Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Newton Wagon Company

With a beginning dating prior to the California gold rush, the Newton Wagon Company produced a wide variety of vehicles during almost a century in business.  Several years ago, I wrote a brief history of this brand and you can still find the two-part article on our website by clicking here

Moving from New York to Batavia, Illinois in 1854, founder Levi Newton worked hard to establish the brand as a premium builder of buggies and carriages as well as a vast array of wagons including farm, freight, spring, delivery, mountain, potato, and rack bed wagons as well as teaming gears and lumber and log wagons.  The firm employed a number of different construction designs throughout its history.  As with many other brands, the paint and striping of earlier designs was often more flamboyant and ornamented.  Circular box rod washers, triple riveted side board cleats, and even multiple folding end gates were common on some models. 

Another unique feature of later Newton models is what was referred to as a ‘drop front hound.’  With this design the front hounds on the gear were curved downward.  This feature reduced wear and tear on the reach and sway bar while also allowing for tighter turning when the box was removed.   While a drop front hound is fairly easy to spot on a wagon gear, it was not common in the industry as a whole.  Even so, Newton was not the first to have promoted this feature.  As I shared in Volume One of the “Borrowed Time” western vehicle book series, the legendary Peter Schuttler brand actually had a patent on a very similar design in the 1880’s (see a portion of the patent below).

As a further note to this innovation, it doesn’t appear that Newton made use of the design until well after the original Schuttler patent expired.  For historians and collectors, it’s an important point as collective examination of all vehicle features can help to identify, date, authenticate, and place values on individual wagons.   That commitment to historical details and collector support is another reason we continually search for the rarest details from this industry.  As of this writing, illustrated Newton materials in our Wheels That Won The West® Archives span almost sixty years from the 1870’s through the 1920’s. 

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Memorial Day Weekend 2014

Week in and week out, I spend a lot of time talking about early western vehicles.  It’s the kind of rare history that takes us back to our roots as a nation.  Like many others, I enjoy learning and sharing these parts of our past.  The subject is deeply connected with our heritage and consistently points to the sacrifice and struggles of a young nation.  While the values of many of these early western wheels continue to grow, there are other possessions we hold that too often go undervalued.  In addition to the blessing of life itself, the most prized possessions we have in America are freedom and the opportunity to pursue our dreams.  They’re precious gifts secured by generations of brave men, women, and families who put honor and country ahead of self.

Freedom, after all, isn’t free.  It has a high cost.  Over the last several years, we’ve been harshly reminded how costly and fragile freedom is.  Countless Americans have given everything they have to preserve that privilege for you and me.  Many are still in harm’s way.  This weekend is part of our nation’s salute to so many who have sacrificed so much for this amazing country.  Memorial Day in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave is a time to pause, reflect, and express our appreciation for their bravery, commitment, selflessness, and readiness to stand in the gap, defending what we hold dear. 

To all those who have served and those who continue in service to this great nation – Thank you.  Thank you for your time.  Thank you for your courage.  Thank you for your sacrifice.  You are not unnoticed.  You are our heroes; the very essence of liberty and guardian of innumerable dreams.  May God bless you and continue to bless America.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Peter Schuttler & Christoph Hotz

I never cease to be amazed at the complexity, sophistication, and competitive drive possessed by those in America’s early transportation industry.  With thousands of horse drawn vehicle makers to measure up against, deciding to open up a wagon shop in those days was not a suitable choice for folks lacking finances, marketing savvy, manufacturing prowess, or just plain guts.  With so much competition in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it clearly took more than a strong work ethic to be successful.  Ultimately, some didn’t last more than a few months and others never produced more than a handful of vehicles per year.  A few beat the odds, not only surviving but manufacturing tens of thousands of wagons and western vehicles annually.

One of the most revered of those early brands is Peter Schuttler.  Founded in 1843 in Chicago, the company’s two and four-wheeled products were well known on the western plains and trails as well as remote mountains and towns.  From freighting and ranching to farming and mining, the name ‘Schuttler’ carried a strong reputation.  It was a preeminent brand delivering exceptional quality, strength, style, and innovation.  During the late 1860’s, the company was looking to grow its competitive edge and a young German emigrant, newly-arrived in America, was destined to fill the bill.  His name was Christoph Hotz.  An talented engineer and machinist by trade, it didn’t hurt that Peter Schuttler II was his brother-in-law.  The founder and patriarch of the firm, Peter Schuttler I, had passed away just a few years earlier and this new partnership with Christoph Hotz was destined to underscore the Schuttler brand as an even more impressive western icon.  

Beyond the family relationship, what really set Mr. Hotz apart was his inventive genius.  He was full of ideas and instantly took to the wagon trade.  Patents began to flow out of the Chicago firm and continued from the 1870’s until the time of his death in 1904.  Among the inspirations credited to Hotz were new concepts for wagon axles, end gates, standards, gears, tongues, and more.  The concepts just kept coming, with some destined to reappear well into the twentieth century. 

To that point, many wagon enthusiasts are likely aware of a swivel reach offered on Weber brand wagons and patented in 1922 by parent company, International Harvester Corporation (see above).  A similar patent awarded to Christoph Hotz and Schuttler more than four decades earlier is less known.  Nevertheless, it helped pave the way for future designs of this type.  From the 1800’s through the early 1900’s, the rugged terrain created constant problems for wagon travel.  The racking, rocking, knocking, and twisting of the wagon wreaked havoc on every part of a gear – especially the reach or coupling pole.  In the 1880 Schuttler patent (see below), Hotz engineered his own nineteenth century version of a rotating reach, allowing wagons to overcome challenges inherent in the roughest country.  Effectively, the design reduced pressure on the reach, hounds, and other parts.  To date, I’m not aware of any surviving examples of this configuration from Schuttler, but just maybe, this blog post may help us find one someday.

Just as a point of reference, by 1904, the Peter Schuttler Wagon Company is reported to have employed some 600 workers, turning out 20,000 wagons per year†.  By all accounts, the firm was a formidable foe but like so many others, the clock was ticking and within two more decades, the doors were closed in Chicago.

American Machinist, January 28, 1904

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Hand Built with Machined Speed & Precision

History has given Henry Ford a lot of justly-earned credit for building and selling automobiles so affordably that they could be enjoyed by the masses - not just those with deep pockets.  Long before Mr. Ford’s entry into the transportation business, though, there were countless other horse-drawn vehicle makers with a similar business plan; one focused on creating a quality set of wheels that individuals could afford in business and pleasure.  While Ford encountered numerous challenges in his commitment to building a better mousetrap, America’s earliest transportation pioneers were also continually faced with the trials of maintaining a successful business.  Manufacturing requirements, raw material availability, a viable labor supply, marketing, sales, warranties, resale values, loyalty, competition, distribution channels and a myriad of other issues were dealt with daily. 

Far from being small-time business neophytes, many early makers of vehicles used throughout the U.S. were educated and business-savvy.  Even in the 1800’s, some of the biggest wagon builders were finishing tens of thousands of wagons per year.  In fact, during Studebaker’s peak production years, the firm boasted that it finished a vehicle every six minutes.  The legendary brand also claimed to have built – and sold – a million wagons in the decade between 1897 and 1907†.  By any measure, those are impressive numbers.  Equally noteworthy is the mechanization and repeatable factory processes that were employed to accomplish such feats of mass production.

While some small blacksmith shops may have still been hammering out hand-forged iron work in the late 1800’s, most western vehicle builders of any size had recognized the value of time as it related to profits.  Hence, as the turn of the 20th century approached, these larger manufacturers may have been engaged in forging some parts but they were often using cast and pre-formed pieces available from wholesale outlets.

As pointed out in Thomas Kinney’s book, “The Carriage Trade: Making Horse Drawn Vehicles in America,” these early vehicle makers clearly recognized that ‘time is money.’  As a result, there were entire subgroups of companies that sprang up to provide equipment, parts, and supplies to assist with more rapid production of quality western vehicles.  This was not just working faster, it was working smarter and, in most cases, delivering a higher quality product in a more timely manner.  At its core, this involved very similar business thoughts as those covered in some of the most elite corporate boardrooms of today. 

A growing agricultural economy along with the Civil War, with its massive need for vehicles, did its part in driving innovation and productivity.  Numerous technological advances and specially fabricated machines were introduced during this timeframe.  Patents for automatic axle lathes were issued as early as the 1860’s with designs committed to greater accuracy, speed, efficiency, and productivity. 

Eventually, other instruments engineered for even higher production capacities were also introduced.  Heavy equipment like automatic spoke lathes, spoke throating machines, belt polishers, and felloe sawing machines were joined by automatic hub mortisers, automatic wagon box floor nailers, and wagon box boring machines for gang drilling all of the holes at one time in the box sides of a wagon.  Each innovation made the production process more efficient, vehicles more affordable, profits more attainable, and customers more satisfied with the final product.  Collectively, it was a commitment to excellence that’s still reflected in rolling works of art all over the country.  

†  Wheels That Won The West® Archives,