Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Finding 19th Century Wagons

A few weeks ago, several media outlets reported that an old tintype of William H. Bonney (aka Billy the Kid) had been found and, of all things, he was photographed while playing croquet.  It’s an intriguing story and, while the jury may still be out for some historians debating the identities in the image, the discovery made me think about all of the photos each of us has seen of wagons in the West.  Incredibly, and in spite of the way these wheels dominated western history, far too many of the vehicles have been overlooked and their identities lost.  It’s one of the reasons we initiated such a focused study of the subject more than two decades ago.  As time has passed, this hunt for history has led us to a number of destinations throughout the U.S.  Along the way, we’ve been privileged to help preserve and interpret significant elements of our nation’s heritage.

It’s always interesting to come face-to-face with an actual wagon or vehicle image from a particular era.  Many of these can be linked to the times and places associated with legendary outlaws, trail drives, emigrant travel, military expeditions, and overland freighting.  So, while it’s thought-provoking to look into the faces of 19th century personalities of the West, it’s equally fascinating to run head-on into the legendary wheels they saw, walked past, and rode upon. 
Recognizing the traits of 1800’s vehicles has become a passion of mine.  Fortunately, with so many primary source documents in our western vehicle Archives, the rare files have drawn us closer to what these various transports/brands truly looked like throughout the different eras of the 19th century.  Because of the size of the early vehicle industry and the competitive similarities between many brands, the review process can sometimes be extensive.  Nonetheless, over time, we’ve been able through point-by-point examination to conclusively identify wagon brands in a number of largely unknown photos.  Each time we add an identity to the list, it helps bring greater insights into who was doing what, where, how, and when. 

In 2007, we were granted exclusive access to this running gear in the Arabia Steamboat museum in Kansas City.  From provenance details associated with the ship's cargo to a point by point review, we were able to identify the piece as the oldest surviving Peter Schuttler wagon.  It dates to 1856. 

Ultimately, our research almost always leads to some easy conversation starters.  For example... Of the legendary wagon brands that existed during the timeframe of gold discoveries, outlaw exploits, and cattle drives, what do you suppose the paint, striping, and logos looked like?  You can bet it was much different than what many of the surviving wagons typically show today.  Depending on the timeframe, many carried more flare and extravagance to their designs while also embracing construction differences seldom seen in pieces built in the early 20th century.   
Knowing what the different brands were up to at different times not only helps define history more accurately than what’s typically portrayed in the movies, it can also be crucial to sound identification efforts and construction provenance.  In fact, every wagon we acquire goes through this validation process to help corroborate the vehicle’s connection to a particular maker and timeframe.  It’s an important distinction as the world moves farther away from the horse drawn era.  Today, the purity of primary source information goes beyond well-intentioned guesswork by helping verify the details of a vehicle design in its entirety. 
When it comes to authentically telling the story of the American West, it’s always a rush to come across a wagon built during or before the time of Billy the Kid, Geronimo, Jesse James, the Earps, and others.  Unlike the distant viewing of an old tintype, finding one of these wheeled dinosaurs is one connection to the West that we can all experience firsthand.  Still, time is running out on the search for survivors.  Too many sit unprotected.  Unknown to those who pass by and unable to hold on much longer.  
Case in point... many years ago, I saw an original wagon with the well-worn paint and very faded name of “Jackson Wagon.”  I have photos today but wish I had bought the piece.  I only saw it for a few minutes and it took me too long to recognize its significance.  The wagon could be anywhere now but has likely finished weathering away or been destroyed.  It is the only true Jackson, other than catalogs and old photos in our collection, that I’ve ever seen.  Made by prison labor in Jackson, Michigan, the brand carries a well-documented and legendary reputation in the West. 
Like so many others that plied the American frontier, these rare glimpses into yesterday are vanishing.  Reminiscent of an aged and weakened image staring out of an old photo, many antiquated wagons are drifting to a point of no return.  So, we search; continually seeking those amazing links to the Old West.  From vehicles to original documents and images, somewhere, the next discovery awaits.  It likely will not be obvious in sharing its identity.  But, just like the incredible discovery of the Steamboat Arabia in 1988 (see link in the photo caption above), anything is possible if we don’t give up.

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, October 21, 2015

Lost & Loose – More Transient Wagon Parts

Last week, we featured some original parts of early wagons that are often missing from surviving vehicles today.  Whether they’ve inadvertently fallen off, been taken off, or have been replaced, putting the wrong piece back on can affect resale value, soundness, and the overall integrity of the wagon.  Below are a dozen more areas that are regularly affected by the issue of transient parts.

End gates – These are likely some of the most commonly misplaced pieces from an old wagon.  Like other parts, they were often removed and laid aside, only to never be put back with the wagon.

Rub Irons – Sometimes, these pieces have been used so much that the persistent wearing of the steel tire has cut the rub iron in half.  The result can be that some (or all) of the piece can eventually fall off and become lost. 

Due to the heavy pressure and constant wear placed on rub irons, they were often worn heavily – to the point of separation and loss.

Wagon Box – At first glance, it sounds a bit crazy to say the box of a wagon can go missing.  In truth, the box and gear were often separated from each other.  As a result, either can eventually be absent.  I have some great boxes that are missing their original gear.  Likewise, I have a number of gears that no longer have the original box.

Stay chains – As a collector, you’d probably have better luck herding cats than believing you’ll always find the original stay chains with every wagon you run across.  These chains were sometimes used for other purposes beyond those with the wagon.  Additionally, once folks started using wagons as trailers behind tractors, they no longer needed these chains (or doubletrees).  Today, you can sometimes find used stay chains or you can buy new replacements.

Rocking bolster – Here’s a transient part that often gets overlooked.  The forward rocking bolster is typically held to the gear by the king bolt.  Occasionally, a bolster was so heavily damaged that it needed to be replaced or, perhaps, it was removed when a gear was knocked down for storage, causing the parts to be separated.

Spring seats – If you’ve ever been to an auction where wagons are sold, you’re familiar with the practice of selling seats separately.  In fact, many seats show up to the sale already separated.  Families often sold the old wagon from their farm but kept the spring seat as a memory of earlier days.  My own family remembers the wagon my granddad owned but no one remembers what happened to it.  They did keep the spring seat and somehow one box rod remained at the old barn.  They’re two reminders of just how easy it is for these pieces to get broken up. 

Brake rods – These long connecting rods were bent and even broken from time to time.  Even so, the most likely reason for one of these to come up missing is the result of the box being removed from the running gear.  While this is not generally an issue when a wagon is fitted with box brakes, those mounted to the gear are a different story.  When a box is removed from a running gear fitted with brakes, the linkage or brake rod has to be partially disconnected, which can sometimes result in the rod getting misplaced.

Wheel wrenches – While spring seats and stay chains may seem hard to keep up with, they pale in comparison to the challenges of ensuring you have the right wrench for an early wagon.  They were so easy and necessary to move around that many wagons sold today do not have their original wrench.

Wheel wrenches for wagons were made in a number of sizes and shapes.

Reach/coupling pole – The most common reason for a period wagon to not have its original reach today is that it was broken or heavily damaged at some point.  The problem could have resulted from a wreck or severe stress created by the terrain being traveled.  I’ve even heard (multiple times) of folks breaking the reach with a forklift while trying to lift and move the wagon.

Box tighteners – Other frequently lost parts on early wagons are box tighteners.  These ‘sideboard clamps’ were designed to help keep flax and other small seeds from leaking through the sideboards and floor edges.  There were many different styles of box tighteners.  The most commonly lost types are the ones with steel rods extending over part or the entire height of a box. 

Latches – Folding endgate latches are often held in place by a single nut.  Should the nut ever fall off, the latch is quickly separated from the wagon.  I’ve even heard of these being stolen, undoubtedly, to replace another somewhere that’s missing. 

Sideboards – Most two-horse farm wagons were equipped with multiple sideboards.  These additional pieces could be removed if needed and stored in the barn, shed, or elsewhere.  From time to time, the separation took on more of a permanent nature.  Today, it’s not unusual to see these pieces listed as an isolated item in a sale.  

Over and over, I’ve had folks share thoughts that a particular pair of wagons were just alike.  Truth is, no two surviving wagons are ever exactly the same.  Part of the reason will almost always be due to the levels of originality remaining in each one.  Time and again, parts are removed or lost and the completeness of a vehicle suffers.  The lists I’ve shared here and last week are not all-inclusive but, they do give us an idea of how prevalent the losses can be.

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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, October 14, 2015

A Wagon Load of Missing Parts

This week’s blog is the first of a two-part story covering transient parts of old wagons.  Webster defines transient as being of ‘a brief or temporary existence’ as well as including references to ‘something passing quickly into and out of existence.’  When it comes to wagons, it’s a polished way of referring to parts that can become alienated from the vehicle over time. 

A few weeks ago, we published a blog focused on the topic of ‘originality’ in early wood-wheeled vehicles.  As I’d mentioned then, there are a number of things that can affect originality levels in an old wagon.  One of the more common enemies of originality is the issue of transient parts.  As mentioned above, by transient, I’m referring to any number of elements that started out with the wagon only to end up lost or separated from the vehicle.  

In many cases, it’s simple to understand how these pieces are so easily and frequently misplaced.  They may have been deliberately taken off or some may have simply fallen off.  In either case, today, we see countless examples of wagons that have lost some portion of their original structure.  It’s part of the history of a set of wheels.  Even so, those losses do not always negatively impact the resale value of the piece.

Ultimately, it’s good to know the kinds of things to look for if total originality and authenticity are priorities.  With that in mind, below are a few parts that have had a tendency to get lost and replaced over the years… 

Box rods – Some of the more commonly replaced elements of a vintage wagon seem to have been box rods.  It’s understandable since the rods were often taken out so endgates could be removed and the wagon dumped, longer cargo added, or the sideboards may have been detached for a particular need.  Some rods never made it back to their rightful place and some were taken to be used for other needs - like fireplace pokers!  (I've seen that a number of times)  

Nuts, nails, & screws – These smaller pieces are regular 'no-shows' when it comes to evaluation of surviving, original components on early wagons.   

Even small parts like nails, screws, box rod washers, and nuts can all become separated from a wagon over the decades.

Tongues – Most of these lengthy pieces were made to be easily removed.  Many were also broken in accidents.  As a result, it’s not unusual to find wagons fitted with non-original tongues today.

Doubletrees/singletrees – Similarly, these pieces were moved from place to place during use with a wagon and sometimes became separated from the vehicle.  Broken or heavily damaged doubletrees and/or singletrees could also result in a non-original substitute.

Neck yoke – One of the most susceptible pieces to wandering off is the neck yoke.  By its nature, this piece of hickory was not typically a permanent attachment to the tongue.  As a result, when a team was unhitched, the neck yoke could get set aside and eventually separated from the wagon and tongue.  It became an even more frequent occurrence as wagons began to be used as trailers behind tractors.  Suddenly, there was no need for the neck yoke (and doubletree/singletrees) and it was cast aside. 

If you have a vehicle with missing pieces or non-authentic replacements, there are outlets that can help with either new old stock or even modern reproductions made to original maker specs.  Next week, I’ll cover at least a dozen more wagon parts with an equal tendency to wind up missing over the course of time.

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, October 7, 2015

What Is It?

Identifying old wagons, parts, and brands as well as related pieces from period blacksmith and woodworking shops can be interesting.  There’s always some unique tool or vehicle feature that tests our knowledge of what it took to design, build, repair, and operate the wheels from America’s horse drawn era.  Even though the road to discovery can be full of diversions and delays, sometimes it all comes together and a little effort pays off in dividends of knowledge.    
As an example – not long ago, I ran across a heavy, cast iron whatchamacallit (I had no idea what it was)  that sat on four ornately sculpted legs.  The legs were set in pairs at each end of a narrow half-moon-shaped trough that included a threaded drain hole in the bottom.  The top of the trough flared out in the middle with long slots that appeared to be positioned to help bolt something else to it.  As I surveyed the piece, I was told that it was a wheel soaker.  At first glance, I tended to agree but after studying it a bit more, I began to wonder if that assessment was true.  The trough looked too deep and the angle of the ends didn’t seem to exactly fit the curvature of a wagon or buggy wheel. 

This surviving framework was developed in the late 1860’s to hold a grindstone, making the tool more productive, efficient, and easier to operate. 

The other thing that was unusual was the ornate nature of the legs.  I’ve seen a lot of wheel soakers in all manner of sizes but none with such an extravagant support frame.  There was a medallion in the shape of a Union shield positioned on each of the longer sides of the trough.  I could see that the shield was accompanied by some words and numbers.  Unfortunately, it was difficult to read because too many coats of paint had been applied over the years.  The paint had filled in the openings of so many letters and numerals that a measure of patience was required to decipher it all.    

These illustrations of an early grindstone frame are part of a patent awarded to Joseph Douglas on September 1, 1868.

My wife and I spent nearly a half hour analyzing the lettering until we finally pieced together what was cast into the metal.  It read, “W. & B. Douglas   Middletown, Conn.   Patented  Sept. 1  1868.”  After seeing an 1860’s timeframe attached to this piece, I was determined to find out exactly what it was.  A few quick queries into the U.S. Patent files and voila!  We had it.  As it turns out, this was not a wheel soaker at all.  Although, it is something that could easily have been used in a blacksmith or carriage shop.  Turns out, the cast iron piece is the base for an early grindstone frame. 

In practice, the grinding wheel was fitted into the trough while side supports held it in place.  The design was engineered to hold the wheel fast while allowing more control and easier, faster, more efficient use of the stone.  The trough is a water chamber and the slotted upper flange was designed for the inclusion of a tool guide/holder, wheel support, protective guards, a slip-resistant shaft, and the attachment of a treadle allowing for foot operation.  Regrettably, some of the upper support structures were missing from the overall frame.  At roughly a century and a half in age, the piece we came across is certainly not something you see every day so it’s understandable that it could be misinterpreted as a wheel soaker.   
Ultimately, that’s the very point that I wanted to make this week... that not everything is always as it first appears.  Some of America's surviving wagons and early western vehicles are a hodge-podge of parts that have grown together over the years.  As a result, looking only at  one section, such as the name on the seat back or box side, does not always give us the whole story for proper identification and valuations.  Many pieces can be mismatched.  Taking the time to discern even minor differences not only helps provide a proper understanding of the piece but, it can mean all the difference in how well we choose and interpret early vehicles for a collection.   

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.