Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2015 – A Maker’s Story

What better subject to share in a New Year’s Eve blog than a review of a new calendar?  We recently received Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop’s latest 12 month composition.  In our opinion, the folks from South Dakota have outdone themselves this time.  The oversized project is packed with full color and early images while also highlighting conservation, restoration, and reproduction work done within their shops.

Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop’s 2015 calendar provides a unique look at a number of rare vehicles.

For horse drawn vehicle enthusiasts the calendar showcases a wide variety of vehicles; from farm, freight, ranch, military, and business wagons to several stage coaches, a fire cart, giant logging wheels, and a bob sleigh. 

Alongside the contemporary photos of the finished projects, the Hansen team has added period photos and historical information to the profiles.  It occurred to me that, like so many catalogs produced by vehicle builders in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this calendar is also a maker’s story; in this case, it’s a reflection of modern day work with an authentic connection to America’s roots. 

We were pleased to assist the Hansen team with one project in particular during 2014 – the restoration of a rare transitional John Deere wagon.  You can learn a little more by reading about the project on the inside back cover of this calendar. 

As we turn the corner into 2015, we’re looking forward to the privilege of sharing even more and wish each of you a blessed and Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas To All!

2014 has been an extraordinary year.  Our research and collecting has taken us throughout the U.S. and beyond.  Along the way, we’ve uncovered a world of early vehicle history while adding significant artifacts and historical records to the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.  Several of our blogs have provided glimpses of a few of the discoveries.  From early ledgers and catalogs to period writings and scarce images, the accounts are helping us better understand and share the realities of America’s wood-wheeled transportation during the 1800’s and early 1900’s. 

Among the rarest elements discovered were materials connected to chuck wagons, freighters, Archibald hubs, S.C. Overpack (Big Wheels), M.P. Henderson, Abbot & Downing, as well as Cooper, John Deere, Luedinghaus, Owensboro, Mitchell, Moline, Schuttler, Weber, and Kentucky Wagon companies and so much more.

This early period chuck wagon image is a small portion of a larger original photo.  From the camp and equipment to the chuck box and wagon, there's a great deal to study in just this small section. 

We’ve been especially fortunate to work with a number of organizations and private collectors this year.  To each, we thank you for the privilege of assisting with your special projects.  Helping provide authoritative identification, documentation, dating, and authentication to worthy vehicles continues to be among our most popular services.   

In the coming year, you’ll notice several changes to our website as we work to more accurately reflect the exclusive nature of what our archives and experience can offer.  In the meantime, we look forward to your emails and regular visits to this blog and pledge to continue searching for even more lost and noteworthy history.

Wishing each of you a very Merry Christmas!


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Early History of Weber Wagon Company

One of America’s most discussed and collected horse drawn wagon brands is Weber.  Like many other prominent early vehicle builders, the look of Weber’s products changed over time.  That said, most surviving Webers with sufficient paint have at least one part of their outward appearance in common.  Positioned within the logo is the date of the firm’s beginnings – 1845.  That’s about as much nineteenth century company history as many sources ever share.  With that in mind, we decided to open up a few of the primary source materials in our collection and pass along an overview of what was happening with the business during some of the most exciting days of the American West.  As always, all of our images, text, and works are protected by copyright and cannot be reproduced without prior written approval from the Wheels That Won The West® Archives. 

This well-worn logo from a twentieth-century-built Weber includes an IHC symbol (International Harvester Corporation) and the 1845 date at the top of the design.

Born in 1822, Henry Weber set out for America when he was eighteen.  It was a sailing voyage that lasted just over a month. (And I thought my last cross-country trip was long!) He apprenticed as a wagon maker for three years in New York before heading west to Detroit, Michigan.  The future ‘Motor City’ capital couldn’t hold him, though, and he soon set his eyes on Chicago.  Arriving there midway through 1844, he immediately found work in an established wagon shop.  By the following year, Weber was working on plans for his own vehicle business.  With a $250 investment, he and partner, Jacob Gauch, hung out their shingle as wagon makers in 1845.  The slow but steady business was not enough to hold Mr. Gauch.  With news of California’s gold strikes, wagon work seemed a slow way to make a living.  Determined to make his fortune farther west, in 1849, he sold his share to Henry and providence began to take root for Mr. Weber. 

In less than a decade, Weber had outgrown his humble beginnings and began to expand his operations.  By the spring of 1871, the company was expanding again.  This time to a large 4-story brick building.  It was one of the few structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire in October of the same year.  Escaping one inferno, though, was no guarantee of future getaways.  Luck ran out for Weber in August of 1887 when a fire ravaged everything but his stock of lumber.  

Marking the year of its incorporation, this original 1883 catalog is a rare survivor.  It’s filled with details of Weber’s early farm, freight, ranch, businesses, and personal vehicle offerings.

After thirty-eight years in business, the company finally incorporated in 1883.  With $150,000 of fresh capital to work with, they had traveled far from the first day with just $250 and a dream. 

By the mid-1890’s, the Weber Wagon Company is reported to have been producing 16,000 wagons and bobsleds annually.   With a strong distribution system, they were recognized throughout the U.S. as a quality and highly desirable brand. Such was the growth that it attracted considerable attention from buyers who wanted to purchase the entire company.  In a move to compete more effectively in the lucrative wagon market, International Harvester Corporation purchased Weber in 1904. 
If you’re a Weber fan, you can find more details on the company’s history with International Harvester by contacting the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Top Wagon Makers In The West

From time to time, I’m asked, “Who were the leading wagon makers back-in-the-day?”  It’s a great question but like so many other queries, there are some caveats.  The answer depends a lot on what timeframe you’re looking at.  Wagon companies, like countless establishments today, could experience significant fluctuations in business, both positive and negative.  While many benefited from steady growth, challenges to progress could easily be inflicted by sagging national or regional economies, a lack of capital to keep the brand competitive, lawsuits, poor management, workforce issues, raw material shortages, or weak distribution channels.  Even natural disasters such as fires, storms, and floods often created huge setbacks for firms.  As a result, some of the premier brands could occasionally be seen rotating in and out of market dominance. 

This extremely rare promotional brochure was distributed during the 1880’s.  It goes to great lengths to describe the superior features of the ‘Whitewater’ wagon made by the Winchester & Partridge Mfg. Co.

With those thoughts in mind, not long ago, I was fortunate to uncover a number of rare insights into the vehicle makers producing the most western wagons in the late 1870’s.  The primary source account highlights nearly two dozen of the top farm wagon companies in the West.  It’s such a scarce find that it’s possible this blog post marks the first time the details have been shared with any modern day audience.  The piece appeared in the June 1, 1879 issue of “The Hub,” a well-known and highly-respected voice for the early wagon and carriage industry.  While the story was primarily focused on producers of farm wagons, it’s interesting to note that most of these firms also built freight wagons.  I’ve reproduced the text from the article below.  Please note, for greater separation and clarity, I placed hyphens between the individual makers…
 “The Farm Wagons Built In The West annually aggregate upwards of 125,000.  The leading houses which make a specialty of wagons for farm purposes are the following:  Mitchell, Lewis & Co. – Fish Bros. – and the Racine Carriage & Wagon Co., in Racine, Wis. – Edward Bain, Kenosha, Wis. – LaBelle Wagon Works (B.F. Moore) Fon du Lac, Wis. – The Winchester & Partridge Mfg. Co., Whitewater, Wis. – The Northwestern Furniture Co., Fort Atkinson, Wis., who have recently extended their business and added farm wagon work to their previous specialty of furniture. –  Studebaker Bros. Mfg. Co. and A. Coquillard, South Bend, Ind. – Milburn Wagon Co., Toledo, O. – Robinson Wagon Co., Cincinnati, O. – Austin, Tomlinson & Webster Mfg. Co., who have two factories; one at Jackson, Mich., where they employ convict labor and build about twenty wagons a day; and the second at Moundsville, W. Va., with a product of about ten a day. – S.G. Krick, farm wagons as well as carriages, Niles, Mich. – Wm. Harrison, Grand Rapids, Mich. – Burrell Bros., wagons and carriages, Kalamazoo, Mich. – Newton & Co., Batavia, Ill. – Moline Wagon Co., Moline, Ill. – Peter Schuttler, Chicago, Ill. – A.A. Cooper, Dubuque, Iowa. – Star Wagon Co., Cedar Rapids, Iowa. – Kansas Mfg. Co., Leavenworth, Kas.  Judging by the reports of the proprietors of the twenty-two factories named above, the product of these alone, during the year 1878 was 104,000 farm wagons.  This fact gives a slight glimpse of the magnitude of the great West, and of its wonderful growth both in agriculture and manufacturing.”

Of course, the information in the article is only a snapshot of this particular time in the late 1870’s.  Nonetheless, it does provide us with better awareness of production numbers and wagon makers considered to be prominent on the plains and frontier during the era.  Clearly, there are some builders given high accolades today that are not included in this listing.  It’s quite likely that, in most cases, the firm had either (a) already peaked and was in decline, (b) was in a momentary production lull, or (c) had yet to achieve its legendary status. 

As home to so much western vehicle history, we’re pleased to share that the Wheels That Won The West® Archives contain period literature and imagery of virtually all of the builders listed in this article.  While a few of the aforementioned brands are largely unknown to enthusiasts today, they  were popular brands and active leaders during some of the most historic and momentous days in the American West.  We'll share a bit more on several of the lesser known legends in the coming months.

By the way, if you haven't gotten around to signing up to have our blog emailed to you each time a new one is posted, please consider this as your personal invitation to do so.  It’s easy.  Just type your address into the “Follow By Email” section in the far right hand column above.  You’ll receive a confirmation email that you’ll need to verify before you’re officially on board.  We cover a world of western vehicle topics so don't miss out and please don’t hesitate to let us know if we can be of assistance.  We’re looking forward to your visits each week.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Making Wooden Wheels & Keeping It All Together

With so many individual elements comprising a vintage wagon wheel, the design is considerably different than most modern day vehicle wheels.  Without proper maintenance, the passage of time as well as the sheer number of separate parts in a wagon wheel can wreak havoc on the soundness of the piece.
Binding a wooden wheel with a steel tire has proven to be a good way to keep the entire structure solid.  Clearly, as long as the wood doesn’t move too much, it works extremely well.  However, whether it’s through temperature or moisture variances or forced displacement, the challenge is that wood does move.  For wheel and wagon makers of old, the chore of keeping steel tires on wooden wheels was a never-ending job.

Holding the tires on the wooden rims or felloes (pronounced as ‘fell-ohs’) was approached from a number of directions.  From tire bolts and rivets to nails, wedges, pins, oil, water, rawhide, and a host of other remedies, there was no shortage of ideas to help solve the short and long-term problem.  Even arguments over whether hot-setting or cold-setting tires was best were continually shared in business correspondence and industry news.  (I’ll cover more on these technologies in a future blog)

Not long ago, while doing research on a regional wagon maker in Iowa, I ran across yet another method of securing a tire to a wheel.  In 1895, William O’Brien submitted his idea to the U.S. Patent Office.  Unlike many hopeful patentees, O’Brien’s notion apparently did make it off the drawing board and into production.  While it’s not currently known how long the innovation was used, period reports seem to indicate the idea was successful for a number of years.  

This 1895 patent illustration shows the unique way O’Brien wagon tires were secured to the wooden wheels.

As shown by the illustration above, O’Brien’s concept involved the creation of a continuous rib or bead along the tread surface of the felloes.  This raised bead was fitted into a matching concave groove in the underside of the tire effectively ‘locking’ the tire onto the felloes.  During the hot-setting process, the tire was heated sufficiently to expand over the bead.  Once it cooled, the tire shrank to fit the beaded felloe, effectively securing itself to the wheel.  As long as the hub, spokes and felloes remained reasonably tight and unitized, the tire groove would stay seated on the rib encircling the wheel. 

Ultimately, this discovery is one more feature that may prove helpful in the identification of some O’Brien brand wagons.  I say ‘some’ because there was more than one O’Brien wagon brand and, even survivors of the correct make may not have been produced during the timeframe of the patent. 

Just like the bone-jarring hardships suffered by countless wooden wheels, it seems the ordeals of identification are always there; shifting, shaking, and testing our resolve to hold onto our past and keep it all together.