Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Part 2 - How Do I Identify The Maker of A Wagon?

As we shared in Part 1 of last week’s blog, America’s early transportation industry included thousands of heavy vehicle makers spread throughout the U.S.  Several years ago, we produced a limited edition print showcasing many who are often recognized as being among the most prominent brands seen on the western frontier.  Clearly, with such a large number of builders, the process of identifying wagons that have lost their obvious markings can be tough.  While a healthy dose of experience as well as period literature for comparisons can be helpful, that combination isn’t always available.  So, what do you do if you’re trying to get information on a wagon maker and don’t have access to sufficient catalog illustrations and photography? 

First… it’s important to remember that all parts of the vehicle can hold clues.  Detail after detail, every element should receive close attention, including written and photographic documentation.  Second… particular care should be given to the vehicle’s surface, avoiding any cleaning or treatment that could permanently alter original features. Third… it’s equally vital to avoid the trap of assuming that similar designs on different wagons always translate into features from the same maker.  Over and over, we run across circumstances where someone has inaccurately labeled a vehicle because it appeared to look the same as another of known heritage.  It’s worth repeating here that “SIMILAR DOES NOT NECESSARILY MEAN ‘THE SAME’.” 
David Sneed on a historical ‘research and recovery’ trip near Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
In absence of a thorough knowledge of the most commonly known early builders, the best place to start the identification process is to methodically comb the entire vehicle.  You should document any and all details related to part designs, construction designs, markings, colors, part placements, part sizes, and so forth.   It will also be important to note non-original elements of a wagon.  As such, the review may require the assistance of someone familiar with the authentication process.  The overall evaluation can be a tedious task but accuracy demands focus and attention to detail. 

Diving into the assessment, we typically divide these vehicles into three major areas – Wood, Paint, and Metal.  To that point, back in 2009, I wrote a first-of-its-kind feature article in the April issue of Farm Collector magazine.  That piece served as a fundamental guide to identifying wagons and other western vehicles.  Below are some highlights from that introduction.
Both the metal and paint design of this bolster standard provide strong evidence of a Stoughton brand wagon.
When it comes to evaluating paint, it’s important to look at all areas – including the tops of bolsters as they can sometimes hold additional information.  Stenciling, logos, striping, colors, and even placement of colors are all important historical traits to document.  Faded paint and hard-to-read lettering may create a seemingly impassable obstacle.  Careful application of small amounts of distilled water, however, may be helpful in certain instances.  By temporarily wetting the wood, both signage and other paint markings can become more legible and clear.  This said, we'll also note that areas should be tested first to ensure that moisture will not harm the surviving surface paint.  Lighter pigmented or thin paint may be especially vulnerable to even small amounts of water.  Photographing all of your findings is equally helpful as you compare and review potential identities.  Finally, if the original paint is hidden beneath an old repaint job or perhaps a heavy coating of linseed oil, you may wish to employ assistance with the careful removal of this material.  We know of a number of rare vehicles whose values were saved –and  increased – by the recovery of good paint beneath a non-original surface coating.
Wood features such as the single groove in this hub combined with notable metal distinctions such as rounded spoke bands and other details point to Studebaker as the maker.
The wood within every wagon can also contain vital information.  Here again, details make the difference.  Take your time and scour the vehicle top to bottom.  I’ve found numerals, symbols, dates, and alpha characters stamped or pressed into the wood.  These elements are not always easy to see.  In fact, most cursory reviews of a wagon can easily miss these brand indicators.  From the insides of the boxes to the floor boards and countless gear and wheel locations, it’s possible for details to be on almost any wooden surface.  While these construction records may not immediately point to a maker, the collective power of all the clues can be helpful in narrowing down the list of possible manufacturers.
The shape, type, and contouring of the wood can also hold valuable evidence.  Pay particular attention to the design of the sideboard cleats, cross sills, wheel hubs, hound designs, bolster stakes, and even the reach.  While the end gates can also be helpful, these pieces are often transitory – in other words, they may have been replaced at some point with a non-original substitute.  It’s one more potential pitfall that requires careful scrutiny before assigning an identity.  
Both the paint and metal design of this front hound are typical of many twentieth-century-built Springfield wagons.

Similar to the examination of wood, the shape, design, and placement of original metal parts on a wagon can also hold important information.  Sometimes, metal parts include numerals and alpha characters.  These may be part numbers, skein sizes, patent dates, company names, geographic locales, or other important details.  Take clear, high resolution photos of all metal areas.  Locations like the reach plate, reach box, skeins, circle irons, and even rub irons can hold a treasure trove of information.  Other metal parts – like a brake ratchet – may have important information cast into them but these details may point more to the brake manufacturer and less to a specific vehicle maker. 

As I mentioned earlier, sometimes the identification process is relatively simple based on known and more easily recognized features.  There are often confusing similarities between brands, though.  It’s why we’ve made it a practice to verify multiple traits – the more the better – prior to confirming a maker.   Simple observations leaning only on one or two features are often not enough to support a proposed identification.  All in all, it may take a little longer on the front end but it can save heartache and embarrassment from assumptions when these practices are employed. 

As a note of encouragement to those stumped by a wagon’s identity, we offer a complimentary initial review of these vehicles.  If your set of wheels can be easily identified through quick visual clues, we’re happy to assist at no cost.  Should the vehicle require more research, we’re equally pleased to discuss the value of a more detailed review.  Ultimately, when it comes to determining the significance and worth of any of these pieces, the presence of a known maker can have an important impact.   After all, it’s where the vehicle’s story begins and that heritage can make all the difference when it comes to resale value and collector interest.  
The faded numbers and lettering shown here are references to this wagon’s skein size and track width.
Just as a reminder…  If you haven’t signed up to receive this weekly blog via email, just type in your address in the Follow By Email section above.  You’ll receive a confirmation email that you’ll need to verify before you’re officially on board.  Please don’t hesitate to let us know if we can be of assistance and we’ll look forward to sharing even more details on early wagons and western vehicles each week.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Part 1 - How Do I Identify The Maker of a Wagon?

Vintage American wagons and early western vehicles receive a lot of attention worldwide.  Likewise, from individual collectors and businesses to writers and curiosity seekers, our Wheels That Won The West® archives receive quite a few inquiries week in and week out.  The most often-asked questions are from folks wanting to know the identity or brand name of a wagon.  The reasons behind the queries not only stem from natural inquisitiveness but also point to the obvious truths.  In other words, knowing a vehicle’s identity helps define the piece and potentially grow its value – both emotionally and financially.

From the seemingly simple to the clearly complex, these identity-related questions can also be the most difficult to answer.   Much of the reason lies in the size of America’s early transportation industry.  There were literally thousands of different types, sizes, and styles of wagons produced by tens of thousands of horse-drawn vehicle makers in the U.S.  This isn’t just an off-the-cuff comment with no documentation to back it up.  In fact, our archives contain the names of nearly 40,000 makers.   Reinforcing that figure, several years ago, we were the first to discover an 1887 report from Clement Studebaker stating that there were at least 80,000 carriage and wagon builders in the U.S. at that time. 
So, once we get past the shock of the sheer number of makers, thoughts quickly turn to questions like, “How is there any hope of identifying pieces that have lost their obvious markings?” or “How is it possible to actually confirm that a paint-less wagon gear truly belongs to the box/body it’s currently sitting under?”  The answers, at least in part, lie in the numbers.  For instance, when it comes to wagon makers, there are perhaps only a few hundred that produced the vast majority of surviving pieces today.  Of course, there will be some heavier, extant vehicles that were made by small makers with little (if any) surviving historical documentation available for review.  Even in those circumstances, though, with enough diligent digging, we can sometimes resurrect details on previously obscure makers (See our history on the Rhoads Wagon Company in Volume 1 of the book, Borrowed Time, A Tribute to the Wheels that Built the American West.  Also, Click Here to see our original article conclusively identifying Jacob Becker’s one-of-a-kind wagon at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia.)

Fortunately, the predominant number of surviving wagons can often be narrowed down to less than two hundred makers who dominated the distribution channels.  That said, each of these major wagon makers can have dozens – if not hundreds – of variations in construction designs over the course of the company’s lifespan.  That’s where it becomes important to have access to original literature from as many companies and as many different parts of a company’s tenure as possible.  In a nutshell, that’s exactly what we have been collecting for the last two decades as we’ve built a large compilation of primary source materials for the Wheels That Won The West® archives.  It’s allowed us to consistently review individual vehicles with greater clarity and assurance while providing owners of these vehicles with clearer provenance and stronger documentation. 

Along that line of thought, a few years ago, we worked with Doug Hansen to track down more details on a specific set of wheels.  At the time, Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop was working on a museum restoration of an early Fish Bros. wagon that had lost almost all of its original paint.  While Fish Bros. wagons (both Racine, Wisconsin and Clinton, Iowa) carried an extraordinary reputation during the 1800’s and early 1900’s, there are few survivors today.  Our archives were called in to help date the vehicle as well as determine whether the gear was original to the box.  We were also asked to confirm original striping and logo details.  The process involved considerable research within original pieces in our collection.  With the earliest Fish Bros. material in the ‘Wheels’ archives being published in 1875, we were confident we could assist.  Ultimately, the wagon was dated to just after the turn of the 20th century.  Equally important, we were able to supply the craftsmen at Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop with detailed imagery showing specific placement of striping in virtually all areas of the box and gear.  We were also privileged to provide exclusive, original period artwork of the correct jumping fish logo for the box side.   

It was a success story for all involved but the primary point I wanted to share is that it could not have happened without the original company literature and sufficient preserved imagery.  So, where does that leave a person who doesn’t have access to those materials?  Fortunately, we’re far from the end of the identification story.  If an individual is truly committed to learning as much as possible from a vehicle, the piece will have a story to tell.  It will talk to you.  All we have to do – is Listen. With that as the backdrop, we’ll continue this blog next week as we share more details on identification of vintage vehicle makers.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A.A. Cooper: Another Rare Survivor

When it comes to locating early wagons for collections, many folks wonder where to start.  Over and over I’m asked, “How do you find collector grade wagons?”  The answer is easy to share.  The process involved, though, can be a lot more difficult.  The real secret to finding these vehicles is to never stop searching for them.  Honestly, that’s it.  You never know when one is going to pop up.  It’s a little like a ‘jack-in-the-box’ toy you might have played with as a kid.  You’re turning the crank, hearing the music, and you know from experience that the thing is going to pop up – yet, it still has a way of surprising you.

Before you can search, however, it’s important to know what to look for.  While this statement sounds simple, it’s the part of the process that can be considerably more difficult.  In fact, it can take years to learn how to interpret a vehicle’s identity, condition, originality, features, and overall desirability.  There are so many important distinctions of early wagons because the industry was vast and the time periods covered are extremely broad.  Equally challenging, makers frequently had multiple ways of building the same or similar pieces and, to make matters worse, truly authoritative information can be frustratingly hard to locate.  Once you have a direction for the search, though, the history chasing can begin.  I usually supplement my quests for the rarest wagons by putting out the word that I’m interested in a particular brand and just hope that enough paint has survived to make the vehicle easier to recognize without doing extensive research.   
With that as the backdrop to this blog, I can say it was a day like any other when I received an email from Doug Hansen of Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop.  He knows how to get my attention.  The email was short… only one photo with a single word question – “Interested?”  The photo showed a close-up of a wagon logo on a sideboard.  The brand name shown was ‘Cooper’.  Now, I had been looking for a Cooper wagon for years and I’d shared that with Doug quite some time ago.  While I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying early Cooper literature and have stumbled across a few 20th-century-built spring seats, I had never been this close to an original Cooper vehicle.
This set of wheels had a number of early distinctions and was just one day from selling at an estate auction.  High narrow wheels, wide original floorboards, a through-bolted gear, and a period box brake were among its notable attributes.  Best of all, the wagon was relatively untouched by modern restoration attempts.  The first thing I needed to do was confirm the originality of the gear to the box.  The design clearly pre-dated those shown in a commonly reproduced 1915 P & O catalog.  Based on comparisons with additional period imagery from our Wheels That Won The West® archives, the piece appeared consistent with what was produced during the 1880’s and 1890’s.  Only with sufficient high resolution photos or a first-hand inspection would I be able to narrow down the manufacturing date and also confirm whether the box and gear were mates.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get that kind of access before it sold.  Nonetheless, I took a chance and bought the piece. 
Once I had it home, it was easy to see that the wheels and gear were covered in an extremely old repaint job; not uncommon as many early farmers took care of their vehicles (especially the gears) by repainting when the original colors started to wear.  Over the years, I’ve discovered a method that allows the removal of the different paint layers.  Combined with a little elbow grease, the old supplements of barn paint on this wagon are coming off nicely.  Beneath the surplus red coating, I’m finding a significant amount of original orange paint along with the correct black stripes and white pinstripes.  Not only do all of the design elements on the gear match up with early Cooper imagery but the skeins, themselves, are cast with the initials AAC.  That lettering represents the name of the company president and founder, A.A. Cooper – which is the way most early literature referred to the company.  The final piece of evidence confirming the originality of the gear and box to each other happened when I uncovered the stenciled A.A. Cooper name on the rear axle. 
After reviewing the piece further and comparing multiple features with Cooper’s design and construction variations from the 19th century, it’s clear the wagon will date sometime shortly after 1885.  A supportable timeframe of manufacture would be the late 1880’s to near 1890.  The taller 54” rear wheels, original paint, pin striping, and logos on the box and gear as well as a patented cold-rolled steel brake ratchet and also a factory serial number further reinforce the uniqueness of the piece.  Combined with period government records listing Cooper as among the very best makes (only Peter Schuttler and Bain were ranked higher in this 1880 record of competitors for government contracts*), it was a relatively easy decision to add the vehicle to the Wheels That Won The West® collection. 
How many more 19th century Cooper wagons with original paint and serial numbers still exist?  It’s hard to say.  I’ve heard rumors of others but it’s taken me nearly two decades to actually locate one.  The real reward is the knowledge that another relevant piece of early American transportation can now be preserved for generations to come.  Well-known on the American frontier, Augustine A. Cooper made a complete line of carriages, wagons, and sleighs.  It’s appropriate, then, that this Cooper wagon should join a number of other extremely rare vehicles in our collection, each helping interpret the way it was… when opportunity ruled and wagons rolled throughout the American West.
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*1880 Government deposition.  For additional information within another contemporary publication, see “Wagons For The Santa Fe Trade” by Mark L. Gardner.