Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Loose Wagon Wheels

I’ve closely studied almost every aspect of 19th century American wagons and the associated industry for almost two decades.  The process of examining thousands of pieces of early literature, photos, and correspondence has yielded many benefits; not the least has been the opportunity to learn from the original masters of the trade.  Contrary to some perceptions, this industry – and its products – was exceptionally complicated and vast in scope.  As we’ve shared in so many previous posts, it’s a subject that closely parallels America’s westward growth. 

As part of that study, I’ve encountered a number of unsubstantiated perceptions in the field; perceptions that have been repeated enough times that they’re sometimes wrongly accepted as truth.  One such experience centers on the design function of a wagon wheel.  For instance, I’ve seen individuals shake a wheel on a wagon and if it moved side to side, declare the piece to be worn out and unsound.  To be sure, wheels can wear in the hub boxings, thimble skeins, spokes, felloes, etc.  Overall, though, a typical wooden wagon wheel (non-roller bearing) is actually intended to have some lateral movement.  There is a strong purpose for that action and perhaps, it’s most appropriate to let one of the most historic and legendary wagon-making veterans explain the reason.  Below is a quote from Louis Espenschied, founder of the famed Espenschied Wagon Company in St. Louis.  The excerpt comes from his 1878 patent on Vehicle Axle Lubricators.  I’ve placed some of the text in a bold and enlarged manner to help call out the function of a typical wagon wheel on a thimble skein.
“This invention is an improved mode of lubricating the thimbles of wagons through the knocking action of the wheels in their playing on the spindles; and consists in a grease reservoir or box constructed to have its opening through the hurdle or collar of the spindle, and coming flush against the hub of the wheel.  The play that the wheel has longitudinally on its spindle when in motion causes its hub to knock against the collar or hurdle, thus thereby forcing the grease before it through an opening communicating with it, and coming out at the top of the spindle to be distributed over the same and the box of the hub.”
It’s a bit of a wordy segment in the patent but it does a wonderful job in describing how the side to side action of the wheel working in a back and forth action along the skein actually functions to distribute grease and help the vehicle run smoother.
So, if some longitudinal movement is necessary, how does a person know how much slack is appropriate?  That’s where the experience of today’s skilled wagon makers is helpful.  Craftsmen like Doug Hansen of Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop in Letcher, South Dakota have decades of experience and can be especially insightful with answers.  In a recent conversation with Hansen, he shared that there are many factors that come into play.  “Unless you’re talking about a new or unused new-old-stock piece, there will be at least some wear on a wagon’s skeins and boxings,” said Hansen.  “The wear on skeins is easier to measure since it occurs predominantly on the lower sections while the boxings will wear on the full circumference.  The skeins and boxings can wear both laterally and radially with each type requiring different evaluations and corrective actions.  If a wheel is radially out of alignment by a half inch or so, it’s going to be noticeable and create problems beyond the added drag to the draft.  It will, ultimately, affect the soundness of the rest of the wheel.  Wheels with a quarter inch or less of lateral and radial movement are typically still within original tolerances.”  Reinforcing that statement as well as the quote from the Espenschied patent, the photo below shows a period new-old-stock (never used) skein with a boxing allowing 3/16 inch of lateral movement. 
Our conversation with Mr. Hansen was extensive so we will likely cover more on this subject in a later blog.  Suffice it to say that from wheel-making to the fitting of skeins on axles and a whole slew of patented wagon innovations, truly understanding these early vehicles requires a willingness to devote oneself to documented study.  Ultimately, that commitment to research and recovery of so much primary source material is a founding principle of our Wheels That Won The West® Archives.  It’s a focus that not only helps to separate fact from fiction but continues to help uncover some of the rarest wheeled history in America. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Puzzle with Promise

Sometimes folks look at me a little funny when I say I’m a historian studying early wagons.  I can see the disconnect and, in a way, completely understand it.  I mean, it’s not every day the world runs into a guy that gets excited about a century-plus-old chamfer on a rotting wagon axle.  But, when a person understands that this manufacturing history is directly connected to almost every part of our nation’s founding and early growth, the lights start to come on.  Fact is, these vehicles didn’t just exist during some of the most dramatic moments in America’s past, they made it possible for that history to happen!  From cattle drives and emigrant travel to building the transcontinental railroad and protecting the nation’s borders and interior, these wheels (and the associated brands) are the forgotten heroes and wheeled sentinels of our past.  So, whether you’re an “American Picker” looking to cash in on undiscovered wooden gold, a community looking to memorialize a part of its past, an enthusiast wanting closer ties to a different time, a prop coordinator on a movie set, or museum hunting that ideal vehicle straight out of the Old West, certain pieces are naturally more attractive. 

Not long ago, I had an opportunity to view a number of wagons that appeared to have lost their identities.  With careful review, I was able to authoritatively label a good number of them.  Brands like Studebaker, Newton, Weber, Deere, and Pekin had previously gone unrecognized in this assemblage.  The Studebaker would have dated close to 1900 while most of the others were from well within the 20th century.  One of my purposes at this gathering was to look for legendary wagon makers seldom seen today.  Likewise, I wanted to identify – if possible – a wagon that had been built before the end of the 1800’s.
One piece, in particular, stood out.  It wasn’t flashy.  It had minimal paint remaining and a number of the original parts were missing.  Still, it was different.  My regular study of so much original literature and period photographs made it clear that this set of wheels was old; likely the better part of a century and a half old.  Complementing its age, the hand forged metal was rusted and pitted.  Wooden parts were rotted, broken, and replaced with non-original elements.  Soundness was definitely not its strong suit but heritage very well could have been.  Taller wheels and an early banded reach combined with at least a dozen more nineteenth century clues to make it clear this piece hailed from a day when horseflesh ruled the road.  Many of the contours on the axles and bolsters included specially shaped woodwork, full of style and manufacturing pride.  It was the kind of evidence that has a way of opening doors to future finds.

With the location of these vehicles being close to St. Louis, I had hoped I might be lucky enough to discover a wagon built by Joseph Murphy.  Since no Murphy vehicles have been conclusively identified to date, I knew that finding one capable of being authenticated would be a stretch.  However, I was motivated by the fact that we’ve been able to uncover several other equally “impossible” finds over the last two decades.  While Murphy didn’t show up this time, I did find a contemporary of that legendary brand; a vehicle easily from the 1880’s and perhaps earlier.  It was a piece with a lot to say, even though I couldn’t quite put together all of the clues regarding the maker.  Nonetheless, recognizing special wagons with deep western roots is what the Wheels That WonThe West® Archives are about. 

Clearly, with every early vehicle found and cataloged, we’re that much closer to creating a more comprehensive picture of America’s largest transportation industry.  If you have a piece you believe may hold a special history from the 19th century, feel free to send us some photos.  We’d be glad to take a look, comparing it to so many others we have on file.
History, after all, isn’t just what’s behind us.  It’s alongside and in front of us; often disguised by the unknown, it’s a puzzle with promise and a rolling record full of potential rewards.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Roads of Opportunity

“There are no roads out there.”  That was a reminder I once heard regarding the challenges of space travel.  It struck me that the same thing once existed for explorers headed into the American West.  Ironically, a similar hurdle exists today as we travel back through time, looking for significant pieces of the early wheeled west.  There are no roads.  In other words, the lack of a guidebook, map, or solid tracks to clear destinations makes it tough to know when and where to search for missing artifacts and answers.  Finding sufficient numbers of those parts to the puzzle is essential though.  After all, bit by bit, the findings do add up, providing a clearer picture of reality while boosting confidence in the quest for the rarest survivors.

Increasingly, that pursuit of the lost has become my passion in this hobby-turned-obsession.  Where are the real 19th century legends?  How do we recognize them after the obvious markings are gone?  How do we truly know the difference between heavy vehicles from the 1800’s and those from the 1900’s?  Why is one piece more significant than another?  What resources are the most helpful?  Some of these questions have been answered in our blogs, articles, books, or even presentations given to organizations throughout the U.S.  Gradually, we’ve been successful with enough discoveries (information as well as artifacts) that this 19th century world of wagons and western wheels is becoming familiar to many more.  Just as importantly, the answers to each of these questions continually lead us to more discoveries. 
 This posting marks my 100th weekly blog.  Each of the writings mirrors a commitment to locate, share, preserve, and promote significant parts of America’s western vehicle past.   More than an idle pastime, it’s a privilege to play a small role in preserving such an enormous legacy.  After all, these are the roads - the direct connections if you will - to some of the most dramatic history that shaped our nation.  From the start, there were wheels; wheels of risk, wheels of reward, and most importantly, wheels of hope; big wheels with even bigger plans and the biggest of dreams.  Together, they conquered mountains, rivers, deserts, weather, and even time.  While our Wheels That Won The West® archives contain listings for tens of thousands of makers scattered throughout the U.S., we will likely never know all of the early vehicle builders.  That said, we do know the vast majority of the major players.  They are the brands that stood out on the frontier.  Often pushed to the brink, they were bastions of strength and icons of opportunity.   
This week, our archives will again be tested as we search for even more answers and lost history.  Once more, we’ll be in the field looking for remnants of Murphy, Espenschied, Caldwell, Jackson and others.  As prominent western vehicle brands, they’re given minimal attention by most folks today, but they were once highly prized on the American frontier.  After two decades of daily pursuit, we’ve learned a lot.  The most important lesson has been that every clue in this hunt for history is vital.  Each trace of evidence fills part of a massive puzzle, ultimately leading to more discoveries while building a stronger understanding of America’s first transportation industry.        
Whether it’s the recent finding of yet another very early Studebaker wagon paint pattern or the chance uncovering of previously unknown freight wagon, sheep camp wagon, and army wagon specifications, it’s clear that significant remnants are still waiting to be found.  Through it all, a persistent focus and constant resolve has continued to open roads of opportunity – just the way it was done centuries ago when a young nation was determined to head west. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Marking Time

Anniversaries, no matter the subject, are often celebrated in five year increments.  This year marked 170 years since the founding of the Peter Schuttler Wagon Company.  Likewise, legendary stagecoach maker, Abbot-Downing, would have been 200 years old this year.  Surviving vehicles from these notable builders carry more than quaint memories of what is sometimes misconstrued as a “simpler” time; they embody the very essence of freedom, opportunity, and the spirit that built America. 

Looking down the road a bit, 2014 will mark 150 years since the Fish Bros. Wagon Company began building vehicles.  While Fish family members eventually split from the Racine firm to create another Fish Bros. company in Clinton, Iowa, both brands can claim roots to 1864.  Other prominent early wagon makers with anniversaries in 2014 include Kentucky Wagon Company (135 years), Winona Wagon Company (135 years), Troy Wagon Company (125 years), Florence Wagon Company (125 years), and the Pekin Wagon Company (165 years).
One of the earliest vehicle manufactories west of the Mississippi, the Mitchell Wagon Company, also celebrates a milestone in 2014.  Established in 1834 by Henry Mitchell, the firm enjoyed a lengthy run well into the 20th century with automobiles being a part of their offerings for over two decades.   Their line of horse drawn vehicles included dozens of wagon styles ranging from farm, freight, ranch, business and log wagons.  They also built stage wagons, spring wagons, carriages, phaetons, buggies, buckboards, and express wagons.  In its heyday, production capacity equaled as much as 40,000 vehicles per year.

With next year marking 180 years since the founding of the firm, Mitchell brand vehicles continue to be extremely popular with collectors and enthusiasts. Just as the vivid paint and artistically-applied logos once represented a product highly desired for freighting, staging, cattle drives, and emigrant travels, that same legacy of leadership survives today; marking a time when good people plus good ideas, long hours, and lots of hard work had a way of opening doors of opportunity.  Thankfully, some things never change.