Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wagon End Boards

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know we cover a wide variety of wagon-related subjects.  Clearly, the topic of early wood-wheeled wagons and western vehicles is one with surprising depth.  Over the years, we’ve tried to show these complexities through numerous speaking engagements, magazine articles, books, videos, and this blog.

Even with hundreds of our articles and blogs written to date, one area that we haven’t focused on much is that of end gate designs.  A wagon’s end gate is the forerunner of a ‘tail gate’ on a contemporary pickup truck.  Just how important a particular end gate style could be is reflected in the seemingly endless number of patents granted for related parts and designs in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  While the forward and upper rear end gates were usually a solid plank of wood, the lowermost rear board could be made the same way or it might be configured with multiple segments engineered to drop, flip, slide, swing, or fold open.

Folding end gates became extremely popular due to the ease of unloading and accessing cargo on early farm, freight, and ranch wagons.

The folding design that so many surviving wagons possess today can trace much of its lineage to a patent awarded to Charles Comstock in 1870.  Known as the Comstock Patent End Gate, the arrangement was quickly adopted by numerous wagon makers.  The advantage of the hinged design was that it was able to be quickly and effortlessly detached from the bed without the need to remove box rods or dislodge the upper gate.  This was an important feature for unloading cargo such as corn, vegetables, coal, and other loose materials.  It also allowed for easy carrying of lumber and other lengthy or awkwardly-sized items that might otherwise be poorly-suited for the available box space. 

These images from the 1870 Comstock patent illustrate the simplicity, efficiency, and convenience of a folding end gate.

In 1879, the Mr. Comstock’s patent was reissued, extending him even more notoriety and financial gain.  Again and again, we see the impact of technology on America’s first transportation industry and, again and again, these details help us evaluate, define, and properly connect history with the appropriate timeframes and brands.  While construction methods and product traits can vary, there are some elements within wagon designs that share origins.  With that in mind, the next time you see a folding end gate on any vintage wagon you’ll know that it relies on an idea made popular almost a century and a half ago.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ten Lost Wagon Brands

When I was a young boy, my parents ran a small grocery store and gas station out in the country.  Back then, the location was somewhat remote and the patrons were made up of locals as well as a steady stream of tourists and travelers.  Being friendly and service-minded, my folks had a sign on the exterior of the little shotgun style building that read, “Lost?  Inquire Inside.”  It brought them more traffic while helping others gain clearer direction to their destination.  Built in the 1930’s, the old store is still there but today it’s used as a storage building.  I’m fortunate to have some of the old signs from the store and, yes, the “Lost” sign is among my treasures.  Ironically, in my studies of America’s early transportation industry, I’m still hanging out a shingle for the lost.  In this case, it’s lost wagons and western vehicles. 

This sign helped countless people find their destinations.  Today, ultra-rare materials in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives are doing the same thing for collectors of early wood-wheeled vehicles.

Over the years, I’ve shared a lot of details related to old wagons in this blog.  It’s hard, though, to write about yesterday’s most significant wheels without giving due credit to a number of brands that are noticeably absent today.  These are the ghost wheels of the West.  They were prominent brands once seen regularly on western trails but are almost non-existent today. 

Legendary names like Wilson, Childs & Company…  Espenschied…  LaBelle…  Fish Brothers…  Murphy… Luedinghaus…  Jackson…  Coquillard…  Kansas or Caldwell…  and Cooper plied the frontier throughout the 1800’s.  They hauled freight, ore, emigrants, farmers, ranchers, miners, businessmen, and the military as well as the hopes, dreams, and future of a young nation.  Hundreds of thousands of vehicles were produced by these ten brands during their operating years.  So where are they today?  To be sure, there are a few examples of some still resting quietly in public and private collections – but very few.  They are as scarce as water in a desert.  So scarce that, in two decades of diligent searching, the closest I’ve come to some early brands like LaBelle, Espenschied, or Coquillard is a handful of old photos and promotional literature.  The Kansas Manufacturing Company which also produced the Caldwell brand wagon is another good example.  Established in 1874, the firm built countless wagons including military escort wagons, six horse army wagons, ambulances, Dougherty wagons, farm, freight, and other spring wagons.  Yet, other than a few mentions in period literature and a bit more in contemporary publications like Mark Gardner’s, “Wagons for the Santa Fe Trade,” the reminders of this company’s legendary heritage are in short supply.  There is a surviving Dougherty wagon made by the company.  It’s housed in the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  

This original pamphlet from the Kansas Manufacturing Company dates to 1877 and may be the earliest surviving material from the company.

Overall, the subject of lost wagon brands continues to harbor a number of unknowns; mysteries largely responsible for the opening of the American West.  For a few more years, perhaps, there may still be a chance to save the few 19th century reminders not yet found.  These are the historic connections firmly tied to yesterday that we constantly search for today.  They rolled alongside other well-known makes such as Studebaker, Bain, Mitchell, and Schuttler but, unlike these four iconic brands, many fewer of the other ten labels appear to have survived.  Much of the reason lies with the timeframe each company was in existence.  Financially healthy firms extending into the 20th century tend to have many more surviving examples of their work.  As I’ve posted before, though, we’ve seen enough instances of 19th century wagons still being found that it’s very possible some of these ten brands could yet be uncovered.

So in your travels, stay vigilant.  What looks like a rotted old relic might actually be a legend on wheels just waiting to be discovered.  And just like the old “Inquire Inside” sign, we need to look deep inside the designs to recognize the tell-tale signs of the manufacturer’s handiwork.    It’s a rough, scarcely-traveled road but somewhere the next find is waiting for us to help place it back within its rightful part of history.  

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wooden Wagon Signs

In the hunt for history, one of the most exciting parts is the chase itself.  The pursuit can be full of surprises and often generates a host of unforgettable memories.  As intriguing as the chase may be, though, the greatest satisfaction usually comes with the actual discovery of pieces most have only read of or dreamed about.  It’s a thought easily echoed in our own searches as, again and again, our quests are punctuated with exceptional finds; each driving us forward in the never-ending search for lost artifacts from America’s first transportation industry.

Hand built, wooden promotional signage was once a common 

sight with wagon retailers.  

Not long ago, we came upon another rare survivor – An original, wooden sign that would have been used as an outdoor billboard for a dealer of Peter Schuttler wagons.  Schuttler, as many know, was a legendary wagon builder and highly respected brand during more than 8 decades of manufacturing in Chicago.  I’ve written a fair amount about the firm, including a brief company bio in Driving Digest magazine a few years ago.  Like Studebaker, Mitchell, Bain, Jackson, and countless other nationally-recognized brands, the Peter Schuttler Wagon Company was a strong marketer with a host of advertising tools.  Most of the true outdoor pieces have either deteriorated, been destroyed, or may yet be tucked away in an attic, old barn, or similar out-of-the-way place.

While these promotional signs came in a multitude of sizes, this single plank display is one of the larger varieties, measuring almost a foot in height and 14 feet in length.  Surrounded by a well-worn, blue-beaded finish, the faded white block lettering is adorned with barb-like serifs on the individual characters.  The spurred font carries a unique western feel which may have been designed to leverage the company’s rich history and popularity during the early growth of the West.  The size of the sign is also significant as it’s a strong indicator of its purpose as an outdoor piece.  Larger signs were used to draw greater attention while reinforcing the dominant market position of a particular brand.  

Early wagon signage was often more prominent than the name of the 

business establishment itself.

Numerous early photos in our Archives show these signs on period hardware, lumber, general mercantile, and other stores.  While vintage wagon makers worked to establish exclusive sales contracts with these sellers, retailers were an independent sort and they often sold as many as a half dozen different brands from a single store.  It was no doubt confusing to some buyers with so many signs and wagon names on the outside of a building.  Knowing this, it’s no surprise that the practice of carrying multiple brands was a regular source of contention between manufacturers and sellers of these historic wood-wheeled wagons.

If you know of other early vehicle signage, give us a shout.  We enjoy the opportunity to review period advertising materials.  Custom designed for optimum impact, these special pieces offer rare insights into the business side of one of the most competitive and essential industries in early America.  

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Wagons & Stagecoaches in the West

Over the years, I’ve been privileged and fortunate to uncover some of the rarest history on wheels.  The thrill of the chase is real while the research involved is crucial to recognizing and saving these dramatic and story-rich reminders of America’s youth.  It’s part of the reason we’ve dedicated so many resources to this discovery process.  Without fail, the constant seeking is rewarded with amazing finds.  So it was that earlier this month I sat out on another journey; one that would again take me west to learn, discover, identify, and help preserve some of the most legendary vehicles our nation ever produced.

The original Wells Fargo lettering on this 1860’s-era 

Concord Coach is still visible today. 

These trips are never long enough to satisfy all my curiosities but this one started out with an air of expectation.  I had a good feeling that this excursion would reveal significant western wheels.  In fact, I had written notes prior to the event with the prompt to ‘expect the unexpected.’  It was a reminder that came roaring to life even on the plane trip.  As we boarded our early morning flight, it became clear that the aircraft would be chock full of passengers.  The significance of this fact was painfully punctuated by my inability to reserve an aisle seat.  So, camera on my shoulder, I sat down in what had to be the smallest seat on the plane.  To my left was a businessman evaluating profit/loss statements on his laptop.  At the window seat on my right was a middle-aged woman absorbed in an electronic book.  I resolved to make the most of the confined quarters but about an hour into the flight my legs began to cramp and my body grew impatient.  If I could just get an armrest – maybe that would help me feel more relaxed.  Nothing doing.  That territory was heavily guarded by my neighbors.  Making matters worse, the woman on my right was fast asleep to the point of producing a fairly constant snore.  I didn’t want to wake her with my arm jockeying.  What could I do to improve things a bit?  Running through options in my mind, it finally hit me.  In that moment of soul-searching revelation, I realized I had never reclined my seat.  Surely that would help.  Looking at the armrests, it was hard to know which one controlled my seatback.  Eeny meeny miny moe!  I picked the right button and will never forget what happened next.

Apparently, the reclining seat mechanisms had been recently polished and heavily greased with liquid butter.  To my utter horror, my seat did not recline as I depressed the button.  Instead, the sleeping woman’s chair fell backward as if it had been dropped from 30,000 feet.  It hit the end of its range with a thud so hard I thought the hinge had broken.  Worse yet, the look of terror on the woman’s face lacked only a scream to complete the nightmare.  Clearly, she thought we were crashing.  My first reaction was to feign innocence blended with curiosity as to what may have just occurred.  Of course, it didn’t work.  She read me better than the Kindle notebook on the tray in front of her.  I quickly apologized and wished I could disappear.  As she began to get her bearings, though, she started to laugh.  Thankfully, she could see the regret and humor from both sides of the story.  It turns out that the experience was a sign of things to come. 

Images of mud wagons, stage wagons, and Concord Coaches are still highly popular symbols of the American West.

Full of twists, turns, questions, and many more surprises, the trip proved to be one of our most productive early vehicle pursuits to date. From stage wagons and concord coaches to western freighters, giant logging wagons, and California Rack Beds, the expedition was packed with new discoveries.  It’s a busy summer here but stay tuned!  I’ll be sharing more highlights in the coming weeks.