smith acquisition, the first ‘John Deere’ branded wagons began to be promoted for the legendary Moline, Illinois firm.

It was a move that, no doubt, negatively affected the young Keller operation as it did not stay in business in Joplin.  The plant was sold within a half dozen years of its opening to a firm specializing in the manufacture of whiskey barrels.  By 1913, the Joplin facility had ceased production of Keller wagons.  If not for a few occasional references today, this business, like so many other early vehicle makers might have disappeared forever.  For a brief time, though, they enjoyed the excitement and benefits of being connected to one of America’s most iconic and desirable brands.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Questions on Wagon Skeins

Because of our constant research and extensive primary source files, we often receive questions on a wide variety of topics related to early horse drawn vehicles.  Some of the more frequent inquiries have dealt with how wheels were attached to axles.  A couple of questions that seem to pop up with regularity are… When was the thimble skein first used and who initiated this design?

Looking as far back as the 1700’s, many of the earliest American wagons employed wooden axles with tapered ends that were fitted with a pair of iron strips called clouts.  The bottom clout would understandably wear faster than the top clout.  Developing a system that would increase the durability and reduce maintenance in this area became a priority for many builders.  Ultimately, the cast thimble skein (a hollow metal cone tightly fitted over the axle end) replaced clouts and became the system used by virtually all makers using wooden axles.

As recent as a decade or so ago, some sources felt that the use of thimble skeins on wagons would likely date to a time during or immediately prior to America’s Civil War in 1861.  Even so, one of the first solid contradictions to that timeframe occurred after the discovery of a wagon gear on board the buried remains of the Steamboat Arabia.  Since the boat was well documented as sinking on the Missouri river in 1856, its contents provide indisputable and historically accurate insights into what existed at that time.  Several years ago, I wrote a feature article published in the Carriage Journal magazine identifying the gear as one built by Peter Schuttler in Chicago. (Read more in our first-to-report story on this remarkable find)
Beyond being the oldest known Schuttler survivor, this 1856 workhorse was factory-equipped with threaded thimble skeins a full 5-years before the war.  Incredibly, we’ve since uncovered patents for these types of skeins that were granted as early as the mid-1840’s.  With the admission in some patent files that hollow cone skeins were commonplace before the 1850’s, it’s clear that the technology was in use far in advance of the War-Between-The-States.
So, who was it that came up with the invention?  It’s a good question and one that seems a bit clouded by the passage of time.  In 1882, a period account clearly gives Louis Espenschied of St. Louis, Missouri (Espenschied Wagon Company) kudos for the innovation during his early days of blacksmithing and wagon making.  Another report dating to 1975 seems to propose Ed Bain (Bain Wagon Company) as the champion of the design.  Unfortunately, we’ve been unable to locate a 19th century account that would corroborate that claim for Bain.  Since Mr. Bain did not enter the wagon business until 1852, and earlier patent records do exist for thimble-type skeins, it seems questionable that he could have been responsible for this innovation.  Conversely, knowing that period historical credits were given to Espenschied and finding no 19th century challenges to those credits, it’s difficult to avoid acknowledging Mr. Espenschied as the inventor.  Certainly, he was deeply involved in the trade – in the ‘Gateway to the West’ no less – prior to the earliest patents appearing.  His later 1878 patent on a self-lubricating skein also shows a continued focus related to this innovation. 

Similar to other historical curiosities, there may always be questions related to the invention of the thimble skein.  What is consistently reinforced through this and other research is just how competitive the early wagon and carriage industry was.  There are thousands upon thousands of old patents for vehicles and vehicle parts in the forgotten files of the U.S. Patent and Trademark office.  Each is yet another reminder that time marches on and definitive history is preserved only when we ask questions, seek proven answers, and record the results.  Feel free to drop us a line at anytime you have questions or materials you’d like to share.  We’d enjoy hearing from you.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Drag Shoes & More

About any field of study can be full of unique terms and names that may be confusing to some.  Nomenclature used when referencing wagons and coaches is no different.  Things like a king bolt, sand board plate, rub iron, outer bearing axle, rocker, hammer strap,  box strap, brake shoe, drag shoe, slider, clout, fifth chain or even the ‘gather’ of a wheel can be challenging to audiences if not properly explained.  While we won’t cover all of these today, many are featured on the Making Tracks print available on the Wheels That Won The West® site. 
Clearly, for any subject to be fully appreciated, its elements must be understood.  Plus, once we have a good grasp of the terms, it’s easier to communicate and convey the significance of every surviving heavy transport. 
The term ‘drag shoe’ refers to a wagon accessory used in tandem with the braking of the rear wheel(s) during rugged downhill travel.  As seen it the photo above, its heavy, cast metal design is engineered to allow wagon and coach wheels to ride on it in order to save wear and tear on the metal tire.  As part of this arrangement, the wheel is locked in place by a chain and the resulting drag helps slow the vehicle’s descent.    
Like other elements of horse drawn vehicles, drag shoes came in a wide variety of sizes and styles as well as patents.  One such patent was both applied for and granted in 1892.  Optimizing a vehicle driver’s time, convenience, load safety and equipment security, Gustave Homes of St. Louis, Missouri proposed an automatic drag shoe device that would be attached to a wagon.  This innovation was engineered in such a way that it could be lowered and raised without ever leaving the driver’s seat and relinquishing control of the draft animals. 
Also part of the patent, an accompanying calk (see below) could be attached to the shoe to add even more ‘bite’ and drag while descending particularly dangerous inclines.  While we’ve never seen evidence of this device on a wagon, individual drag shoes of all sizes and types have become much sought after by collectors and enthusiasts.