Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Wagons & the Way They Were Built

I’ve shared a number of times that every part of a period vehicle can hold clues related to its provenance.  From age and use histories to maker labels and design standards, paying attention to construction details can make all the difference in what we know to be fact versus mere beliefs or speculation.

Some time ago, I had a discussion with a friend about the way floors were placed in early wagons.  There were several techniques employed by period builders of farm wagons.  The most frequently seen style in surviving vehicles is tongue and groove. This type of interlocking construction works by fitting a grooved slot from one side of the board into a protruded ridge from another board.  It offers great strength and long-lasting sealing characteristics. 

 This image shows a wagon with the more commonly seen tongue and groove floor.

A second method of placing boards in a wagon floor is by simply butting the sides of the planks together.  While simple to install, one of the primary challenges for farmers was the difficulty in keeping the boards sufficiently tight in respect to each other.  Over time, gaps between the boards would almost certainly appear, allowing loose grain, seed, or other small items to fall through. 

As can be seen in this image, laying boards side by side invariably left gaps making it tough to seal the floor of the box.

A third approach to installing flooring for a box is similar to tongue and groove.  Referred to as a shiplap floor, this design pulls the floor together by over and underlapping adjoining boards.  As with tongue and groove boards, shiplap construction allows for dimensional movement of the wood while also retaining longitudinal strength.  While the design is effective at closing gaps, it may not seal quite as well as tongue and groove and sometimes can be more susceptible to splintering and warping.

For some modern day collectors, the process of shiplapping a wagon floor may be tempting to view as a faster but less effective way of finishing a box.  However, that opinion was clearly not shared by some well-known wagon makers.  Over the last decade, I’ve encountered several instances of original wagon boxes built in this way.  In each circumstance, the wagon was known as a premium quality brand with an unquestioned national reputation.   

Period wagons with original shiplap floors are not commonly found today.

As we work to understand why certain builders did things in a particular way, it’s important to remember that major vehicle manufacturers didn’t (and still don’t) typically rush into cheap alternatives in the design of their products.  Hard-earned reputations for quality have too much to lose by ushering in unproven creations.  While all builders looked for efficiencies that made good business sense, there is a balance between saving time and money while continuing to deliver excellent products.    

Even with the use of shiplap floors by multiple dominant manufacturers, the practice does not seem to have garnered wide-spread acceptance.  Nonetheless, I recently uncovered a catalog from yet another prominent brand touting the preference of ship lap floors.  The firm claimed that these floors were “…much stronger than ‘tongued and grooved’...”  It is known, however, that this same company did eventually switch to the tongue and groove method.  Why did they ultimately switch?  Product availability, consumer preference, warping, splintering, or even sealing issues may have had something to do with it.  We may never really know as I have also seen warping and splintering in tongue and groove floors.    

The true take-away from this information goes beyond which method proved to be best.  It comes down to the need for enthusiasts to be acutely aware of differences and prepared to understand what each area can tell us.  Alertness to these details can be extraordinarily useful when determining timeframes of manufacture, rarity features, originality levels, and brand identities. 

In the end, the subject seems to share some similarities with early claims related to the upsetting (tightening) of tires on wooden wheels.  As with the case of tongue and groove floors, some makers seem to have stuck predominantly with one method of tightening tires while others experimented with two or more different directions.  We’ll take a closer look at this topic in an upcoming blog as well.

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, March 18, 2015

Wheels That Won The West® Updates

Most weeks, this blog is filled with behind-the-scenes details related to western vehicles created a century or more ago.  This week, the thoughts are still related to those early pieces, but I wanted to share some more current news related to our website.
We’re in the middle of a number of site changes that are expected to launch this week.  From the beginning, our desire has been to show America’s early western transportation industry for what it was… and still is!  It’s an intricate blend of extraordinary art, science, dreams, devotion, and sweat equity surrounded by a heritage of real world challenges and unforgiving competition.  For me, it’s the most intriguing segment of the Old West because it dramatically impacted virtually every aspect of it.
Conveying those truths has sometimes been difficult since there are a number of misconceptions about the industry, the vehicles, and the times.  One of our primary goals for the Wheels That Won The West® Archives has been to actively search for lost details on brands memorably tied to the development of the American West.  Honestly, it’s not easy.  The journey requires a tremendous investment of time and resources and most of the efforts go unseen.  Fortunately, the passion I have for this subject is its own fuel and that drive continues to uncover some pretty amazing material; the bulk of which is preserved for other projects and often not included in these blogs. 

This screenshot shows some of the rich imagery and storyline details that have been incorporated into the Wheels That Won The West® website.

With that in mind and, in an effort to better explain who we are and what we do, we’ve been working on a number of noticeable changes to the ‘Wheels’ website.  The homepage has undergone a complete overhaul and is designed to more effectively convey the depth, artistry, and complexity of heavy horse-drawn vehicles from the 19th and early 20th centuries.  With such a broad base of original, primary source materials at our fingertips, the site is also fashioned to expound on a world of exclusive Vehicle Services.  Details can be found in the ‘Records & Research’ as well as the ‘Presentation & Media’ sections.  All of it should be more mobile-friendly, so you can take us with you anywhere.

You’ll note the ‘Articles’ section has been updated to include even more of our writings.  With several hundred pieces penned to date, this new section clearly doesn’t include everything we’ve written but at least it’s a start.  Finally, I’m working on material for a special section we’ve entitled, “Search & Rescue,” that will ultimately include information on unique present-day western vehicle finds.  I continue to believe that we may be the last generation with any hope of locating and recognizing remaining survivors tied to the development of the West.  This feature is currently linking to the ‘Articles’ section but will eventually become a separate source of vehicle information.

This is a ‘soft launch’ of the new site – meaning that we’re still working on other areas and some of the link-to pages will be changing as we move forward.  Nonetheless, it seemed noteworthy to let everyone know of the new look.
Other projects on our front burner include an upcoming article for Farm Collector magazine and a final report documenting the restoration of a rare and transitional John Deere wagon that we worked on with the folks at Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop.  In this project, our files were tapped for access to ultra-rare logos, striping, and other authentication elements.  We also have a few original running gears in the shop that are slated to have darkened linseed oil removed while preserving the original paint. 

Finally, as of late last year, my wife and I are officially grandparents so we’ve been working on backyard playground plans.  Yes, I know, the kid isn’t even crawling yet but let’s not let details get in the way of fun!
We appreciate your continued support, encouragement, and suggestions.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while and have yet to introduce yourself, please drop us a line.  We really would be glad to hear from you.  Have a great week!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

An Interview with John Mohler Studebaker

I recently came across an issue of “The Hub” magazine from 1910.  This publication, and others like it, is filled with information regarding America’s early transportation industry.  From wooden vehicle designs and instruction on different trade crafts to details on the then-current industry news, there is a lot to be gleaned from these periodicals. 

“The Hub” was a prominent trade journal for the carriage and wagon industry.

Leafing through the pages, I noticed an interview with John Mohler Studebaker, President of Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Company in South Bend, Indiana.  Like many enthusiasts, I’ve read a fair number of books and articles about Studebaker but, poring over this interview, the impact of the words took on a different perspective.  No longer was I reading but, rather, it felt as though I was in the room; a bystander listening to the conversation. 

J.M. Studebaker would have been quite familiar with the horse drawn wagons shown in this 20th century catalog.  He passed away in 1917, just a few years prior to the company ceasing production of all horse drawn vehicles. 

Hearing something from Mr. Studebaker virtually firsthand is a rarity.  He passed away in 1917 and most historical accounts don’t include extended quotations.  1910 was a transitional period for the firm, so thoughts from one so deeply connected to the brand’s roots are intriguing.  In 1910, Studebaker was just six years into production of gasoline automobiles and roughly a decade from ceasing output of all horse drawn vehicles.  Times were changing but the old wagon man refused to conceal his love for wooden wheels.  He was “dancin’ with the one that brought him” the entire time.

With that in mind, and out of respect for the Studebaker brand, I thought it would be appropriate to share this century-plus-old interview from “The Hub.” At the time J.M. (John Mohler) was the last surviving brother of the famed Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Company: 

Mr. John M. Studebaker, of the Studebaker concern, was interviewed at the Waldorf-Astoria when in New York recently.  A part of what he said follows:

Mr. Studebaker said that he started out in life with a capital of 50 cents.  He said that he was 77 years old, “though,” he added, “my wife always gets after me when I tell my real age.  You see, the secret of long life and good health is hard work.  I have always worked hard.
Two of my brothers had a little blacksmith shop in South Bend, but I decided in 1852, while I was working for a wagon maker there, that I wanted to go out to California to seek my fortune.  So I built a wagon body that winter and my brother did the iron work for me.  There was a company going west the next spring, and I turned my wagon over to them to pay for my share of the expenses.  We had a drove of horses with us and the Indians chased us all the way.  Almost every night they would try to steal our horses.   They didn’t have rifles in those days, so they did not do much attacking.
It took us five months and eight days to get across to California, and when I landed there I only had 50 cents on which to begin life.  I took to prospecting but I kept at it only three months.  Then I decided to make use of my trade and I started in making wheelbarrows and picks.  After four years, I had enough of it and returned to South Bend in the winter of 1857.  (WTWTW note:  JMS actually returned at the end of the 1857 winter in April of 1858)

My two brothers were still in business and I bought the elder out, and we went into wagon making.  There wasn’t any marvelous growth – just natural.  The business spread and the day before I left South Bend, we received orders for 11,000 vehicles of various kinds.  We sell a good deal to Europe, though as much to England.  South America is our biggest foreign customer and the Argentine Republic is the chief part of that.  A friend who just go back to-day from the other side was telling me he hired a carriage at Jerusalem and found it was one of our make.  We turn out 400 different kinds of vehicles.”

“What has been the effect of the automobile on the carriage business?” Mr. Studebaker was asked.

“Well, it has practically killed the fine vehicle, but it has increased the output of the medium class article.”   

Building any brand into a household name is challenging.  The Studebaker family and their employees did it so well that the desire among collectors for all things Studebaker is still extraordinarily powerful – nearly a half century since the last auto was built and close to a century since the final wagon left the factory. 

We’ll share more details about the early days of Studebaker in a post later this year.  It’s a brand closely paralleling the excitement, opportunity, and growth of the American West.  By the way, 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.

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, March 4, 2015

McMaster Camping Car – An Early RV Wagon

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous types of excursion vehicles could be seen traveling backcountry trails and remote regions throughout the American West.  Carrying vacationing passengers for day, overnight, and extended outings, these specially-designed wheels could be as modestly built as a spring wagon fitted with a few extra seats or as elaborately imaginative as might be realistically dreamed in that day.
Major horse-drawn vehicle builders like Studebaker, M.P. Henderson, Cortland, and others created multiple designs for this segment of the market.  Open sides, tops, luggage racks, brakes, and extra entry steps characterized basic features found on many touring vehicles.  I’ve written a few Articles and Blogs highlighting several of these designs operating in areas like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and other scenic destinations. 

One, larger-style spring wagon dating to the 1880’s was so different that it was actually patented.  Handcrafted and engineered to carry as many creature comforts as possible, the “McMaster Camping Car” was among America’s first, full-featured RV’s.  Of course, other U.S. born vehicles like the sheepherder wagon with its live-in accoutrements clearly predated the McMaster wagon.  That said, the McMaster vehicle took outdoor ventures to an entirely new level of luxury.  Getting back to nature in one of these horse-drawn rigs would have represented the height of indulgence and opportunity in its time.

These two images show portions from a 19th century patent awarded to the McMaster camping wagon.  The design was used by the firm of Wylie & Wilson for excursions in Yellowstone Park.

Unlike open-sided touring coaches that subjected passengers to trail dust, weather, and vacillating temperatures, the McMaster wagon was fully enclosed (except for the driver), leaving occupants relatively secure from wind, rain, insects, and other discomforts.  The vehicle was said to be slightly longer and wider than an omnibus while being equipped with a world of thoughtful amenities.
The legendary Yellowstone outfitter firm of Wylie & Wilson used these conveyances in a number of areas within the park prior to the establishment of permanent camps.  Early promotional materials described them as “well equipped” for excursions up to 12 days in length.  The rolling camper was rented at a rate of $5 per day per person.  As costly as that might sound in 1890’s currency, it was apparently a more economical way to see Yellowstone than by committing to a hotel and touring coach.*  

This rare image from the Wheels That Won The West® Archives includes a segment from a photo showing the famed McMaster Camping Car.  The vehicle included custom graphics, upholstery details, and other features not shown in this post.

The McMaster camping wagon was truly a home away from home.  It was filled with unique designs and, according to the original patent, “…furniture, bedding, and kitchen requirements for camping purposes are supplied in the most compact form…”  Up front, the driver’s seat was hinged to provide access to a coal oil stove secured inside the seat box.  Two, large hinged windows were positioned at the front of the vehicle, allowing easy access to the stove while remaining inside the wagon (A later design seems to show a sliding door versus a window).  Elsewhere, a fly or canvas could be positioned to overhang all four sides of the roof, delivering even greater protection from precipitation and heat.  Beneath the vehicle was a custom sling for a slop bucket and a portable sleeping cot/ladder.  A toolbox with saws, hammers, axes, wrenches, nails, and other necessities was also provided. 

Much like a modern RV, the interior was designed for duplicate and creative use of all available space.  The McMaster camper included a fully equipped kitchen, ice box, swinging water basin with spigot, tank for drinking water, a wardrobe, table with folding legs, privy with trap door, padded benches, chest of drawers, under seat drawers for articles such as fishing gear and household articles, convertible sleeping berths, and more. 

Our Wheels That Won The West® Archives not only include a copy of the original McMaster patent but also imagery of one of the ‘Camping Cars’.   The wagons were apparently being manufactured for use in Yellowstone as early as 1892.   According to the July issue of “The Hub” magazine from that year, it was reported that A.J. McMaster had reached an agreement with carriage builder, J.J. Frasier, to craft his patented wagons.  From RV history to the early use of our nation’s national parks and even to the growth of the American West, itself, these vehicles are an important part of our history. 

We reached out to the National Park Service to try and determine if any of the McMaster wagons have survived.  As of this writing, it does not appear that any still exist.  Knowledgeable officials at Yellowstone confirm the rarity of the wagon as well as the likelihood none have survived.  Regrettably, it’s another example of the vanishing connections to our nation’s rich western history.  A special thank you to the Park Service for their time, attention, and knowledgeable response to our questions.

* Culpin, Mary Shivers.  2003.  “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”: A History of Concession Development in Yellowstone National Park, 1872 – 1966.  National Park Service, Yellowstone Center for Resources, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.  YCR-CR-2003-01  

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.