Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Ice Wagons and the Knickerbocker Ice Company

The Wheels That Won The West® Collection of early vehicle literature includes details on a number of horse drawn vehicle types.  The styles we predominantly focus on are those within the farm, freight, ranch/trail, coach, business, and military categories.   Looking back over the years of articles and blogs, I realized that we haven’t covered as many examples of wagons and associated builders that would be included in the general ‘business’ or commercial category.  So, since many of us seem to be stuck with old man winter for a little longer, we’ll focus on a company and vehicle built to make the most of the cold.  

Many will know of or perhaps remember a time when refrigeration of food was limited to the chill of a cool, flowing spring or maybe even a sawdust insulated wooden box.  My dad grew up in the South during a time when those things were common.  As a teenager, I helped clean out the old family spring house (over time the silt accumulates) where they had once kept fresh milk.  I also have an old ice box.  It’s a simple design with a top lid and galvanized metal liner.  At one time, blocks of ice would have been placed inside to help preserve food.  The designs were a precursor to modern refrigerators which didn’t become prevalent until the 1920’s and later.  I still remember my grandmother asking me to go to her back porch and get food from her “ice box.”  It was an electric freezer but the term was so rooted in her past that she almost never referred to it in any other way. 

Having true ‘ice boxes’ in a home seems to have become relatively commonplace in America by 1900, with associated ice providers making regular deliveries to homes and businesses.  One of the industry legends, the Knickerbocker Ice Company of Philadelphia, harvested, stored, and delivered ice during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  

This historic cut shows a portion of the Philadelphia workshops of the Knickerbocker Ice Company.

This historic cut shows a portion of the Philadelphia workshops of the Knickerbocker Ice Company.

Knickerbocker had a long history, apparently dating to as early as the mid-1800’s.  The business was incorporated in May of 1864 and appears to have eventually come under control of the American Ice Company of New Jersey.†  In the mid-1890’s, the company was reported to have $2,000,000 of invested capital.  In similarly impressive numbers, the firm maintained storage capacity for 1,000,000 tons of ice.  The product was delivered to customers throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maine with large wholesale clients being dealers, brewers, and packing houses.  So strong was the business that, distribution of ice to customers in Philadelphia, alone, was said to have required over 500 wagons and 1,200 horses and mules.  It was a demanding operation maintained by massive workshops ran by the company.  The plant in Philadelphia was manned by approximately 125 employees and included multiple machine shops, a foundry, tool works, harness making shop, horse shoeing shop, and a wagon manufactory.  The Ice Wagons built by Knickerbocker capitalized on bright graphics and attractive designs.  They were sold throughout the U.S.; from Texas to California, Maryland to Georgia, and Illinois to Florida.  

This rare illustration from the Wheels That Won The West® Archives portrays a scene from the Paint shop of the Knickerbocker Wagon factory.
This rare illustration from the Wheels That Won The West® Archives portrays a scene from the Paint shop of the Knickerbocker Wagon factory.

Among the strongest vehicles produced by Knickerbocker was a 2-horse supply wagon.  It was impressively rated to haul up to 4 tons of ice and gear while weighing in at just over 2700 pounds.  In the same 1889 catalog, a hand-painted vehicle with murals, labeled as a “Picture Wagon,” was set on heavy platform springs and designed to carry up to 3 tons.  Overall, the two-horse designs generally ranged from 3,000 to 8,000 pound capacities.  Knickerbocker’s one horse ice wagons included an equally wide variety of designs with hauling capacities starting at 1500 pounds and extending up to 3500 pounds.  The firm even made two-wheeled ice carts with a capacity of 1,000 pounds. 

An early promotional image showing a 2-horse Knickerbocker Ice Wagon with a capacity of 4,500 pounds.

An early promotional image showing a 2-horse Knickerbocker Ice Wagon with a capacity of 4,500 pounds.

While Knickerbocker claimed to be the largest producer of wagons, tools, and machinery for moving ice*, it was far from the only builder of Ice Wagons.  A number of major manufacturers included these designs in their offerings.  At the turn of the 20th century, the famed Studebaker Wagon Company was building Ice Wagons with steel axle sizes ranging from 1 3/4” to 2 5/8”.   The dimensions were typically related to weight capacities of a particular design.  Wholesale pricing for complete vehicles could range from just over $400 to almost $700; over double and triple of what a farm wagon would have sold for at the time. 

Today, original ice wagons in good condition can command a much higher tag.  No longer used in the same way, they are cherished for their artful design, timeframe of service, regional history, maker brand, and the memories they evoke. 

“Moodys Manual of Railroad and Corporation Securities,” 1921, p. 61-64, Industrials section

* “The City of Philadelphia as it Appears in the Year 1894,” p. 205       

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted and may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Few More Horse Drawn Vehicle Terms

A word of fair warning… this week’s blog is a little longer than most.  As sometimes happens, I went from writer’s block to a rough subject idea to “how in the devil do I rein myself in?”  If I’ve done nothing else, though, maybe I’ve helped reinforce the tremendous scope of subject matter when talking about early North American vehicles.  Enjoy…

America’s early vehicle industry was full of nomenclature that may sound strange today but was well known a century ago.  For contemporary audiences, a lack of familiarity with some terms can cause the subject to be even more complicated.  It’s one of the reasons for these weekly blogs as well as why we included a list of wagon part names in our limited edition, “Making Tracks” print.   

So, how polished are you in your early vehicle terminology?  Would you recognize a point band, buff-stick, or Booby-Hut if you saw one?  One of the things that can sometimes be helpful in understanding vehicle labels or part names is to examine the history related to a particular set of wheels.  Specifically, the origin of certain terms can be directly connected to a maker name, as it is with Sarven, Warner, or Archibald hubs, Sandage skeins, and Hurlbut brake ratchets.  Each of these parts received their name from an innovator providing a different design to the marketplace.

At other times, the part name or vehicle designation may be connected to its popularity within a geographic region of the country.  Examples include… Boston backers, Chicago shafts, St. Louis seat risers, Oregon brakes, Colorado brakes, California tire rivets, Ohio boot end bed, California rack bed, Nevada freighter, Arizona buckboard, Concord coach, Conestoga wagon, Pitt wagon, Virginia wagon, Kansas wagon, and more.  Of course, many of these names were never totally limited to specific regions but at least we know something about their prominence in those areas. 

The Archibald wheel patent was utilized on numerous wagon types within the military, industrial, and business trades.

Looking back a little more than a century ago, the April 1904 issue of “The Carriage Monthly” featured a glossary outlining a few vehicle types from the 19th and early 20th centuries in America.  While not all of the terms they shared will directly relate to western vehicles, in today’s world it’s not uncommon to find pieces scattered all over this country and beyond.  As a result, it’s often helpful to have a general, if not specific, familiarity with as many vehicle types as possible.  With that as a bit of background, below are several selections from the 1904 article…

Booby-Hut – Booby-Hut is a New England term applied to a chariot or coach body swung by thoroughbraces on a sleigh running part.  (As a side note, I happened to be at Doug Hansen’s shop in Letcher, South Dakota several years ago and he was restoring one of these.)  

California – The California wood-spring wagon is a variety of the coal-box buggy, hung on wooden springs and thoroughbraces and was introduced by the Kimball Mfg. Co., of San Francisco.

Jagger Wagon – The Jagger Wagon was for a while used in New York.  It was a square-boxed buggy or light business wagon, hung on bolsters without springs.

Go-Cart – The Go-Cart is a form of cabriolet, and was an old chariot submitted to numerous transformations.  It is used as a sort of two-wheeled cart and has a deep, cranked axle.

Rig – The Rig is an American slang term, and is evidently a contraction of the word, “rigging,” and is often applied to vehicles which are provided with special appurtenances or riggings.  It is also applied incorrectly to light or dilapidated vehicles.

Shebang – “Shebang” is a slang term formerly applied to a carriage and horse in certain parts of the West, in which the carriage did not represent very much skill or style and the horse did not show a very intimate acquaintance with oats and hay.

Whiskey – The Whiskey was an early form of the chaise, and was a light two-wheeled vehicle, hung on grasshopper springs, without hood or top, and similar to our modern sulky in general appearance.  It was so called because of its ability to whisk or turn around easily.

Prairie Yacht – …The Prairie Yacht was invented by Dr. Wheeler, Grand Forks, N.D. and was built to skim over the snow-covered plains by the aid of the wind.  It was modeled after the Ice Yacht. 

This historical dictionary of horse drawn vehicle terms is extensive and belongs in every enthusiast’s library.

This historical dictionary of horse drawn vehicle terms is extensive and belongs in every enthusiast’s library.

It would have been nice if the article mentioned above had included images for especially rare vehicles like the “Prairie Yacht” but, no such luck.  If you enjoy American sleigh history, though, you’ll be glad to know that, with a little more effort, I was able to uncover an obscure report that outlines this near-forgotten vehicle in surprising detail.  Take a look at the following description of a Prairie Yacht as I found it in the March 12, 1887 issue of the “London American Register.”

A PRAIRIE YACHT. This yacht is the invention of Dr. H. M. Wheeler, of Grand Forks, Dakota.  It is a novel craft that sails over the snow on the prairies at the rate of from thirteen to sixteen miles an hour, and even faster when there is a good hard crust on the snow.  The yacht is 32 feet in length, width abeam 14 feet, mast 20 feet, main boom 32 feet, gaff 12 feet, jibboom 11 feet.  The runners are strong toboggans nine feet long, the front ones being one foot, and the rear ones six inches wide.  The front runners have a central shoe two feet long, projecting one and a quarter inches to prevent “drifting.”  The body of the boat is raised above the runners one foot.  The framework is three feet across the stem, and the tiller is attached directly to the rear runner.  Dr. Wheeler says in his letter, “Our country is a vast table land, and with the exceptions of ravines and water courses, is apparently as level as the floor.  We have no fences, except small enclosures for stock, hence we have plenty of ‘sea room.’  My mast is as high as will go under telegraph wires, and even now sometimes encounters them, on which account I have rigged an iron fender shaped like an old-fashioned figure 4, with a line running from front angle to bowsprit. When the front face of this 4 strikes a telegraph wire, the wire bounds up and over it, and the yacht passes along.”

To catch up on more early vehicle jargon, locate the book, “Carriage Terminology,” by Don Berkebile.  It doesn’t include every vehicle term but, at nearly 500 pages, there is a lot to digest.  To me, it’s a must for any serious horse drawn vehicle library.

Clearly, from pole cap to rear axle, there’s a lot to cover on any wood-wheeled conveyance.  Only by continually broadening our understanding of the industry’s language can we fully appreciate the design, history, and purposes of a set of wheels. That said, if all else fails, the next time someone tells you to ‘Move your Shebang’, ‘Step into their Booby Hut’, or ‘Check out their Whiskey’, you may want to clarify exactly what they’re referring too!
Have a good week! 

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted and may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Farm & Freight Wagons

The older I get the more complex the world seems to be.  Yes, I know, some parts of life do appear to be simpler but consider this… when many of us were kids, something as straightforward as a watch was, well, just a watch.  The band was either elastic, had a clip, or small buckle.  That was the end of the frills.  There were no digital read-outs, just an hour, minute, and “sweep” second hand.  Today, the watch many of us use is also a phone and flashlight as well as a still camera and video recorder that shows multi-year calendars, sends emails and texts, surfs the internet, plays games, sends reminders, keeps notes, updates us on news and weather, gives directions, plays music, videos, and so much more!

Whatever the innovation and however superior the idea, it seems there’s always room to be better.  Studying the world of early wagons and western vehicles has some parallels as well.  Predominantly, the more we uncover, the deeper this subject seems to be and the easier it is to see there is still a lot to learn.  Beyond my own research queries, I receive quite a few questions in the course of a year related to wood-wheeled transportation.  To that point, some time back, a gentleman asked me to define the scope of a farm wagon’s use.  That’s almost like asking how many stars are in the sky.  The vehicle is so versatile, it was used for a near-endless array of purposes. 

The Peter Schuttler wagon brand, based in Chicago, Illinois, was highly respected among farmers, ranchers, freighters, and business owners.

Ultimately, the individual wanted to know if a farm wagon could sometimes be engaged as a freight wagon.  The answer is threefold… “Yes, No, and It depends.”  By now I hope I have your curiosity up because the question is one of the best I’ve ever received.  The reason is that it forces us to consider the entire scope of what has become an extraordinarily commonplace term for a surprisingly complex design… a design so ubiquitous that contemporary audiences often see it as ordinary.  The end result of that kind of reasoning can mean a loss of vehicle identity, contributions, and significance.  In other words, by focusing only on the words – ‘farm wagon’ – the category can be so restricted that misinterpretations are too easily substituted for historic reality.

American farm wagons, by definition, can include a broad assortment of vehicles going by names such as Road wagons, Virginia wagons, schooners, smaller Conestoga wagons, box wagons, rack beds, and even Mountain wagons.  Each of these types can be pigeon-holed into a specific set of farm duties but some of these wheels were also used as freight wagons during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Of course, city trucks, drays, hitch wagons, and platform wagons as well as log wagons, dump wagons, and a variety of other styles were also haulers of certain types of freight.  The freight wagons I’m referring to here, though, are those strictly commercial vehicles regularly traveling long distances while carrying massive amounts of goods, supplies, equipment and/or raw ore between settled areas. 

Tall-sided freight wagons with ‘back-actions’ were a common sight during the mid to late 1800’s in the American West.

While major wagon builders in the late 1800’s regularly promoted specific freight wagon designs, end users also looked to what they already had available.  Clearly, lightly built farm wagons would not have been up to the requirements of heavy freighting.  That said, more muscular farm wagons were indeed documented among eastern and western freighters.  Among many of the eastern states, Road Wagons, Virginia Wagons, and smaller Conestoga wagons could be seen hauling commercial freight as well as serving on the farm.  Numerous period records refer to temporary freighter/farmers as ‘sharpshooters’.  These farmers took advantage of seasonal or financially favorable opportunities to participate in freighting alongside the ‘regulars.’

Out West, where the tall-sided freight wagons reigned, heavier built farm-style wagons could periodically be seen trailing behind as a second or even third wagon in a connected train.  These secondary trailers (back-actions) were often fitted with additional sideboards, making them at or near the same height as the lead wagon.  Our Wheels That Won The West® archives not only include original photographic examples of these configurations but some images actually show an entire train of reinforced farm wagons with multiple sideboards.  Of course, these aren’t your average farm wagons.  Equipped with steel skeins, heavily clipped gears, and reinforced axles, payload capacities for some of these brawnier farm wagons could equal as much as 3 or 4 tons.  Maker-labeled ‘Freight Wagons’ promoted in 1800’s catalogs were regularly engineered with capacities of 2.5 to 7 tons. 

This image shows a pair of western rack bed wagons with additional sideboards in place.  It was not uncommon to see freighters like this in the West.  

So, while not all farm wagons could be called freight wagons, some were clearly used in that position.  Prominent wagon makers also sold specific lead & trail wagons for freighting. 

As a side note, most surviving farm wagons today will vary a bit from 1800’s-era designs due to evolutionary changes in construction features.  As with virtually every product configuration, details make the difference as to what could or could not have logically filled the role.  From skein sizes and types to axle configurations, bolsters, and standards, every part and purpose of these vehicles was specifically engineered to reinforce the whole. 

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted and may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Types of Wood in Wagons

“There’s nothing like a nice piece of hickory…”  So remarked Clint Eastwood after using an axe handle to put the hurt on four bad guys during one of the opening scenes of the movie, “Pale Rider.”  The tongue-in-cheek delivery reinforced the dependability, strength, resilience – and well, uh, ‘versatility’ of hickory wood.  Today, we can find hickory used for a multitude of purposes.  It’s a staple in everything from smoking meats to making furniture, tool handles, golf clubs, flooring, ladders and much more. 

This early promotional graphic shows six mules pulling a heavily-laden Studebaker Mountain Wagon.

 This early promotional graphic shows six mules pulling a heavily laden 

Studebaker Mountain Wagon.

In the days when horseflesh ruled the road, hickory was also among the most prized timber for constructing vehicles.  The density, muscle, and shock resistance made it an ideal choice for axles.  However, while this particular hardwood was extremely popular, it was far from being the only variety used.  Early builders blended different types of wood in the construction of almost every set of wheels.  The purpose was to obtain optimum performance and durability for each part of a vehicle’s design without adding unnecessary weight.  Below, I’ve dissected many of the major areas within a wagon’s construction, sharing the types of wood used in each.  The list is not all-inclusive as there were substitutions for almost everything.  That said, these details will cover many of the most preferred timber choices. 

  • Wooden axles were commonly made of hickory.  Some designs might employ maple, pecan, or rock elm but hickory was clearly the favorite.  
  • The felloes or rims in a wooden wheel were often made from white oak or bois d’arc (sometimes referred to as Osage Orange).
  • Hubs were made from seasoned black birch, white oak, or black locust with gum also known to have been used.     
  • Spokes were often made of hickory or white oak.
  • Bolsters were fashioned from white oak or maple.
  • Hounds could be white oak or hickory.
  • Other parts of the gear, such as the sandboard and reach, were taken from butt cuts of white oak.
  • Doubletrees, singletrees, and neck yokes were frequently built out of hickory or white oak.
  • Tongues were commonly produced from white oak or ash. 

Aside from the running gear elements shown above, farm wagon boxes were also comprised of a mix of different woods.  Hardwood provided added strength while softer woods were selected for a combination of strength and lighter weight.  Poplar or cottonwood were regular picks for sideboards and end gates while fir was a common choice for some west coast manufacturers.  Tongue-in-groove floors were frequently built out of long leaf yellow pine.  Cross sills below the box were usually oak hardwood as were the straddler staples and sideboard cleats.

The types of wood used might also be determined by the vehicle style and purpose as well as the timber’s availability and affordability during a given timeframe.  As I’ve shared in so many venues over the last two decades, the make-up of America’s early horse drawn vehicles involved a complex collaboration of art, science, personal preference, and know-how.   

Just as Eastwood’s character recognized the value of hickory wood, wagon makers likewise paid close attention to what they put into their vehicles.  Every part of a quality brand was designed to optimize the form, function, and overall satisfaction of a particular set of wheels.    

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted and may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.