Wednesday, June 24, 2015

More Tips on Collecting Early Vehicles

“If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.”  We’ve likely all heard a variation of that quote from time to time.  Truth is, when it comes to collecting vintage vehicles, the statement is good food for thought.  Not long ago, I interviewed a man who had been collecting early wagons and farm antiques for a half century.  No matter how you slice it, that’s a long time.  He had seen a lot in those decades but freely admitted he was still learning and growing.  That kind of no-nonsense attitude and straight-forward commitment can help anyone to be a better collector.  Ultimately, by always striving to grow – no matter how much experience and knowledge we possess – the results can put us in perfect position to find things others unknowingly pass over. 

With those thoughts as a backdrop, I thought I’d pass along seven areas that can help us be more effective in collecting early vehicles.

1)      Organizations
Joining like-minded organizations like the American Chuck Wagon Association, Carriage Association of America, National Stagecoach & Freight Wagon Association, Santa Fe Trail Association, and Oregon-California Trails Association can provide us with more than just interesting events.  Networking with people in organizations with complementary interests has a way of opening doors and growing our knowledge base in ways that ‘going it alone’ could never do.  If you’re not a member of one of these or a similar group, I’d encourage you to take a closer look at what you’re missing.

2)      Travel
I’m often asked, “Where do you find the better pieces?”  The answer is simple.  You have to always be looking.  Rarely do the special vehicles we’re interested in just happen to show up on our doorstep.  That, coupled with the fact that many vehicle styles are more prevalent in certain areas, means we usually have to actively search, and search, and search, and search before something comes up that will truly turn heads.  So, hit the road and keep your eyes open.  You never know what you may run across during an otherwise random road trip.

3)      Visit Museums/Collections
Some of the best places to see a good cross section of early vehicles are in museums and private collections.  Unrestored examples of period pieces can be especially valuable learning resources.  Spend a little time researching where collections are located and make it a point to visit as many as you can over time.  The efforts can be extremely rewarding as many of the collections can hold vehicles you may not be aware of (and may not be on a website).  To that point, I’ve been collecting and researching for over two decades and continually run across extremely rare pieces in some of America’s most obscure public collections. 

4)      Attend Events
Whether it’s a symposium of speakers, an auction with period vehicles for sale, chuck wagon competition, or a gathering of vehicle enthusiasts, there are a variety of occasions that offer first-hand looks at rare vehicles.  Oftentimes, even small nuggets of information gathered in these venues can pay off when you’re considering the collectability of an early set of wheels.

5)      Read
While the subject is too large to be contained in any one compilation, there are a number of books with valuable details on horse drawn wagons.  I’ve outlined a number of them from time to time and even shared some in my February 26, 2014 blog

6)      Pay Attention
One of the best pieces of advice I could give anyone interested in period wagons and western vehicles is to pay close attention to every element in the vehicle.  Truly original pieces do still exist and offer a great education for anyone willing to learn.  That said, there are an even greater number of vehicles that have suffered at the hands of even the best-intentioned.  Time and attention to detail have a way of making it easy to spot the best pieces.

7)      Don’t be afraid to ask questions
There really is no such thing as a ‘dumb question.’  No matter the subject, we all start out knowing nothing.  Reliable research, experience, and careful cataloging of the results has a way of slowly building a knowledge base that will enhance any collection.  After all, to be an effective collector of vehicles, it’s imperative to know what you’re looking at.  Invariably, that kind of background has a way of producing solid results.

By their very nature, early vehicle enthusiasts are always looking for elements to set their collection apart.  Consistent focus on the points above can have a positive impact on virtually any search for specific pieces.  Remember... Don’t be afraid to ask questions and work to understand the technologies involved in a set of wheels.  Lastly, I'll leave you with five words that can help each of us better understand America's rarest wooden wheels.  Those words are – “I’ve never seen that before.”  What I mean is that only by recognizing elements we're unfamiliar with can we continually grow our understanding and appreciation of these vehicles.  

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

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Complexities of Early Vehicle Design

We have a lot of historical elements housed in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.  From early print blocks, catalogs, flyers, trade cards, correspondence, signs, and other advertising media to original vehicles, parts, accessories, and technology, the compilation covers a broad segment of our nation’s growth and development.  Individually and collectively, these pieces help us tell the real story of America’s first – and largest – transportation industry.  With so many players across multiple centuries, it’s a story that has yet to be fully shared but one we’re committed to pinning down and opening up more every day. 

With that as a bit of background, we’ve regularly pointed out that every original part of a vintage wagon has purpose.  It makes no difference how big, small, obvious, or unnoticed an element is; every piece has a roll to play in the success of the whole.  As a result, these vehicles are far from being crude conveyances thrown together with no thought or focus.  Likewise, it’s no exaggeration to say that the survivors are rare monuments holding more history, science, math, art, engineering, and technology than most have ever imagined. 

This 1883 patent allowed round-shaped reaches to be incorporated into more ‘modern’ reach couplings.

Throughout the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, these wheels were continually tested, modified, and redesigned by their builders.  The process, itself, is a testimony to the American spirit and drive to excel.  With that in mind, this week, we’ll point out a particular style of reach plate designed by Alexander Barr of Louisville, Kentucky.  The idea was awarded a patent by the U.S. Patent Office in 1883.  For those unfamiliar with the term 'reach plate' – it’s the center metal sheet or cast iron piece(s) that connect to the reach and rear hounds, thereby linking the front and back segments of the running gear.  The design also allows the undercarriage to be shortened or lengthened for different use purposes.   

The heavy cast iron fabrication in Alexander Barr’s reach plate was another advantage of the design.  Note the curved contours on the bottom of the plate.  

Unlike other reach plates of the day, Mr. Barr’s design was meant to bridge the gap between styles with upper and lower plates sandwiching the coupling pole (reach) and earlier banded reach styles.  The purpose was meant to allow the use of traditional round poles (versus square edged) to serve as the reach while also enabling the rear hounds to be drawn farther forward when desired.  This made it easier to use the running gear in a greater diversity of purposes – from hay racks and wheat trucks to hauling lumber and other needs.  

Like so many seemingly ordinary elements in a wooden vehicle’s construction, the complexity of this design goes far beyond initial appearances.  It’s one more reason every early heavy vehicle is worthy of a deeper look.  More often than not, these wooden warriors are full of intriguing history and countless stories.  

By the way, if you haven’t 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.  Once that's done, you'll receive an email every time we update the blog.  Please don't hesitate to let us know if we can be of assistance.  We appreciate your continued feedback and look forward to sharing even more wooden vehicle info in the coming weeks. 

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

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Rolling History Lessons

From my earliest days of studying America’s period wagons and western vehicles, the subject really took me to school.  In fact, these rolling works of art have done more than just grow my western transportation repertoire.  They’ve sent me to the proverbial woodshed a number of times for discipline.  Those experiences have taught me to slow down, look close, and not jump so easily to conclusions. 

It’s one of the reasons I’m always a bit cautious when pushed to quickly identify a vehicle builder.  While we live in an age where fast food and instant gratification are strong expectations, offering answers too quickly can generate a whole new set of problems.  About now, someone may be saying, “What the devil are you getting to, David?”  Just this… There are countless areas in vehicle evaluations where non-supported assumptions can leave us high and dry.

One of those places lies in the similarity of many brand names.  When looking at the different makes, it’s important to remember that what we see is not always as it appears.  For instance, some of our readers are likely aware that Montgomery Ward once marketed a wagon by the name of Whitewater.  Unfortunately, if you run across a Whitewater wagon, the name, alone, is not sufficient evidence to prove it is a Montgomery Ward brand.  In fact, there were at least three manufacturers that promoted a ‘Whitewater’ wagon.  In similar fashion, other companies also had duplicates.  For instance, while their histories were intertwined, Fish Bros. wagons built in Clinton, Iowa and Fond du Lac, Wisconsin were not the same as those built in Racine, Wisconsin.  Along the same lines, the Winona Wagon Company was a separate entity from the Winona Carriage Company.  There were multiple manufacturers of Nissen-branded wagons in North Carolina and the Star Wagon Company and Star Buggy Company were totally different firms in separate states.

Competing against a number of different ‘Smith’ wagons, this firm in Pekin, Illinois promoted themselves as the oldest and only vehicle worthy of the name.


If that’s not convincing enough, there were various builders of ‘Smith’ wagons as well.  While many enthusiasts may be familiar with T & H Smith from Pekin, Illinois, fewer are likely aware of Smith Wagons from Minneapolis, Minnesota or LaCrosse, Wisconsin.  Even more egregious is when two prominent brands are confused with each other.  As an example, not long ago, I came upon a Moline Mandt brand erroneously referred to as a Moline wagon.  Each of these companies have different factories, owners, designs, and histories.

Other complexities include countless brands that aren’t well known on the national scene but had a strong local influence.  It’s important to be aware that these pieces aren’t always found close to their original homes these days.  With collectors, traders, and enthusiasts scanning every nook and cranny of the U.S. for the best vehicles, quite a few of these sets of wheels have been transported well outside of their primary trade areas.  To that point, how many folks today are familiar with brands like Bement, Dean, Gale, Ottawa, Case, Cherokee, Pioneer, or Reitig?  These are names of well-promoted local and regional pieces that could be misidentified because they’re relatively unknown among the masses. 

Why does all of this matter?  Because, accuracy and proper identity always matter.  It matters to vehicle integrity, history, education, and even resale values.  Ultimately, it’s a big world inside America’s first transportation industry.  So, dive in, hold on, and good luck with your research.  There’s not a roller coaster on the planet with more dips, dives, twists, turns, and surprises.

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

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The History of a Wagon

In my studies of early American wagons, I’ve had the opportunity to review thousands of different sets of wheels.  Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the survivors are mysteries just waiting to be solved.  In other words, seldom has the vehicle been so thoroughly evaluated that its entire story is known or told.  Instead, most of these rolling works of art are presented with basic, limited descriptions and, if we’re not careful, we tend to fill in the blanks with best guesses, assumptions, or even disinterest.  Worst yet, a lack of information can contribute to depressed vehicle values and missed opportunity to restore a great historical narrative.
Rarely are there complete dead ends to any of this research.  While efforts to fill in background details often take considerable time, even if the personal history of a particular vehicle cannot be traced, the makeup of the piece can say a great deal about its past.  Construction elements can point to a particular maker, era of manufacture, levels of originality, and period advancements.  Few designs are as simple as they might appear.  With that thought in mind, another point to remember is that different types of innovation are often unrecognized by modern audiences.  As a result, they are regularly overlooked – even within some museum settings.  Clearly, anytime something goes unnoticed, there is a possibility for both positive and negative surprises.
For collectors, when it comes time to buy a piece, it’s helpful to know as much as possible about the vehicle.  Several years ago, I watched an early 20th century wagon sell at auction for a fairly high price.  It was a well-known brand and heavily promoted as a rare example of a completely original wagon.  While it was predominantly equipped as it was from the factory, it was not an all-original piece.  Unbeknownst to most, the doubletree and singletrees were from another brand.  This might seem like a small point but, to a collector, finding out this information after the fact can be both embarrassing and potentially costly.  Locating the correct pieces to replace wrong elements can require considerable time as well as additional funds to ensure the vehicle is indeed original. 

Nonetheless, the doubletree, in particular, was intriguing to me as it represented technology dating to the late 1800’s.  The distinction lay in tightly coiled springs on the outer edges of the evener.  These springs were connected to the singletrees, providing a cushion of sorts when the wagon was drawn.  The springs were said to save wear and tear on the horses’ shoulders as well as the harness.  It was also claimed to help prevent the tendency of excitable horses to balk.

This image shows part of an early doubletree patent.  It was one of dozens focused on improving eveners. 

While some U.S. patents on doubletrees will predate the Civil War, there were continual advances in this arena all the way through the early 1900’s.  There is easily more than a half century of patent submissions and approvals on just this one segment of period wagon accessories.  In my presentations, evaluations, and discussions with others, these types of revelations can come as a surprise.  They’re another reminder, though, that wood-wheeled wagons are far from simple machines.  Knowing these details with indisputable confidence can greatly enhance our own appreciation for a set of wheels while also creating opportunities to showcase the vehicle as the historic piece it is.  


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