Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Wagon & Western Vehicle Information

We receive a lot of questions asking where information about different vehicles can be found.  The good news is there are quite a few sources.  The bad news is – there are quite a few sources.  In other words, it’s a massive and complex subject too large for any single volume and, tragically, not all resources have sufficiently vetted their ‘research’.  Over and over, I’ve shared the complexity of this subject and the need for careful answers.  Take, for instance, the front axle of a ‘simple’ farm wagon.  Sounds like a pretty straight-forward topic with a basic design that could be written about in a paragraph or two, right?  Unfortunately, that’s far from being the case.  In fact, as I’m writing this, I quickly thought of over two dozen variations in front axle configurations; each with its own story to tell.

Built in the same factory, these two Mitchell brand wagon designs are separated by about 30 years.  As a result, there are innumerable differences between them.

Differences in the front axle can include whether the axle is determined to be a solid - steel, iron, wood – or is it one of a number of hollow or combination patterns?  Other distinctions can be found in the axle shape, length, height, depth, weight capacity, spacer design, presence of a truss rod or bar, skein size, skein type (cast or steel), and skein design – there are innumerable skein designs including those with innovative oil caps, sand bands, and other features.  Is the axle equipped with roller bearings?  If so, are they of a Timken or larger steel pin variety?  If pins, how many and what size are they?  How are the wheels affixed to the skeins – by linch pin or nut?  Is the axle through-bolted or clipped?  How are the stay-chain hooks attached or are there any?  Where is the hound bracing attached?  Does the axle move or is it a fixed, auto-steer type?  What about surviving maker marks/stamps/castings?  Truly, the list can be overwhelming but each piece can tell us something about how the vehicle was used as well as potentially pointing us to a maker and even a timeframe of manufacture.  Reliable information on all of this – and much more – is not typically available.  It’s one of the primary reasons we’re continually encouraged to share such rare details through this blog. 

Note the wooden stake inserted into the bolster standard rings on this wagon gear.  This side support extension is just one of the purposes of the design and is a feature benefit not typically pointed out among modern writings.

Because of the subject size, when starting out, I’d recommend focusing on a specific type of vehicle, region of the country, or timeframe before trying to tackle all of the obstacles at once.  Below are a few suggested books covering different vehicle backgrounds and types.  This is far from a conclusive list as there are countless other publications with varying degrees of important details.  So, with each being a vast subject in and of itself, don’t fall into the trap of believing you’ll find a single book or two that will answer all the knowledge you’ll ever need.  Our society may have us accustomed to eating fast food, but if you move too fast with assumptions here, this field of study can eat your lunch; leaving you with nothing but egg-on-your-face and plenty of humble pie to carry around.

Early Freighting…

“From the Missouri to the Great Salt Lake, An Account of Overland Freighting” by William E. Lass, 1972

“The Twenty Mule Team of Death Valley” by Ted Faye, 2012

“Empire On Wheels” by Mary Lund Settle and Raymond W. Settle, 1949

“I Hauled These Mountains In Here!” by Frances & Dorothy Wood, 1977

“The Old Pike – A History of the National Road” by Thomas B. Searight, 1894

“Conestoga Wagon 1750-1850” by George Shumway, Edward Durell, & Howard C. Frey, 1964-1966, 1968

“Wagons for the Santa Fe Trade” by Mark L. Gardner, 2000

“War Drums & Wagon Wheels” by Raymond W. and Mary Lund Settle, 1966

“Commerce of the Prairies” by Josiah Gregg, 1844

Coaches & Coaching…

“Wagons, Mules and Men” by Nick Eggenhofer, 1961

“My Playhouse Was A Concord Coach” by Mae Helene Bacon Boggs, 1942

“Time Well Kept” by Wells Fargo Historical Services, 2011

“Via Western Express & Stagecoach” by Oscar Osburn Winther, 1945

“Six Horses” by Captain William Banning & George Hugh Banning, 1928

“Old Waybills” by Alvin F. Harlow, 1934

“Stagecoach West” by Ralph Moody, 1967

Military Vehicles…

“The Great Blue Army Wagon” by Thomas Lindmier, 2009

“Horse-Drawn Ambulances” by Carriage Museum of America, 2004

“Cannons: An Introduction to Civil War Artillery” by Dean S. Thomas, 1985

“History & Description of an Ambulance Wagon” by Thomas W. Evans, M.D., 1868

General horse-drawn vehicle history…

“The Carriage Trade” by Thomas A. Kinney, 2004

“Borrowed Time – A Tribute To The Wheels That Built The American West” by David Sneed, 2011

“Wagon-Making in the United States” by Paul A. Kube, 2005

“The Prairie Traveler” by Randolph B. Marcy, 1859

“Platte River Road Narratives” by Merril J. Mattes, 1988

“Carriage Terminology: An Historical Dictionary” by Don H. Berkebile, 1978

“Wheels West, 1590-1900” by Richard Dunlop, 1977

“The Old Reliable – The History of the Springfield Wagon Company” by Steven Lee Stepp, 1972

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Cowboys, Cattle, & Chuck Wagons

One of my greatest weaknesses has always been books.  These prodigious keepers of knowledge can open new worlds of discovery and intrigue.  As an example, last week I was going through the ranch vehicle section of our library.  In the process, I came across a first edition book I had purchased years ago.  The name of the volume is Cattle.  It was published in 1930 and written by Will C. Barnes and William MacLeod Raines.  The book is signed by Mr. Raines and includes a few other written notations.  It’s a fascinating piece with details about the early Texas cattle industry, cowboys, trails, towns, round-ups, wagons, outlaws, rustling, brands, and so forth. 

To the point, though; what I had forgotten is that inside this specific book is a 2-page, signed letter from one of the authors, Will C. Barnes.  It was written to a friend, over 80 years ago, just as Cattle was being released to the public.  The letter references the new book and outlines several of Mr. Barnes’ recollections along with news from his recent travels to Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Panama.  History has always captivated me and this letter did even more.  As I read the through the aged correspondence, the thoughts of this roughly 72-year-old gentleman and the fullness of his experience in the American West hit me.   In 1880, Mr. Barnes was a private in the U.S. Military.  He had accomplished much at an early age and had just been assigned as a telegrapher to Fort Apache in Arizona.  The West faced many challenges and hostilities during this timeframe.  By August and September of 1881, there were a number of armed engagements with Apache forces.  During one of those incidents, PVT Barnes escaped the fort to find help.  Because of his exemplary record and bravery, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1883. Other credits among his wide-ranging attributes include service in the Arizona Territorial Legislature, U.S. Forest Service grazing program, and U.S. Geographic Board.  He is also recognized for helping preserve the legendary Texas Longhorn.

A lengthy but rousing report of Mr. Barnes’ background and experiences at Ft. Apache during the early 1880’s can be found at this U.S. Army site.  While much of the account on this site offers straight-forward and interesting details of life in the Old West, I appreciated the stressful humor and poor luck in the following paragraph about Mr. Barnes…

“Traveling in Arizona in 1883 was not for the weak and faint-hearted, particularly in bad weather. For example, after reaching Holbrook and setting off for his ranch, Barnes found what must have been the Little Colorado on a "big boom" from the previous night's rain. In trying to cross it, his horse went under and Barnes swam out to save himself, only to find that he was on the wrong side of the river, whereupon he was obliged to swim back to the other side.”

One of a number of books written by Mr. Barnes, Cattle was published during a time when, by his own admission, “…hundreds of men are still living who followed the dust of the drag in the long northbound treks.  As such, it offers a unique perspective in helping visualize the era.

So, what does all of this have to do with western vehicles?  Beyond a few morsels of wheeled information within the book, this look into yesteryear (by those who were there) is an additional reminder that truly appreciating western vehicles requires a thorough understanding of the environment and times in which they were used.  After all, the details and features of every set of wheels is a direct result of the demands placed upon it. 

Cattle paints a vivid picture of Texas cattle drives as well as the legendary cowboy’s effect on the American West.  On a broader note, this historic knowledge has a way of bringing folks together on even more common ground; recognizing the struggles of people and place while honoring the challenges of personal hardships and celebrating the overall experience of life.  While there are numerous groups dedicated to promoting this part of our western heritage, perhaps none is more focused than the American Chuck Wagon Association.   We’re proud to be a participating member of this great group of folks and, through our Archives, are committed to helping preserve the wheeled history that built such a powerful legacy in America.  Ultimately, it’s a story as big as our nation and as timeless as the spirit of the West.

Cattle, page 7

Monday, February 17, 2014

Chuck Wagon Presentation

This week, the Carriage Association of America will be holding their 4th International Symposium on horse drawn vehicles and related subjects.  Held in conjunction with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation at Colonial Williamsburg, this year’s event will include 14 presentations, a silent auction, trade fair, and countless memories waiting within the historic site in Virginia.  I had the privilege of speaking there during the CAA’s 50th Anniversary celebration a few years ago and it was a great event filled with outstanding opportunities to grow and learn.  This year, Doug Hansen of  Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop returns with a presentation on the American Chuck Wagon.  A legendary vehicle with tremendous history, the details of its features and functions are often overlooked.

Doug Hansen at a gathering of the American Chuck Wagon Association

As one of a dozen speakers scheduled to share rare details from the horse-drawn era, Doug will be giving an extended presentation entitled, “The American Chuck Wagon: The Ultimate Cowboy Support Vehicle,” on Friday, February 21, 2014.  The seminar will cover the trail wagon era and round-up years.  Highlights of the talk will include the history behind the vehicle, what drove its design, how it was/is outfitted, and also a focus on the vehicle’s many modern  day applications within gatherings, cook-offs, and ranches.  We wish the best to all the presenters and attendees.  It’s certain to be a memorable and productive event.

We’ll share our regular, weekly-scheduled blog on Wednesday of this week as well but wanted to provide a few overview details for those who may be able to attend this meeting.  For more information, contact the Carriage Association of America at 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Chasing Big Wagons

We live in a world that demands predictability.  From driving on the correct side of the road to timely arrival at work, we depend on things to run like clockwork.  Over and over, though, I’ve shared about the random, almost wild unpredictability of making discoveries when researching early history.  As most can imagine, it’s hard to know when an important find is going to show up.  That said, the belief that real answers do await is what motivates a researcher to move forward.  With quiet confidence, any seeker knows that, somewhere out there, important information is waiting to be uncovered; and, with those encounters, there is potential for greater understanding of our past along with even more excitement in the present and future. 

It’s a pursuit that may require decades or more to uncover the smallest details.  Then again, lightning can strike and, suddenly, the pieces of a century-old puzzle can come together, no longer separated.  That scenario has happened over and over again as we’ve embraced the uncertainties of research for our Wheels That Won The West® Archives.  To that point, in my January 8th blog, I shared my belief that the Giant Moline wagon was likely used in a promotional tour after it’s unveiling at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.  That best-guess was prompted by the discovery a few months ago of a rare image of the same wagon shown at a circa 1905 exhibit for John Deere at a Minneapolis fair.
The Giant Moline Wagon at the Minneapolis Fair

Little could I have known that in less than a month from this January’s blog, I would come across yet another – different image of the same wagon.  Even better, it wasn’t just one - but two period photos, each showing different angles of this same wagon.  The extraordinary images are labeled as having been taken in 1906 – two years after the giant wagon’s promotional début in St. Louis. 
Clearly, the Moline brand (Moline, IL) and John Deere made the most of this impressive set of wheels with a promotional tour that lasted years.  This time the mammoth wagon was being shown at another major fair in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Below is a small section that we’ve cropped from one of the photos.  Standing atop a banner-draped wooden stage, this head-turning, wooden mega-star is surrounded by other standard-sized wagons available for purchase.   With the passing of more than a century since it was last seen, there are few answers as to what ultimately happened to this wagon.  It’s doubtful that any part has survived but finding these old images has brought new life to a story while offering hope that more details may one day be found.  Through these new revelations, we can see John Deere significantly ramping up their involvement with wagons.  After decades of selling the Moline brand, by 1910, Deere had bought the company and  - by 1912 – had renamed it the John Deere Wagon Company.  

The Giant Moline at the Lincoln, Nebraska Fair - 1906

Among our other discoveries of late is a photo of an 1880’s-era freight wagon showing a different type of hitch for a trail wagon.  While most tall-sided western freighters will have a horn and bumper design at the rear of the wagon, this California train is designed with a more rigid concept.  It’s one more period record in our files that may help identify, authenticate, and interpret the originality of future finds.  Certainly, it’s a rarely seen configuration but one poised to shed even more light onto early western transportation. 
Thanks for stopping by this week.  We enjoy sharing details about early heavy and western vehicle history.  By the way…  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.  We’re looking forward to your visits each week.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

INSP Network News

The good folks at the INSP network recently contacted us and asked if we might share some information regarding their current circumstances with DirecTV.  If you’re a DirecTV subscriber and are missing the westerns and other wholesome family programming offered by INSP, you may wish to follow up by clicking the link below to learn more about the latest developments.  We wish INSP the very best during this time and encourage you to share your thoughts with both companies as well. 

Measuring Wheel Heights & Track Widths

Twenty years ago, when my own interests in western vehicles began to accumulate more questions than I could keep up with, I started a journey for answers that has led us to countless regions of the U.S. Throughout the process, we’ve accumulated a significant number of rare details and insights into America’s early western vehicles.  The results have driven the Wheels That Won The West® Archives far beyond a casual collection of literature into a real repository for answers.  That said, this is a subject that doesn’t surrender secrets easily and, as a result, we still struggle to find elusive vehicles along with a broad array of lost and unknown details.   
In the beginning, the information and lessons came slow.  As time passed, though, it became clear that one of my greatest weaknesses was also a vital strength.  Since I was a bare-bones beginner, my mind was a blank slate.  Believe it or not, those initial levels of inexperience were a true blessing… (And should serve as encouragement for anyone wanting to know more about this subject.  Don’t be intimidated.  Dive in and hold on!)  I was fortunate that I hadn’t been exposed to best guesses and unsubstantiated claims and opinions.  I hadn’t had a chance to develop preconceived notions about why, when, how, and where things were done.  Devouring the content of vast amounts of original sales materials, this first-hand schooling from America’s most legendary builders helped me look at every aging set of wheels with century-plus-old eyes.  As the years have passed, that knowledge has opened huge doors of understanding while the depth of the subject continues to fuel my enthusiasm for even more of what this history can teach. 

David Sneed, speaking to a group in Santa Ynez, California about early western wagons.

Collectively, the study of early western vehicles involves a substantial part of America’s heritage.  As such, it continues to reflect our nation’s background as a ‘melting pot’ of civilization.  People from all walks of life… men, women, children, doctors, lawyers, bankers, brokers, business owners, CEO’s, mechanics, welders, photographers, historians, curators, electricians, plumbers, builders, farmers, ranchers, athletes, retirees – you name the occupation and age – It’s  a safe bet that I’ve met someone with that background looking for more details on early vehicles.  It’s truly amazing to see such diversity in a crowd of western vehicle enthusiasts.  One thing’s for certain, any time these varied groups come together, there are going to be questions.
With that as a backdrop to this week’s blog, I thought I’d share a few basic pieces of information that help us communicate this subject more effectively.  First, let’s talk about the wheel height of a wagon.  Honestly, there’s more to discuss in this one topic than what we can get done today.  So, we’ll focus on just one aspect... how do you measure the height of a wheel?  Okay, right now someone is saying, “Is this guy for real?  Just take a tape and measure it.”  That’s exactly what many folks do and often they come up with numbers that don’t coincide with original manufacturer specifications.  In other words – the measurements can easily be wrong.  One of the more common reasons for inaccurate calculations is that someone has included the thickness of the tire in the dimension total.  (While it may sound strange in today’s world, the outer metal band on the wheel was/is referred to as the “tire” on early horse drawn vehicles)  American wagon builders typically measured wheel heights without including the tire.  So, if a catalog stated that a wagon had 52” rear wheels, it will actually measure a bit taller when the thickness of the tire is included.  That said, it’s important to note that the aging process, with its years of wear and tear on an old wagon wheel, can also affect accurate measurements, requiring consideration when stretching a tape alongside a wheel. 

Determining the correct height of well-worn wheels may require extra attention.

The actual process of measuring wooden wheel heights can encounter other barriers as well.  For instance, since the protrusion of the hub can prevent the tape from lying perfectly parallel, it’s easy to make a quick ‘guesstimate’ with a bent tape that’s less than accurate.  This is especially true of wheel heights that might only vary by an inch or so.  In other words… Is that rear wheel 52 inches or is it 53 inches?  One of the simpler measuring methods we’ve experienced is to place the leading end of the rule in the center of the skein lag bolt, then stretch the tape to the outer felloe edge.  If you’re working alone, measuring half of the wheel like this and then doubling the amount can be a quick way to learn an accurate wheel height. Even with proper measurement, examination of original period literature may also be an important part of the process, especially with reference to authentication.  

Accurate wooden wheel height measurements typically do not include the metal tire.

Similarly, accurate track width measurement is important because it not only communicates the correct details of a wider or narrower wheel base but, it can also hold potential insights into the age, rarity, authenticity, and purposes of a vehicle.  Here, the correct way to obtain an accurate track width is to measure from the center to center (at the ground) of the right and left wheels on an axle.  Keep in mind that excessively worn skeins, boxings, and wheels can leave the system out of alignment and make original track specifications more difficult to determine.  As with the wheel heights, sometimes you may be alone and knowing whether you have the tape centered on the opposite side tire surface can be tough.  As long as the tire edges aren't significantly misshaped, the easiest way is overcome this challenge is to hook the tape under the outside of one wheel (again at the ground) and extend it to the inside of the opposite wheel.  This renders the same distance as ‘center to center’ of the tire and is much easier to accomplish when help isn’t available. 

Wheel track measurements can convey more information than the track width, itself.

When it comes to antique vehicles, it’s sometimes tough to find even the most basic information such as I’ve just shared.  It’s this type of knowledge, though, that helps us communicate more effectively and understand more about the rolling witnesses to our country’s history.  All in all, the road to learning is lifelong and full of opportunity.  Plus, this transportation subject is filled with some of the world’s most interesting people, places, and experiences.  So, while you’re out there looking for answers, keep your eyes wide open and enjoy the ride!