Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Another Story To Tell

Every set of wooden wheels has a story to tell – make that, lots of stories to tell.  From who owned it and where it’s traveled to who made it, for what purpose, and how was it done, there is a tremendous amount of history attached to any early horse drawn vehicle.  Unfortunately, much of this provenance often goes overlooked and unknown.  It’s just the kind of mysteries that get my full attention.  After all, some of the more noteworthy findings today will be directly related to America’s most legendary western transportation giants.  Ultimately, it’s why we do what we do; constantly digging, searching, combing, and pouring over virtually every facet of this subject.  It’s a passion fraught with challenges.  Nonetheless, over the last two decades, our efforts have been rewarded by the consistent uncovering of volumes of new information.   The process has also allowed us to locate, identify, and help preserve a number of historic and previously lost 19th century vehicles. 
One of the greatest assets in our search for America’s wheeled past is the broad scope of period sales literature in the Wheels That Won The West® archives.  With original materials in the collection dating from the early 1800’s and extending through the 1960’s, scouring those pages of history has helped us authenticate countless brands.  That said, the majority of the earliest industry catalogs were created for a small number of company representatives and, as such, there are few survivors today.  It’s a shame as these elements not only offer an authoritative view of design standards but, in many cases, they serve as the only source from which we can learn more from a particular manufacturer. 

This 1875 catalog may hold the only surviving specifications for
legendary Mitchell wagons (Racine, WI) produced during this era. 

Pre-Civil War catalogs profiling wagons and coaches are particularly difficult to come by because so few builders could afford the labor intensive costs of printing bound matter in those days.  As a result, the majority of all vehicle information prior to the Civil War is typically limited to faded and worn business ledgers, newspapers, letters, trade journals, directories, guides, universal print blocks, or some other mass produced work.

This 1860’s wagon maker tintype is part of an extremely scarce early business card.

As the decades passed after the War, promotional printing became more common.  In fact, by the 1880’s, larger vehicle makers were regularly engaged in the printing of sales cards, calendars, catalogs, flyers, leaflets, and other materials.  Some pieces were still produced strictly for dealers while others were intended for the end user.  Larger 19th century firms like Milburn, Jackson, and Studebaker worked especially hard to flood the market with up-to-date literature.  So prevalent was this focus that Studebaker is known to have reprinted multiple versions of the same catalog during the same year.1
1883 Studebaker Wagon Catalogs

Our commitment to locating these early pieces has led us to countless rare discoveries – including what is likely the earliest surviving flyer and illustration promoting the legendary Bain wagon (1869).  Our archives also house several thick, hardcover maker catalogs including a pair from 1860 and 1862.  Likewise, years ago, we happened upon a one-of-a-kind image of a Moline wagon from 1870 (just one year after the company started in Moline, Illinois).  Other 1870’s information from Studebaker, Peter Schuttler, Mitchell, Milburn, Jackson, and the Kansas Wagon Company top the list of primary source literature we’ve preserved from this decade.  Additional 1880’s and 1890’s pieces in the collection include the vast majority of the most dominant wagon and western vehicle builders as well as a host of smaller firms.  Collectively and individually, these materials have helped piece together a myriad of stories that continue to shed light on surviving vehicles.  In fact, the combined body of materials has not only helped us outline when certain technologies and designs were being utilized but, as I’ve already mentioned, the literature provides an invaluable resource, helping to identify significant brands, histories, and values. 
This rare business card from an Ohio maker dates to around 1873
and includes an extremely scarce product photo on the back.

As we continue in our search for America’s rarest wheeled history, from time to time, we’ll share more about the discoveries.  Reinforcing this week’s discussion on the importance of early period literature, we recently identified the maker of an 1870’s-era spring seat as Studebaker.  The seat still holds the majority of its original paint and artistic striping.2  Through extensive reviews of same-period imagery, we’ve come to a supportable conclusion that – during this particular timeframe – brand logos were not always included on the seats.  As time progressed, maker logos became more prevalent on seat backs.  Piece by piece, these extraordinary findings continue to shed even more light on how every part of America’s early western vehicles were designed.  Likewise, each discovery allows us to more easily recognize and rescue valuable parts of America’s frontier past… before they’re lost forever.

1 The Wheels That Won The West® archives include multiple Studebaker vehicle catalogs from 1883.  While each book is labeled the same with most pages being exact duplicates, there are slight color variations in the outside cover and, when comparing the books to each other, some vehicles have been updated, added, or eliminated.

2 In 20 years of pursuit, this spring seat is only the second that we have identified as being built by a specific maker during the 1870’s.  Both seats were authenticated using early Studebaker literature and available imagery as a part of the evaluation process.   

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Wagon Business

Similar to today’s automotive industry, America’s early wagon makers spent a lot of time talking about how well their products were received by the public.  These claims were especially hard to dispute when the larger firms openly shared the number of vehicles they built each year.  Studebaker, of South Bend, Indiana, was among the largest.  Far from the traditional corner blacksmith shop, Studebaker – and many others – were ultra-efficient, aggressive manufacturers that quickly learned the power of marketing and a solid distribution system.  So successful was this brand that, by 1890, the company is said to have employed some 1400 workers, turning out a new wagon every six minutes.1   It’s a contention further reinforced by company assertions that in the decade between 1897 and 1907, they built and sold over a million vehicles.2  

Winona Wagon Factory - Winona, Minnesota
The vast number of wood-wheeled wagons that major manufacturers like Peter Schuttler, Studebaker, Winona, Kentucky, Weber, Bain, Mitchell, Stoughton, Mandt, Moline, Jackson, and so many others wholesaled can easily overshadow specific sales examples at the retail level.  Truth is, for record numbers of these vehicles to have been built during the course of any year, they had to be flying off of the proverbial dealer shelves.  While period newspapers and other historical accounts often provide numbers of wagons and emigrants moving west, specific details showing the successes of product turnover at the retail level are often hard to find.  
1882 Winona billheads
To that point, I recently ran across a pair of 1882 billheads from the Winona Wagon Company that shed a mere pinhole of light on the feverish retailing of wagons during this timeframe.  Both invoices are made out to a single dealer - Strehlow & Company in Casselton, Dakota.  Posted a full seven years prior to North & South Dakota becoming individual states, these pieces show nearly sixty wagons and gears sold to the local dealer in less than two months’ time; all of this to a tiny population of about 400 folks.  Taken as a sampling of an entire year, it’s quite possible that this ultra-small-town dealer could have been responsible for at least 200 to 300 wagon/gear sales in just twelve months.  With thousands upon thousands of local and regional trade areas throughout the U.S., these bits of information (even for extremely localized districts) help emphasize just how lucrative wagon sales could be.  It’s a big reason the industry was so fiercely competitive; from price wars to timber buy-outs, patent lawsuits, and other extreme measures.  Many dealers – sometimes referred to as agents – hung out a shingle for multiple wagon brands as a way to ‘lock up’ sales and minimize interference from other local sellers.

1882 Winona Wagon Co. letterhead
During the same year of 1882, the fledgling Winona Wagon Company (Winona, Minnesota) was just three years old.  It was the successor to the Rushford Wagon Company of Rushford, Minnesota.  Within a few years, Winona would become a force to be reckoned with by even the largest of vehicle builders.  The firm held multiple patents while also becoming well-known for its high quality farm, freight, military, fruit, and mountain wagons as well as header gears and even sheep camp wagons.  Today, the brand is still extremely popular with collectors and enthusiasts.  

From individual corporations to the entire industry, the competitive focus within the world of horse drawn vehicle builders set the stage for the automobile business in almost every respect.  Crucial lessons regarding management of raw materials, distribution channels, manufacturing efficiencies, advertising tactics, advancements in engineering and new product innovation, quality practices, and other all-important drivers of brand perceptions were opening up even more opportunity within America’s free enterprise system.  From coast to coast, the business of transportation was growing up and, ultimately, only the strongest would survive.

1  “The Great Southwest”, vol 2, no. 9, p.13 (September 1890)

2  Wheels That Won The West® Archives 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Stone Wagons

Several folks have asked us, “What’s that vehicle shown on the introductory page in Volume One of your “Borrowed Time” book?  Great question.  It’s a set of wheels more particularly known to those in the northeastern part of the U.S - Specifically, the legendary granite quarries on the islands of Vinalhaven, Maine.  The vehicle is called a Galamander (pronunciation rhymes with ‘salamander’).  While the name is certainly memorable, its origins aren’t quite as clear.  Nevertheless, the design of the giant machine made it possible for 19th century artisans and contractors to create some of the most stylish and impressive buildings, bridges, dams, lighthouses, monuments - even paving blocks - in major metropolitan areas like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Chicago, St. Louis, Portland, and countless other leading cities.  As an example, the Washington Monument in the U.S. Capitol includes stones originally carried by these Galamanders.

Similar to the “Big Wheels” (read more about these on our website) that were used to carry large timber out of forests, the oversized nature of these stone-hauling behemoths is a reflection of the duties they were engineered to tackle.  Rear wheels on these innovative wagons could measure as much as 12 feet in diameter.  (As big as the Giant Moline wagon we discussed in last week’s blog was, many of these Galamanders would have dwarfed the purely promotional intentions of the Moline!)  Just to move the granite stones often required an eight horse hitch.  Outfitted with a rope tackle and large levered derrick, the granite could be hoisted up below the vehicle and between the rear wheels.  Horse teams were then able to transfer otherwise immovable tons of solid granite blocks to the cutting yards and polishing mills. 

Well over a century ago, these Galamanders were a common sight in Vinalhaven.  Crawling throughout the quarries, shipping port, and parts in between, their beefy skeletal frames can seem like something straight out of science fiction.  Unfortunately, time, weather, and inattention have destroyed almost all of these legendary leviathans.  Today, the Vinalhaven Historical Society has only one survivor on display.  With a granite mining history dating to the mid-1820’s, both Vinalhaven and the Galamander stand as a testimony to a time when the legacy of America was driven by dreams and carved in stone. 
You'll want to stay in touch this year as we have a healthy lineup of great subjects to cover.  So...  If you haven’t signed up to receive this weekly blog via email and don't want to miss anything, you may want to 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.  We’re looking forward to your visits each week.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Giant Moline

Throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, wagon makers used a number of methods to successfully promote the desirability of their products.  Flashy printed materials, household trinkets, custom dealer signage, and extraordinary claims were sometimes joined with larger-than-life product demonstrations. 

One such example occurred when the Moline Wagon Company used imagery of a huge circus elephant riding in one of their wagons (as did the Jackson Wagon Company) to showcase the strength and light draft of their vehicles.  In similar fashion, legendary St. Louis maker, Luedinghaus, resorted to a massive tower of wagons to reinforce their superior craftsmanship during the 1904 World’s Fair.  Likewise, the Moline Wagon Company also used another large, visual metaphor for strength… a colossal double-sized wagon unveiled during the same event.

From April 30th through December 1st of 1904, the Moline Wagon Company leveraged their heritage for impressive quality and performance by displaying this gigantic vehicle at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (World’s Fair) in St. Louis.  The primary purpose of the exhibit was to stop folks in their tracks while creating a lasting, positive impression of the brand.  Today, that same principle for successful marketing still guides the most sophisticated and aggressive advertisers. 
Weighing close to 5 tons, this dominating force of wood and steel measured 42 feet in length (including the tongue), 12 feet in overall width, and had 9 foot rear wheels.  So impressive was this piece that the impact made well over a century ago still has enthusiasts talking about it today.  For generations, one of the most common questions has been, “What happened to that set of wheels?”  It’s a query we don’t have conclusive answers for but we can supply some new information about the vehicle.  A few months ago, we uncovered a rare and previously unknown photo showing the same Moline being shown at a fair in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  It appears that the St. Louis World’s Fair was just the first stop in a series of promotional venues for this piece.  It’s an important part of the puzzle as the promotional tour may have ultimately left the vehicle far beyond its original home in Illinois.

Next week, we’ll take a brief look at another oversized vehicle we originally published in Volume One of our “Borrowed Time” book series.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year!

As we launch another new year, we continue to be thankful for many things.  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness along with wonderful friends and family are all great blessings.  Likewise, we're fortunate to have so many successful explorations into America’s early heavy vehicle makers.

Last year, we were able to locate and add a number of significant finds to the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.  Numerous original catalogs, one-of-a-kind photos, company histories, ledgers, and other scarce literature and ephemera from countless makers were punctuated by the discovery of ultra-rare 19th century wagons from makers like Studebaker, Cooper, Schuttler, and more.  Why is this important?  Because every piece identified and saved is a part of American history.   No longer lost, this is the history that built our nation; History that opened the West, conquered mountains, carried dreams, and continues to reflect a real spirit of enterprise, opportunity, and freedom. 

This year, our search for the rarest wheeled history continues and, as with the past two decades, we look forward to even more breakthroughs and the opportunity to share in those victories.
May God bless you and yours throughout this year.