Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Military Tool Wagons & More

Twenty-one years ago, we began a quest.  You might call it a search and rescue mission; an all-out calling focused on uncovering and preserving as many details related to America’s early western vehicles as possible.  In the past two-plus decades, we’ve been blessed to find a literal mountain of forgotten images, information, vehicles, and parts.  We’ve also been fortunate to assist a number of individuals and organizations seeking this type of authentic connection to our western roots.
The materials we’ve collected have become an amazing foundation, confirming originality and directing us to even more areas of our horse drawn past.  Time and again, the parts for so many of these puzzles have been flushed out.  Like a covey of quail erupting from an otherwise ordinary fence row, these details can come fast and unexpected.  There often seems to be no rhyme or reason as to what comes along or when... something shows up in the mail, we stumble across an unrelated tidbit while focused on a different area of research, or sometimes during a trip we happen across a part of our past that no one ever knew existed.
It’s truly a rush to recognize a vehicle or part as an important missing link and watch the rest of the story come together.  With that said, one of the accounts I’ll be sharing at Colonial Williamsburg this week involves us finding two small photos showing a type of military wagon.  At first, that’s all I could deduce.  Actually, it appeared to be a supply wagon of some type.  The pair of old photos included a number of Escort wagon running gears surrounded by several Missouri mules.  One of the gears was topped with an enclosed wooden box that I had never seen before.  For the moment, it was a mystery.  Like a lot of the images we receive, though, I filed the photo but kept the memory of it close at hand. 

Reduced in size and resolution here, this incredibly rare image of a 100-plus-year-old Tool Wagon is giving us an even broader picture of known U.S. military vehicles.

Years later, I learned of some military-related correspondence which included a set of blueprints for a wagon.  First of all, original blueprints for any type of wooden wagon are scarce to say the least.  Second, what would you say the chances are that these blueprints would be a match to the photos I’d happened upon years earlier?  Needle in a haystack, right?  Most of the time, I’d probably agree but, miracles happen every day.  The blueprints turned out to be a dead-ringer for the photos.  Once again, separated pieces found their way back together and now we have a very solid picture of an ultra-rare military wagon.  So solid, we could completely rebuild this history exactly as it was a hundred years ago.  Along with the blueprints came the official name, “Tool Wagon.”  Knowing the proper title has also opened numerous doors, each helping add even more detail to what had previously been just a couple of old photos with no identity or immediate sense of value. 
As it turns out, Tool wagons were in use inside America’s military as early as the Civil War.  Military accounts refer to the twentieth century version we ran across as a “tool box on an escort frame.”  It’s an apropos moniker for this set of wheels.  The enclosed box could be equipped with a wealth of materials including shovels, lanterns, hatchets, axes, levels, picks, crow bars, calking irons, paint, brushes, cross-cut saws, rope, twine, wire, wrenches, nails, screws, spikes, portable blacksmith outfits, carpenter’s and saddler’s tools, and more. 
As I soon discovered, there were multiple types of Tool wagons beyond this dead axle configuration.  Spring hung Tool wagons were also used.  They were similar to an ambulance with drawers, lockers, and compartments for drafting, surveying, reconnaissance, and photographic gear.  There was also a Pontoon Tool wagon designed to carry materials needed for crossing rivers and large creeks.

Whether on the ranch or range, period chuck wagons were generally a custom-designed vehicle.  Studebaker was one of a select few major builders to cater to ranch wagon needs.

In a similar vein, lately, we’ve been making inroads into other unknowns.  With 2016 being the 150th Anniversary of Charles Goodnight's construction of the first chuck wagon, I thought I’d pass along a little teaser.  Over the years, a lot of discussions have taken place as to what that wagon looked like.  While we don’t have actual imagery of that legendary set of wheels, we have grown closer to understanding how the old wagon would have appeared.  It’s not been easy but, piece by piece, we’ve slowly been able to dig through enough early reports and documents to begin dividing fact from fiction.  Sometimes, a dead end in one direction can open up in another.  In other words, when we don’t know exactly what something looked like, coming at it from another angle can at least tell us what it didn’t look like.  Ultimately, these exercises placed alongside primary source documentation have produced enough fruit that one day soon we may be able to share even more about America's first chuck wagon. 

In the meantime, we continue to roll along an incredibly historic road, looking for the lost and legendary parts of our wood-wheeled western heritage.  From rare logos and design specifications to original images and promotional samples, we're working hard to help bring it all back together in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

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, January 20, 2016

The Jackson Common Sense Wagon

For me, chasing America’s western, wheeled history never gets old.  The subject is too deep with too many unanswered questions and even more ‘treasures’ still to be uncovered.  Every day is an opportunity to rescue a lost part of our past.

As I’ve shared before, there are a number of legendary wagon brands that, for all practical purposes, have just disappeared.  I’m talkin’ gone… history… vanished… vamoosed.  Making things even more incredible is the fact that none of these companies were fly-by-night short-timers.  These were brands that existed for decades.  Some built vehicles for as much as three-quarters of a century!  In a way, it’s a little like the lost colony of Roanoke in North Carolina.  It’s somewhat of a mystery as to why no actual vehicles from these brands have ever come to light. 

Undaunted, I (and others I know) still look daily for any signs of early 19th century wagon brands... major names like Espenschied, Murphy, Jackson, Kansas, Caldwell, Whitewater, Star, LaBelle, and Coquillard deserve more of a visual legacy than a few rough illustrations from the time.  Why?  Because each of these brands (and others) were the real pioneers in America’s first transportation industry.  Similarly, each shares an amazing history of quality and was repeatedly listed by early voices as being among the very Best in the West.

Fortunately, vigilance has a way of paying off.  Over the years, we’ve been able to uncover a host of materials, as well as a few of these period vehicles, just by paying attention to details and connecting the dots.  As an example, not long ago, I came across an old photo of a business in Topeka, Kansas.  From the people and vehicles in the frozen frame to the buildings and signage, there was a lot going on in the image.  As I studied the original sepia-toned details, I noticed a large promotional sign for Jackson Wagons in the background.  Looking closer, one of the wagons had the name ‘Jackson Common Sense’ painted on it.  It was a revelation for me in that I’d never heard of Jackson wagons referred to in that way.  Was this the same company out of Jackson, Michigan?  After doing a little detective work, it turns out that, “Yep,” it was.  A little more research helped me narrow down the date of the photo to a timeframe between 1876 and 1881.

Why is this important to anyone other than myself?  There are several reasons that any western buff, wagon collector, or vehicle historian should take note.  First, during America’s mass migrations west, Jackson is one of the more legendary brands and is often listed among the favorites – even among freighters.  Second, as broad as the world-wide-web is, try to find an actual photo of an early Jackson wagon.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait…

This store window sign promoting Jackson Wagons is a rare survivor.  It’s colored with reflective dots for added visibility at night.

Okay.  You back?  Pretty slim pickens, huh?  Yes, you likely ran across some literature from the late 1800’s but did any of it carry the 1870’s and earlier look of the brand?  Even rarer will be the discovery of almost any photos of this brand.  The same phenomenon exists with wagons built by Joseph Murphy, Louis Espenschied, Alexander Caldwell, Augustine Cooper, and many more  –  in fact, finding any photo showing a wagon still emblazoned with its clearly-labeled brand taken at or before the year 1880 is a tall order.

So, back to why this is important…  I think I was at the third point – How can we, as stewards of America’s western history, not know more about the vehicles that made the trek west possible?  By the same token, how can any story of the West be fully told (at least correctly) without including these amazing wheels of commerce and competition?  Fourth – How many of these legendary western wheels are still out there and, fifth, how can we recognize them without primary source documentation like these photos?

Ultimately, that’s what keeps me focused and intrigued by this subject.  It’s impossible to always know what’s around the next corner – but, when those lost gems of history do show up, it can be pretty exciting as each one provides even more understanding of not just how the west was won but who did it.  So, keep your eyes peeled and if you should happen to run across a heavily weathered, beaten down Jackson, don’t be afraid to gather it up and take it home.  No matter the condition, any of these relics confirmed to be from the 1870’s and ‘80’s are extremely rare parts from an internationally renowned past.  As the folks building wagons in Jackson, Michigan might have said, “It’s just good Common Sense!”
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 throughout the year. 

Have a good week!

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, January 13, 2016

Early American Wagon Technology

The study of America’s early wagons doesn’t just intrigue me - it has a massive depth that humbles me. 

For the past few months, I’ve been working on a presentation for the upcoming symposium on horse-drawn vehicles presented by the Carriage Association of America and Colonial Williamsburg.  I was initially asked to present details related to the hauling of military ordnance on the American frontier.  Ultimately, I do plan to report a bit on that topic but the area that truly fascinates me is that of technology and design innovation in the world of wooden wagons.

For many, it probably sounds a bit strange to connect the thought of ‘technology’ to horse-drawn wagons.  In truth, there is a lot we can learn by dissecting these old pieces.  As with today’s automobiles, every part of these rolling workhorses was driven by a design need.  As a result, every part had a beginning.  Understanding the why's, when's, and how's of these areas can be invaluable when we’re evaluating a timeframe of manufacture, authenticity traits, originality claims, brand identity, and even vehicle provenance.

While I’m looking forward to the presentation, I’m also looking forward to reconnecting with colleagues and meeting new friends.  Hope to see you there.

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, January 6, 2016

Transporting Antique Wagons

Not long ago, one of our neighbors stopped by the shop.  He’d never seen our vehicle collection and the first question he asked was, “Where do you find these pieces?”  The answer is simple – They can be anywhere.  I never stop looking and researching brands – and – I take a fair number of road trips.  Eventually, the right original pieces have a way of popping up.  Even after making arrangements to purchase a piece, though, the most critical step is still to come – getting the wagon safely home. 

Moving anything of value from one part of the country to another can be stressful.  If you’re doing it yourself, there’s no substitute for a well-thought-out plan.  Of course, it’s tough to predict every situation on the road but proper preparation can help avoid many unnecessary challenges.  It’s timeless counsel that numerous travelers in the 1800’s American West likely wished they’d heeded.  Throughout the Old West landscape, many rutted trails were strewn with priceless possessions as pioneers discovered the results of poor timing and planning.  Today, it’s a legacy of loss that no one wants to repeat.  As a result, many antique wagon collectors have developed meticulous ways for moving their wheeled treasures.  I thought I’d pass along a few related tips in this week’s blog.

The Trailer...

From driveway to highway and back, there are a number of things that can help reduce tensions while traveling with antique wooden vehicles.  When hauling these rolling works of art, I generally prefer to use an enclosed trailer.  There are several reasons for this.  First... security is always a factor.  Original, century-plus-old pieces are not replaceable and advertising that vulnerability by carrying them on an open trailer has the potential of inviting the attention of thieves and vandals, or even unintentional damage from curious onlookers.  Second... an enclosed trailer helps prevent the loss of smaller parts that might be rattled loose from the wagon over long distances.  Third... directly subjecting an antique wooden vehicle to highway speeds accompanied by excessive wind, weather, bugs, birds, road debris, and other elements can cause irreversible damage to a piece.  Pulling a wagon on an open trailer with a tarp or plastic wrap is also not a good idea in my opinion.  It will be difficult, if not impossible, to keep the cover from wearing away paint or leaving permanent scuff marks on the vehicle.  Fourth... tie-down straps and ropes can, and sometimes do, break.  If the antique vehicle is inside of a trailer instead of riding atop an open trailer, the enclosed box gives you a safety net.  So, even if a crucial tie-down does happen to break, having the vehicle within a fully enclosed space can help keep it from rolling out onto the road and into Splinterville.

The Padding...

Before traveling with an antique wagon, take the extra time and attention to make sure everything is secure.  Loose and easily removable items such as the spring seat, bows, doubletree, tongue, and so forth should be taken off, padded, and fastened down separate from the wagon.  You'll also want to make sure there are no loose, weakened, or broken pieces that may dislodge during the trip.  Using old bed comforters, towels, or even inexpensive moving blankets can save a lot of fretting and regrets.  It’s always a good idea to test the cloth wraps first to make sure they don’t bleed color onto your wagon should any moisture happen to get on them.  Another area that deserves extra attention is the surface condition of the vehicle.  Most of my readers know I’m not a huge fan of linseed oil on these old pieces.  There are a number of reasons for this and we don’t have room in this week’s blog to cover them all.  Even so, if you happen to purchase a wagon with linseed oil on it – and the oil is still tacky in places – be advised that your cloth padding may stick to the wood and metal parts, leaving innumerable hairy fibers behind when the protective wrap is removed.  It’s no fun trying to clean up that type of mess. 

The Tie-Down...

Beyond the steps above, you'll need to secure the wagon firmly to the trailer.  I typically use heavy duty, 2 to 3 inch wide ratchet straps (with appropriate load limits) on both the front and rear wagon axles.  Be careful not to overtighten or position the straps in a way that subjects weaker parts of the wagon to unnecessary stress.  Securing the wheeled history so it will not move can help prevent a world of distress later on.
I typically pad the straps where they may come in contact with the wagon.  This helps guard against damage to the vehicle as well as shielding the straps from chafing.  You may even want to place a couple straps over the box and tie it down – especially if you’re hauling on an open trailer.  In all cases, you’ll want to select safe places to stop regularly and check the condition of your tie-down straps and the wagon.  Invariably, things have a way of settling, working loose, weakening, and even breaking during travel.  It's always better to find problems before they occur. 

The Preparation...

I'm a planner and like to have multiple back-ups/contingency plans for a variety of encounters on the road.  In many cases, it can be helpful to visualize and actually anticipate potential problems so you can be better prepared beforehand.  To that point, I’d recommend that you develop a checklist of things to carry along.  Among the items on the list, make sure you have a low profile jack that will fit beneath your trailer, even if it is lower to the ground as the result of uneven terrain or a tire losing pressure.  If the ground is wet or muddy, a few short 2 x 6's can be especially handy should you need something solid to sit the jack on.  Do you have chocks for the wheels?  How about all the right tools to change a flat?  Do you have a good spare tire?  How about emergency road reflectors?  Have you checked the wheel bearings and lights on the trailer?  How about a stash of extra fuses for blinkers, brake lights, and the like? 

You probably already keep the proof of insurance handy for your tow vehicle.  Do you have it for the trailer as well?  How about the wagon?  Is it insured while traveling?  Other helpful items to take along include a GPS, cell phone and chargers, quality flashlights with fresh batteries, a tire patching and inflating kit, basic hand tools, and maybe even an old-fashioned printed atlas in case the GPS acts up or the cell service is weak.  Occasionally, I’ve been in situations where it was important to out-maneuver an approaching storm.  By keeping abreast of weather forecasts, road construction delays, and alternate paths, some of these headaches can easily be avoided.  Additionally, it’s not a bad idea to carry appropriate foul weather gear and a dry change of clothes.  Yep, I was once soaked to the bone while loading a John Deere wagon in a deluge.  Thankfully, I had remembered the extra clothes!

Having someone to go along with you is also a plus.  A spouse, partner, or buddy not only can help reduce the fatigue of a trip by helping with driving, loading, and other chores but can be good company.  After all, memories are always more fun when they're shared.  Finally, before leaving on an extended trip, make sure your tow vehicle and trailer are properly serviced, all tires are in good condition, and you have contact info for emergency services.  It's also good to make sure your tow vehicle mirrors are wide enough to see around the trailer.  All of this may sound like a lot to take in but good, advance preparation is well worth your time.  Likewise, the support gear I mentioned may seem like too much to carry.  For me, most of it fits in an inexpensive, plastic locker I keep inside my trailer.  It takes up minimal space and I have the confidence of knowing I'm well stocked and ready to roll.  Ultimately, every traveler should assess each trip and prepare accordingly.

The Experience…

At the end of the day, this blog was not written as a one-size-fits-all approach to cross-country hauling but rather as a basic primer to help jump-start an evaluation for a towing trip.  Certainly, nothing takes the place of proper preparation, common sense, and careful attention to detail.  Making safety and good judgement a priority can go a long way in helping ensure you get there and back with no regrets and plenty of smiles.  Have a great week!

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.