Wednesday, November 19, 2014

John Deere & the Fort Smith Wagon Company

My last few blog posts have predominantly dealt with early wood-wheeled vehicles found on the West Coast.  So, this week, it seemed appropriate to venture back toward the rising sun and balance things out a bit.  To those looking for a rhyme or reason as to how I determine each week’s topic, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.  Like many, my world seems to run full throttle.  So, most weeks, I’m simply on a quest to stay one step ahead of another posting deadline.  Subject ideas can come from any number of places.  Once determined, I go to work fleshing out the short story, preparing imagery, and scheduling the finished piece. 

As I began pondering this week’s subject, it occurred to me that, of all the blogs and articles I’ve written, I don’t believe I’ve ever penned anything on an Arkansas wagon maker.  As a native of the region, that oversight is to my shame I suppose.  So, to make things right and give The Natural State its due, I thought I’d share a bit about a legendary builder from the northwest corner of the state.

This letter from the Fort Smith Wagon Company dates to November of 1906, approximately 6 months before the firm was purchased by John Deere.

Located on the banks of the Arkansas River, the modern day city of Fort Smith is steeped in America’s western history and lore.  During the nineteenth century, it was the last bastion of U.S. law before crossing into Indian Territory.  Even so, it was still home to its share of saloons, brothels, outlaws, drifters, and ne'er do wells.  Any less-than-legal shenanigans, though, were balanced out by the firm-handed justice of ‘Hanging Judge’ Issac Parker who served as U.S. District Judge for more than two decades beginning in 1875.  The judge passed away while still serving in 1896.  Seven years later, the Fort Smith Wagon Company was formed.

This extremely rare photo has been cropped to show more details of employees from the Fort Smith Wagon Company.  The original image shows more than 70 workers outside the factory.

Organized in 1903, the Ft. Smith brand got its start after individuals in the city heard about an opportunity to purchase the equipment and assets of the South Bend Wagon Company in Indiana.  Established two decades earlier, South Bend had been a strong marketer and promoter but as times began to change so did its profitability.
Once the new factory was up and running in Arkansas, it didn’t take long to attract the attention of John Deere’s branch houses.  In 1905, a number of those distribution outlets began selling Fort Smith wagons.  Within a couple more years, the branch houses joined forces with the home office to buy the Fort Smith firm.  It was the first acquisition of an outside company by John Deere.1  In 1910, Deere took the next step by purchasing all of the shares of the wagon company.  Clearly, Fort Smith’s location near quality hardwood forests as well as railroad and river shipping ports made solid sense to the market and opportunity-savvy folks at Deere.  It was about this same time that the Moline, Illinois firm was buying other wagon brands as well.  Davenport, Moline, and ultimately, Mitchell all joined the John Deere stable of legendary wagon brands.   

Promotional materials showcasing products from the Ft. Smith Wagon Company are hard to find today. 

Fort Smith branded vehicles were available in a number of different sizes and styles for one and two-horse wagons.  By the mid-teens, Deere’s distribution system had grown the company to the point that some claimed it was the largest of its kind in the West2.  While the vehicles increased in popularity, business priorities were changing and, by 1925, Deere had decided to consolidate all of its wagon manufacturing in Moline.  Even so, according to period directories in our collection, the Fort Smith brand remained active until the late 1940’s.   

This photograph is just one of several period photos within the Wheels That Won The West® Archives showing Native Americans alongside Fort Smith wagons.

        1 “John Deere Tractors and Equipment” by Don MacMillan & Russell Jones, 
           Vol. 1, 1988
       2 “Current Events: An Industrial and Agricultural Magazine, 
           Vol. 14, No. 1, January 1915, p. 10 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

More Freight Wagon History

As a western vehicle historian, I’m constantly digging for more information on early wooden wheels used in the West.  I look for details about the pieces themselves, their specific uses, unique designs, individual builders, marketing methods, competitive strategies, and the overall industry.  All of it helps us gain a clearer and better picture of the complexities of America’s first transportation empire. 

Not long ago, I stumbled upon an 1882 article sharing some of the challenges faced by heavy vehicle builders in California.  The frustrations of the writer are clear as he repeatedly laments the lack of large capacity wagon makers in the Bear State.

While the Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Company was located in South Bend, Indiana, they maintained a strong presence in California.  This 1883 illustration was part of a larger advertisement promoting vehicles specifically 

built for the West Coast.  

Clearly, there were notable, native builders in California during the 1880’s.  However, at least during the time of this article, none had sufficiently grown to compete in mass scale with well-known manufacturers in the Midwest and East.  Below are several excerpts from the article.  As you’ll see, the comments begin with an optimistic outlook on the number of vehicles used throughout California.  The tone quickly changes, though, as the writer pinpoints significant issues faced by builders. 

“... The high rate of wages, the value of time to business men, the abundance and cheapness of horses and horse feed, the sparseness of population, the long distances at which many of the farmers live from towns, the number of good roads, and the considerable amounts of exports and imports, have led the people of our coast to own and use an exceptionally large number of wagons and buggies.  It is doubtful whether so many are to be found in proportion to the people in any other part of the world.  All the large towns have pleasure drives, on which the light buggy and the fast trotter are leading features.

While we consume a great number of wheeled vehicles, we produce but few.  The oak used in the heavy and the hickory in the light wagons are equally lacking, and we must import both from the Mississippi Valley, and it is found cheaper to obtain them for general use in forms prepared for putting together, if not already put together in the various parts of wagons.  A great part of the value of a wagon is in the wheels, most of which are made up for us beyond the Rocky Mountains.  Even when wagons are made here, the spokes, felloes, hubs, axles, and tongues have not infrequently been shaped in the East.  We purchase on this coast about 7,000 farm wagons annually, worth $100 each, and the number made here is very small, not one factory or shop being devoted exclusively to their production.  Nor until we grow some wood that can rival the Eastern white oak in strength, elasticity, and even hardness of grain, is it probable that we can establish large factories for farm wagons with profit, even if the difference of 25% in wages against our manufacturers should be removed….”

The writer continues by sharing that the mining communities also seemed to be overly dependent upon vehicles created thousands of miles away.

“…The building of railroads and the decrease of production and population in the placer mining camps, deprived these mountain teamsters of much of their business, and diminished the demand for wagons of special patterns.  The freight is now carried in vehicles brought from Michigan…” 

The reference to Michigan-built freighters is particularly interesting.  Beyond the distance from California, the notation is intriguing because part of early vehicle identification involves not only intimate knowledge of how a particular brand was built but, also awareness as to where those sets of wheels were distributed.  By pointing to the state of Michigan, there is a strong probability that the legendary Jackson brand of wagons were the ones referred to as hauling freight to and from the mining camps.  These freighters were often described as ‘Michigan wagons’ throughout the 19th century.  It’s an important clue and one that bears remembrance during careful evaluations of surviving western freighters of unknown origins.  Time and again, period writings proclaim the prominence of Jackson freight wagons (Austin, Tomlinson, & Webster Company).  Yet, like a number of other legendary wagon makers, we know of no Jackson freighters to have positively been identified to date.

This 1889 Jackson wagon catalog contains a wealth of information on numerous Jackson vehicles – including freighters. 

With so much of America’s early wheeled history lost or forgotten, it takes time and patience to uncover valuable pieces and put them back together again.  Perhaps, through the sharing of some of these findings, we may yet restore important identities to vehicles that have been separated from their roots.  The early Jackson catalogs and reference works in our Archives may one day help return a legend to its place in history.  For your part, if you find yourself traveling in the West, take plenty of photos of any early freighters (large and small) you come across.  We’d love to see them and compare to documents in our care.  Together, just maybe, we can help return some of the West’s most important and least known history to its rightful place.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Bain Rack Bed Wagon in the West

Some of the earliest examples of promotional literature in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives date to the 1860’s.  Among those pieces are a pair of hardback catalogs distributed during the Civil War era.  They were originally published by a pair of well-known wagon and carriage makers in the eastern United States.  As rare as these sales books are, pre-1870 materials promoting legendary western wagon brands are even harder to come by.  It’s one of the reasons we feel fortunate to have an 1869 flyer for the Bain Wagon Company in the collection. 

Established in 1852 by Ed Bain, the firm took over the factory in Kenosha, Wisconsin that had previously been used by Henry Mitchell and the Mitchell Wagon Company.  Launching from a strong foundation that Mitchell had laid in Kenosha, Bain made the most of a solid distribution system and quickly became a popular vehicle in the West.  Early product offerings went beyond farm, freight, ranch, and spring wagons and also included carriages and buggies.  According to research shared in Mark Gardner’s book, “Wagons for the Santa Fe Trade,” in the 1880’s, Bain was considered to be one of the top 3 wagon brands in the West.  The other two were Peter Schuttler in Chicago and A. A. Cooper from Dubuque, Iowa (see our November 6, 2013 blog).

The Angels Camp Museum houses an impressive collection of historic artifacts and western vehicles.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of traveling through several remote areas of California.  One of them was the small and welcoming city of Angels Camp.  A legendary mining town with a history dating to 1848, the area is also well-known as the source of one of Mark Twain’s writings, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”  Beyond those accolades, the town is also home to one of the best collections of original western vehicles I’ve ever had the privilege of reviewing.  Sitting on a hill just above many of the historic town buildings is the Angels Camp Museum.  From the outside, it is well-kept but somewhat unassuming in nature.  So, a word of advice… if you find yourself in the area, do not judge this book by its cover.  Like a pearl of great price, most of what the facility holds is not visible from the outside.  Once inside, though, the treasures are almost innumerable.  I was particularly amazed at both the depth and the quality of the vehicle collection.  Original stage coaches, freight wagons, logging wagons, business vehicles, and so much more are housed within the multi-building complex.   

This Downing & Sons Concord coach is a 9 passenger stage believed to date to between 1848 and 1858.

I spent hours photographing and analyzing the vehicles in the Carriage & Wagon building.  I took so much time, that I almost overlooked the Mining & Ranching building.  It too holds its share of wooden wheels.  One of the best is a yellow-geared Bain Rack Bed.  Wow!  Beyond the brand itself, perhaps its most significant feature is its remarkable condition.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  It isn’t perfect.  But, considering that these pieces were built for hard use in rugged terrain, the vast majority will not be found in this kind of shape.   With limited wear to the overall wagon, there is a fair amount of original paint still present on the gear along with some paint on the box.  Even the round edge steel tires appeared to have plenty of miles still left on them.

An extraordinary example of a surviving western rack bed, this wagon was built in Kenosha, Wisconsin by the legendary Bain Wagon Company.

Surviving in a rare, “last-used” condition the maker name stenciling on this wagon is still quite legible on the front and rear axles.

At this point, some may be saying, “What the devil is a rack bed?”  Good question.  A rack bed is a type of mid-sized freight wagon often used in the West but could also have been used in regions throughout the U.S.  The box or bed can be the same length (10’ 6”) as most surviving farm wagons but it often measures another foot or more in length.  It typically has a thicker floor and the box is equipped with a lower sill or sideboard that is shorter (perhaps as small as only 5”- 8” in height).  The upper sideboard will be considerably taller than the lower and, because it’s usually removable, it will likely not run the full length of the bed since the forward section provides a fixed support for the seat risers.  Elsewhere, vertical wooden stakes are attached to the upper sideboard and insert into heavy metal clips on the lower sideboard.  The spring seat is placed on a seat riser mounted to the outside of the box.

This particular Bain is equipped with wheel heights of 52”/44” and a tire width of 2 ¼”.   All four wheels include both tire and spoke rivets for added strength and durability.  The box width is 44” and the length is 11’ 9”.  One notable trait on the metalwork – the stake pockets on the bed’s lower sideboard are a heavy cast design with B.W. C. lettering.

Our thanks go out to the wonderful staff at Angel’s Camp Museum.  They’re curators of some of America’s most amazing transportation history and deserve to be recognized for their commitment to preserving that western heritage.   

This light western mail stage saw duty in Angels Camp and the surrounding areas.