Wednesday, March 26, 2014

American Chuck Wagons

The American chuck wagon.  It’s a vehicle steeped in western history as well as cowboy legends and Hollywood lore.  Custom built as a hub of operations for trail drives and round-ups, these historic sets of wheels still turn heads on and off the plains today.  From ranch work and promotional backdrops to special events and competitions, these vehicles not only represent a dramatic era within the development of the West but continue to serve as vivid reminders of the enduring spirit and determination that built our country.  The American Chuck Wagon Association (ACWA) counts over 150 of these wagons among their membership.  Clearly, the design enjoys widespread recognition and popularity.  In fact, such is the historic significance of these wheels that, in 2005, the Texas legislature proclaimed the chuck wagon to be the Lone Star state’s official vehicle. 

Over the past few months, we’ve received a number of emails related to chuck wagons - Some with questions on maintenance and original traits; others conveying news and various exploits; and still others inquiring about a particular part of the vehicle’s history.  With that in mind, we decided to post some of the details that were passed along to us as well as a few notes we were able to provide. 

David Pabst shared this photo of his chuck wagon and campsite.  He titled the image, “Rough Night on the Platte.”

While the beginnings of the chuck wagon are typically credited to Charlie Goodnight, there are sometimes variations within other parts of the history-telling of this vehicle.  It’s another reminder of the importance of relying on the strength of primary sources to help paint the most accurate pictures.  While we know of no photographs that have survived showing Goodnight’s wagon, there have been plenty of descriptions over the years.  One interesting note from the 1930 book, “Cattle,” (see Feb. 19, 2014 blog post) asserts that Mr. Goodnight’s first chuck wagon was pulled by ten yoke of oxen.  It’s a description that lends added credibility to the purported use of a heavier army wagon as the first chuck wagon.  Clearly this information was procured while Goodnight was still alive as the book was published within months of his death.  These and other period accounts help give us a better glimpse of the origins and all-but-lost details of American chuck wagons. 

This Dakota Cowboy chuck wagon built and outfitted by Doug Hansen includes a          period-inspired trail pup.

Reinforcing this history, there are a number of folks involves in building, conserving, and restoring these unique western vehicles today.  After decades in the business, Doug Hansen of Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop has become well known for quality vehicles of all types, including his Dakota Cowboy chuck wagons.  Leaning heavily on history, these pieces have showcased events from coast to coast.  Leveraging his familiarity with chuck wagons, Hansen recently delivered an in-depth presentation on the design during the Carriage Association’s biennial meeting in Colonial Williamsburg.  His address provided additional insight into the vehicle’s birth, design, and trails as well as participants, outfitting, and cooking.  Details from events like this one help draw additional interest in the promotion and preservation of these vehicles.

Doug Hansen at the Colonial Williamsburg conference.

Doug Hansen shared some additional images of custom outfitted chuck wagons.

Likewise, I enjoy hearing from Kathy Christensen of Midwest Buggy as she always seems to be working on interesting pieces.  Recently, she shared some photos of a chuck wagon she finished in her shop in Lockney, Texas.  It’s a Newton, originally built in Batavia, Illinois.  The brand has a strong heritage with founder Levi Newton’s wagon-making experience dating back to the late 1830’s.  The high-wheeled Newton shown below was purchased by an ACWA cook-off competitor looking for a quality, original piece with solid features and exceptional paint.  The tall, 52 inch wheels are further complemented by a 38 inch width box and standard ten foot six inch bed length. 

Other chuck wagon builders that have shared details with us in the past and also compete in ACWA events include Glenn Mooreland of, Wayne Snider and Bill Thompson of and Tom Elliott at  Each of these folks is well-known among western vehicle enthusiasts.

When it comes to describing chuck wagons, one bit of advice is just as pertinent with these rolling icons as it is with almost every other early wood-wheeled vehicle.  It’s a point of counsel that bears repeating… Over and over we’ve shared that the use of absolute terms like ‘always’ and ‘never’ has the potential of opening up a can of worms.  The reason is that, in many cases, these were custom built vehicles (or elements of vehicles) designed by individuals.  Oftentimes, each person held their own idea as to the needs for a specific set of wheels.  So, while there can be strong similarities between period chuck wagons, there may also be historically-supported variations in the structure and design of these vehicles.  It’s one more reason we spend so much time scouring the country for surviving resources profiling these pieces.  Over the years, we’ve been fortunate to add a sizeable number of original chuck wagon images to the Wheels That  Won The West® collection.  These rare, period photographs along with equally scarce early literature hold important details about the diversity of these wagons and have been greatly beneficial to our research.  Individually and collectively they’ve not only helped dispel some misconceptions, but have also reinforced the realities around the design and use of this vehicle.

The photo above shows a small sampling of period chuck wagon imagery housed in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

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, March 19, 2014

A Rare John Deere Wagon

Over the years, we’ve been fortunate to locate a number of legendary vehicles, rare artifacts, and exclusive historical documents now housed in our Wheels That Won The West® Archives.  Along the way, we’ve also been honored to assist with many restoration and conservation projects taking place throughout the country.  More recently, Doug Hansen and his team at Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop reached out for details that would help in the dating, authenticating, and restoration one of the rarest John Deere wagons ever built.  More on that in a bit but first a little background…

It’s not uncommon these days to hear someone refer to a wagon as an 1800’s John Deere.  Even so, it’s a statement that isn’t supported by history.  While John Deere distribution/jobber houses did market and sell wagons in the 19th century, they were of a different brand; perhaps the most notable of which was the Moline wagon.  As I pointed out in my August 21,2013 blog, the closest John Deere came to labeling their own wagons prior to purchasing several wagon factories was the private labeling of vehicles sold by a specific distributor.  Ultimately, it wasn’t until the acquisition of the Moline Wagon Company in 1910 that actual ‘John Deere’ marked wagons began to roll off of the assembly line.

These original ‘John Deere’ wagons were built at the Moline Wagon Company factory in Moline, Illinois.  Within a couple years, the firm was renamed as the John Deere Wagon Company.  In between that time, as Deere was ramping up its own wagon offerings, these vehicles often carried the names of two wagon brands – both John Deere and Moline.  If it sounds confusing – it was to some.  There was a method to the madness though.  The twin names on the wagons were meant to help bridge the transition from a legendary wagon name like Moline to an agricultural giant like John Deere.  Recognition of and owner loyalty to the Moline tag was huge and Deere wanted to ensure all parties that the reputation of Moline was being transferred to the new John Deere line.  Soon after the renaming of the factory, Moline’s trademarked ‘running greyhound’ was also removed, leaving only John Deere references on the wagon and gear.

The wagon being restored by the team at Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop hearkens back to a time of more than a century ago.  Bearing extraordinary details - including the original running greyhound design - from the 1912 era, this ultra-rare John Deere Iron Clad is being carefully restored.  When finished, the vehicle will not only stand as a tribute to the grand legacy of John Deere but will also represent a remarkable time of transition when two great names became one and John Deere took on a significant presence in the world of wagons.  Congratulations to the Hansen team and the proud owner who will soon add this one-of-a-kind restoration to his extraordinary John Deere collection.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Collision of Worlds

I enjoy a good laugh and as our kids grew up we found ways to share memories that we still chuckle about today.  As their dad, sometimes I had to face the music as I was the object of the laughter – and that’s okay.  A little humility is good for all of us.  From family trips and school stories to chores around the house and special movies, we have a lot of things to smile about.  Throughout their growing up years, our kids were subjected to more than their share of western movies.  Like most, I suppose, we have our favorites.  I’ve lost count on how many times I’ve seen Lonesome Dove… And about any John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart flick is gonna get a nod of approval.  One that we often quote lines from is John Wayne’s “Big Jake.”  One of the interesting parts of this film is the timeframe of the storyline.  It’s set in the year 1909 and includes a few early autos and a motorcycle.  To some, that doesn’t qualify it as an appropriate western.  I understand why a purist might want to shy away from these transitional cowboy movies.  Sometimes, it can be tough to reconcile eras that we like to keep corralled in the 1800’s. 

Truth is, like any history, there are often times of significant advancements allowing collisions between generations of technology and lifestyle.  During the dawn of the 20th century, the popularization of the automobile and other newly-developed creations ushered in radical changes to what had been the ‘Old West.’  Legendary outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid along with Frank James and Cole Younger lived to see those days.  Wyatt Earp and several of his brothers also rode through some of these transitions.  Even though change was occurring fast, there is a fair amount of western vehicle history still tied to this timeframe.  Case in point, note the freighter shown below with the early automobile.  The men in the car are outfitted with rifles reminiscent of the posse scenes from “Big Jake.”  Clearly, the car seems out of place but it accurately reflects the days of the west during the early 1900’s.  

An early pair of western freight wagons in Narrows, Oregon.

The turn of the 20th century was still a booming time for wagon makers but the end was clearly on the horizon.  Patent submissions for wagon makers seemed to top out around 1910 and, by the late teens, the internal combustion engine was starting to call the shots at the factory as well as on the farm and the road.  

Weber wagons were well known throughout the 

country prior to the IHC acquisition.

In December of 1903, just months before International Harvester purchased the Weber Wagon Company and close to the same time the legendary Fort Smith Wagon Company was being formed, Orville and Wilbur Wright launched their celebrated flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  The transportation industry was going through significant changes.  Some fought for the old days and old ways while others embraced the shift, determined to make the most of it.  Again, the photo below shows the collision of these worlds.  The appearance of a very early airplane being carried by an army wagon with a balloon and period auto in the background is far from being common subject matter in early images.  It’s not known whether this may have been a fair, some type of military display, or other event.  What matters most is that all of these elements of transportation were sharing responsibilities – at least for a time – in both work and pleasure.  

A ultra-rare photo showing four modes of transportation in the early 1900’s.

So, what’s the point of this week’s blog?   Just this...  Some of the rarest wood-wheeled, vehicle history we have can come from the early 20th century.  It was during these years that horse drawn vehicle makers were engaged in a massive struggle to determine who they really were and how or if they would survive.  How did they compete?   Would they adapt to a new direction or mission?  How would each get around the newfound competition with automobiles?  Was there a market overseas or with a different business niche that might still need more wood-wheeled vehicles?  What about the emerging trailer and auto body industries?   What impact did the First World War have on these wheels?  All of these questions – and many more – defined an era that blended new and old in a way that can be almost as strange-looking today as what it must have seemed back in the day. 

For us, the ability to recognize unique features and construction traits from time periods such as this can help narrow down dates of manufacture.  It can also point to vehicles with extremely limited production numbers; and subsequently, pieces of greater interest and intriguing storylines.  After all, recognizing true rarity involves more than just looking for the oldest pieces.  It’s a process that requires understanding of what was happening within the industry as well as the brand.  It’s that never-ending study and fascination with America’s wood-wheeled history that continues to give us a legacy to keep and stories to tell.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What Do You Call That?

Cross sills, sideboard cleats, straddler staples, running boards, sliders, sway bars, bunters, fifth chains, standards, circle irons, brake shoes, reach boxes, box straps, boot ends, bolster iron extensions, box tighteners, rub irons, sand board plates…  The list can go on and on.  Clearly, there are a lot of technical-sounding terms used when referencing wagons, coaches, and other western vehicles.  Beyond the obvious advantages in allowing easier communication with others, understanding these designations is the first step to gaining real insight into the purposes of the designs themselves.  To help grow knowledge of many of these near-forgotten terms, a few years ago, we created a first-of-its-kind illustration of wagon parts and made it the centerpiece of our Making Tracks limited edition print.     

For the sake of discussion here, we’ll cover just a few of the designations mentioned above.  ‘Cross sills’ on a wagon refer to the hardwood supports attached beneath the box floor.  Positioned transverse to the box length, the more cross sills a wagon has can be one indicator of the original expense of the vehicle.  Beyond the added cost of the material and time to install it, wagon boxes with more cross sills were often more desirable because they tended to be more stable and solid – all things being equal with other box designs.  The old adage, “You get what you pay for,” was just as true a century ago as it is today.

A forward positioned cross sill on a wagon box. 

‘Box tighteners’ are typically placed over or mounted onto the sideboards of a farm wagon.  To get a clearer picture of these devices, we need to understand their purpose.  First and foremost, they are engineered to help pull the sideboards tight to each other.  The intent is to seal any gaps between the sideboards, thereby helping prevent the loss of smaller grain and seed.  There are a variety of different designs that do this.  Some also work to help eliminate gaps between the lowermost sideboard and the floor while also stiffening the sides of the box.  Often, these ‘tighteners’ were used in conjunction with metal flashing between the boards to help further prevent spillage. 

This is just one of many different types of box tightener designs.

Some time back, I received a question about rub irons.  On a wagon, these are the metal bars or plates positioned behind both front wheels on the lowermost sides of the box/bed.  They can be shaped a number of different ways for different reasons, but their primary purpose is to shield the box from damage caused by a wheel turned too tight.  Beyond their protective purpose, many aren’t aware that each iron is built to be able to be used twice.  In other words, when the abrasion from a wheel’s metal tire eventually cuts through the iron, leaving it too worn for effective use, the piece is designed to be unbolted, turned around, and switched to the other side of the wagon box.  This is an important distinction I’ve seen misinterpreted numerous times. 

Rub irons help protect the box from wheel damage.

At the end of the day, the best advice for any involved subject is… Don’t be afraid to ask questions.  We all have to learn sometime.  Getting to know proper vehicle nomenclature and design purposes will help minimize challenges from miscommunication and give you an even deeper appreciation for the original builders of these vehicles.