Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Deere & Webber

Any study of early wooden wagons and the associated industry will quickly show that the subject is full of twists, turns, tragedies, and confusing similarities.   When reviewing a brand’s origins, things can get especially tricky if too much attention is given to the name alone.  As I’ve shared before, jumping to conclusions by focusing on just one vehicle trait can quickly turn problematic. 

Case in point; some may know that there were multiple brands using the name ‘Whitewater.’  Others may not be aware that there was more than one Columbus brand.  Mitchell wagons may have been the “Monarch of the Road,” but ‘Monarch’ was also a label owned by another well-known firm.  These same-name challenges can also be applied to other prominent brands such as Bain, Fish Bros., Brown, Smith, and more. 

With this said, it’s not surprising to know that the firm of Deere & Webber has sometimes been mistook as a relative of the Weber (one ‘b’ versus two) Wagon Company from Chicago.  Even the legendary Weber & Damme of St. Louis as well as some local retail outlets have been confused with other brands carrying the Weber name.  For the record, those mentioned above are separate entities with each being a full-fledged competitor of the other.

As with the John Deere name itself, the Deere & Webber firm was a trusted and exceptionally competitive brand.

The Deere and Webber brand is especially interesting as its primary role was that of a branch house or wholesale distribution outlet in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  John Deere had a number of these outlets including Deere & Mansur as well as Deere, Wells and Co. and others.  While John Deere did have part ownership in these firms, they were run with some latitude from company headquarters in Moline, Illinois.  For instance, while the sales staff at Deere and Webber were encouraged to sell John Deere products, they also sold non-Deere brands including their own house brands.  Additionally, they were known to engage dealers that sold competing brands to Deere.  While this was not the preferred direction, it did happen enough that sales representatives were repeatedly reminded of the importance of establishing ‘full line’ John Deere dealers.  In time, Deere bought each of the distribution houses outright.

At over a century in age, this extremely rare leather-bound, Deere & Webber sales handbook contains the company’s strategic plans for 1910.  It was the personal copy of the company president, Charles C. Webber.  Webber passed away in 1944 after serving an amazing 67 years with the Deere organization.  He was the last surviving grandson of John Deere.

Anyone believing these early agriculture and wagon companies were unsophisticated and casual in their approach to the selling process has simply not studied enough period business correspondence.  The most prominent of brands worked hard to dog, defend, and dominate every trade area possible.  Broader product lines designed to meet the price points of competitors helped many traveling agents accomplish the quotas and directives they were given. 

Early company bulletins helped keep marketing directions and messages consistent among the company’s network of traveling sales representatives.  

In the case of Deere and Webber, 1910 was a significant year for the company.  The home office in Illinois had just purchased the legendary Moline and Fort Smith Wagon companies and was in the process of developing the first ‘John Deere’ branded wagons.  Even though Deere & Webber had beaten the main office to the punch by putting their own label on wagons several years earlier, the day was coming when the name ‘John Deere’ would stand alone as the best of the firm’s wagon offerings.  It was all part of an effort to build on the tremendous equity of the Deere name. 

Today, the John Deere legacy remains a powerful force in agriculture but also benefits significantly from its growth in the construction, turf, and forestry divisions.  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

More Wyoming Wagons

Congratulations to all of the participants at the recent Wyoming State Fair Sheep Wagon competition.  It was an impressive event, kicked off with a great chuck wagon breakfast on Sunday morning.  I had the privilege of participating in the wagon judging and can’t say enough about how warm and welcoming everyone was.  The wagon display included a wide variety of styles including a WW1 era Army Escort wagon, multiple chuck wagons and buggies as well as fourteen sheep wagons signed up for the competition. 

An early sheep wagon scene taken from Volume One of our Borrowed Time western vehicle book series.

Vehicles from the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s were represented with about an equal number of wooden wheeled and rubber-tired sheep wagons shown.  Box makers we could conclusively determine included Florence and Home on the Range.  I was also able to identify running gears originally built by makers such as Bain, Mitchell, Peter Schuttler, Owensboro, Studebaker, Winona, John Deere, and Stoughton.  Author, sheep wagon authority, and fellow judge, Tom Lindmier, was gracious enough to show me a few more wagons in the area.  It all made for a full and memorable trip.  Below is a brief look at a few winners from this year’s Wyoming State Fair Sheep Wagon Competition.

Classified in the "Restored with Modifications" category, the Valentine Sheep wagon entry captured this segment.

New for this year, the "Personal Touch" category helped highlight some of the more customized Sheep Wagon entries.  The Garber entry received the highest total points in this class.

John Sullivan and the Sullivan Ranch took home top honors in the “Unrestored Working” sheep wagon classification.  His wagon is an original “Home on the Range” brand. 

In the "Unrestored Original" category, Bob Vollman received the most points from the 4 judges. His original Florence bed was mated to a Mitchell running gear.

The "People's Choice" sheep wagon award went to Richard Kaan from the Fall River Carriage Company. 

Thanks, again, to the event organizer, Steve Shadwick, and all of the great folks at the Wyoming State Fair.  The wagons at the gathering represented a good cross-section of early manufacturers.  Some of the period designs rode on Mountain Wagon gears with steel skeins (correctly pronounced with a long ‘a’ as in “skains”) while others were equipped with cast skeins.  Combined with comfortable weather and a super-friendly atmosphere, the only thing missing for me was the opportunity to stay longer.  After two days at the fair, work was calling and it was time to hit the trail once again.  My trip to the region took me past old stage stations, military forts, sections of the Bozeman and Oregon Trails, numerous museums, and even a historic buffalo jump.  One thing’s for certain, if you enjoy America’s western history and early wagons, this annual event – and the entire area – should be on your bucket list.  To punctuate that a bit, in an upcoming blog we’ll share even more about several additional wagons located on the Wyoming State Fairgrounds in Douglas. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Coaching in Mariposa Grove

In late 2011, I made a commitment to write a weekly blog with subject matter directly related to the heavier horse drawn vehicles that helped build America.  In addition to the dozens of feature length articles I’ve been fortunate to share, this week’s blog marks my 150th post.  As a way of highlighting that personal milestone, there is another reason the ‘150’ number is special this year.  2014 marks the 150th Anniversary of the creation of Yosemite Park by Abraham Lincoln. 

The Yosemite Stage & Turnpike Company offered breathtaking tours of some of America’s most beautiful scenery during California’s early coaching days.

Doug Hansen and his team of professionals at Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop completed this restoration of a vintage Yosemite coach several years ago. 

The Park and the giant sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove have a long and storied history connected to coaching in the West.  In 1877, thirteen years after President Abraham Lincoln ceded Yosemite to the state of California, the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company began offering stagecoach tours to Mariposa Grove, the largest stand of giant sequoias in what became Yosemite National Park in 1890. The sequoias are much the same today, but many of the open-sided touring coaches are gone.  To get to the Big Trees by stage in the early days, drivers had to negotiate steep, narrow mountain roads with sheer drops and difficult switchbacks. On a few occasions, masked highwaymen disrupted these outings.  In fact, during the first recorded robbery in 1883, passengers forked over an amazing $2,000 worth of cash and jewelry. Even without this extracurricular excitement, the tours often took all day.

With a continuing interest in these specially designed vehicles as well as other stage and mountain wagons used in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (and the fact that I’ve always wanted to see the giant redwoods up close), my wife and I made another trek out West a few months ago.  As part of the venture, we made sure to include Mariposa Grove in our trip.  From the legendary Half Dome granite rock to giant waterfalls, scenic roads, wildlife, and the big trees themselves, the area is incredibly beautiful and rich in American history.

Reaching the parking lot of the Grove well in advance of the tour buses, we were among the first to arrive.  The morning air was cool but extremely comfortable for our 4 mile round trip hike into the impressive trees.  Within sight of our parking spot we encountered one of the legendary trees often shown in the early coaching photos.  It was the ‘Fallen Monarch’ which is believed to have met its demise more than 300 years ago.  Climbing on this still-imposing piece is prohibited today but there are a number of photos from 19th century excursions showing horses, riders, coaches, and sight seers all atop this monstrous tree.  The acids in the wood help prevent decay, so a number of the oldest toppled giants are still here to view. 

The photos above show the legendary ‘Fallen Monarch’ tree as it appeared in the late 1800’s as well as today.

Moving up the well-marked trail, we began to hear the first rumblings of the tour vehicles.  In some cases, these open air buses are traveling the same paths as the early horse drawn coaching parties did.  Just over 2 miles up a zig-zagging mountain trail was a tree I’ve wanted to see for decades.  It is the giant Tunnel Tree that has been the subject of so many photos over the years.  Period images often show early coaches, mountain wagons, and automobiles being driven through it.  As a bit of background to the Tunnel Tree’s history, the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company hired two brothers in 1881 to cut an eight foot wide tunnel through the heart of the redwood, also known as the “Wawona” Tree.  The brothers were paid $75 to create a passage more than 26 feet long and 10 feet tall.  The majestic tree stood over 230 feet in height until it fell in 1969 under an especially heavy crown of snow. 

Perhaps the most famous tree in Mariposa Grove is the “Wawona” or Tunnel tree.  It was a favorite place for ‘drive-thru’ photos for almost a century.

The two photos above show the legendary Wawona as it appears today.  It lays where it fell in 1969.  A close look reveals the old road beneath the giant.


One of the many Giant Sequoia trees near the well-known Wawona Tunnel Tree.

While it’s sad to see the fallen hulk on the ground, there is something especially grand about this tree that puts life in greater perspective.  Prior to its fall, it was sometimes promoted as the “Oldest Living Thing.”  Believed to be as much as 2,300 years old when it fell, it stretched more than 230 feet into the air, was standing during the birth of Jesus Christ, and dwarfing the forest floor when Columbus stumbled upon the Americas.  Billions of people lived their lives from start to end during the lifespan of this behemoth.  It was a privilege to see while walking some of the same trails taken by early horse drawn coaching parties.

Just a few miles from Mariposa Grove is the Pioneer Yosemite History Center.  The facility contains a number of historic structures related to Yosemite as well as a significant collection of early western vehicles.  We’ll cover some of those special sets of wheels in an upcoming blog.  In the meantime, if you haven’t yet signed up to receive this weekly blog via e-mail, just type your address in the "Follow By E-mail" section above. You'll receive a confirmation e-mail 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, August 6, 2014

Wyoming Sheep Wagons

This year marks the 130th Anniversary of the construction of the first sheep wagon built by James Candlish.  Many have attributed the invention of the vehicle to Mr. Candlish while others believe William McIntosh, Jacob Jacobsen, or George Ferris should receive credit.  There will likely always be discussion as to the who, when, and where’s of the first sheep wagon but, the recognition of Wyoming’s leading role in its creation is undisputed.  Locations such as Douglas, Casper, Cheyenne, Buffalo, and Cody have a long and legendary connection with the vehicle.  Today, the state continues to celebrate its rich western heritage with the 102nd Wyoming State Fair taking place from August 9-16.  Activities included in the week-long event include a Dutch oven cooking contest, rodeo, ranch horse event, and sheep wagon competition. 

A rare early image showing a pair of Florence Hardware Sheep wagons.  The original photo has crisp details and is part of the Wheels That Won West® Archives.

Sheep wagon competitors are judged on the quality of the running gear, roof construction, doors/windows, accessories, stove, history, and other pertinent traits.  The gathering at this year’s fair will include a wide variety of wagons and plenty of ranching history from our nation’s past.  While regional builders/sellers of these wheels – such as Florence Hardware, A. & A.C. Rice, J.C. Jacobsen, and F.L. Belcher – often gain a fair amount of attention, there were several prominent national manufacturers of Sheep Camp wagons as well.  Among the host of makers were the Studebaker, Stoughton, Winona, and Kentucky wagon companies.  Each capitalized on the growing sheep industry during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and each offered customized variances on a standard design.  Today, these special vehicles are still popular with ranches, collectors, lodges, businesses, and others. 

This Sheep Camp wagon has a Peter Schuttler supply wagon in tow as it crosses a low, narrow portion of the Powder River.

For those in the area of Douglas, Wyoming on August 9th, this year’s sheep wagon competition at the Wyoming State Fair will present a great opportunity to see some impressive examples of America’s western history on wheels.