Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Antique Horse Drawn Wagons

Recently, a friend pointed out a high wheel, wood wagon advertised on the internet.  The description of the vehicle claimed it to be a certain brand.  At first glance, it looked like a decent barn-find at a suitable price.  Upon closer inspection, though, it became clear that the wagon was an assortment of mismatched parts – very likely NOT a true ‘barn-find’ as stated in the ad.  It’s an important observation as the non-original condition negatively affected the collectable value of the piece.  It was another reminder of just how careful collectors need to be as well as how convoluted the evaluation process can be.

I’m often asked to identify, date, and assess the originality of vehicles.  Many times, there is an expectation that the job should be fairly straight-forward and easy.  Done thoroughly, though, there is nothing simple about it.  In a detailed review, every part should be noted and confirmed as a match to both a specific era and brand.  At times, that can be a tall order to fill.  Why?  Because, we’re talking about an industry that lasted over 200 years, included tens of thousands of makers, and produced countless variations in vehicle sizes, styles, technologies, and construction features. 

Original maker photos and catalog images can be extremely helpful when evaluating a surviving wagon from the same builder and era. 

When it comes to making sense of it all, the vast scope of nineteenth and early twentieth century wagon production numbers seem to label this as an impossible subject to get a handle on.  It’s why, for the last two-plus decades, we’ve been heavy collectors of early photos and industry materials.  The sheer volume of data has given us the privilege of studying and recognizing the evolutionary moves of individual brands as well as shifts within the overall industry.  That awareness of specific details continues to assist in our own collecting prowess as well as helping those who have reached out to us for assistance. 

A few cases in point… Years ago, I was told there were no more than a few thousand builders in this industry – maybe 8 or 10 thousand at the very most.  Then, we uncovered multiple, primary source accounts putting the number of nineteenth century vehicle makers well into the tens of thousands.  The details made it clear that the days of this industry were more competitive and complicated than many had originally thought.  In another instance, I was once told that Peter Schuttler is a brand that never changed its wagon construction or designs.  Since then, I’ve heard that statement a number of times and ‘no’ it is not true.  Thimble skeins, according to some, supposedly were not used until the days of the Civil War.  Unfortunately, it’s just one more of the many false perceptions that have been repeated enough that they’re sometimes accepted as non-supported truths.

At the end of the day, digging through these myths and helping set the records straight with primary source documentation is at the core of our mission.  After all, the integrity levels of a vehicle (originality, condition, authenticity, completeness, and notable features) have just as much – and maybe more – to do with the overall value as the brand, age, type, and personal provenance of a set of wheels.    

Like so many others, Peter Schuttler claimed to offer the best wagon a person could buy.  As is the case today, consumers had to do their homework to determine which brand was truly the best fit for their needs.

So, when it comes to collecting early wagons...  Who was the best?  How many were made?  Where were they sold?  When did a particular brand cease building vehicles?  Why were certain designs used by some versus the different configurations of others?  There are countless questions regularly asked.  Some, like the first one in this paragraph, can be subjective.  Others, have a more decisive and historical response.  The more we understand about a particular brand as well as the industry, itself, the easier it is to make solid investment choices. 

Ultimately, every part of these wood-framed vehicles has a story to tell.  If we’re looking at a piece with intent for it to become part of a respected collection, it’s important to slow down and ‘listen’ to what every element is saying.  In the end, a careful and supportable analysis can mean all the difference between acquiring an average versus exceptional piece.  

If all goes as planned, next week, we'll share a unique story highlighting the role of wagons as they helped save a legendary part of the American West!  See ya then!  

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" sidebar 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, March 23, 2016

Saving America’s Wheeled History

I recently noticed that the same folks that found and uncovered the Steamboat Arabia in 1988 (with the Peter Schuttler running gear) now appear to have located another buried steamboat.  From all indications, this time it seems the Hawley family has discovered the “Malta.”  History shows that the Missouri River has claimed at least 400 steamboats, most of them in the 1800’s.  This particular steamer went down in 1841 on its way out West with as much as one hundred tons of trade goods.  It will be extremely interesting to see how the story unfolds.  In the meantime, as the Hawley family prepares to dig this coming winter, they’ve shared a few short videos about this new find.  

Additionally, below is an excerpt from an excellent article published March 2, 2016 by the Marshall Democrat-NewsThere’s also another video at the end of the piece that chronicles the core sampling process.    

“…Drilling at Backes' farm conducted Feb. 27 and 28 further confirmed the presence of the steamboat, buried 37 feet beneath the ground. If it is the Malta, Hawley estimated that parts of the steamboat could be buried as deep as 52 feet beneath the surface. Testing of the drill samples revealed the presence of vivid red and black woven fabric, and wood the museum believes came from boat's deck and paddle wheel…”

The whole ‘search and rescue’ concept is intriguing as, overall, there's a great deal of America’s western history still waiting to be discovered and told.  Again and again, we’ve been fortunate to be a small part of uncovering and sharing our country’s early wheeled history.  Recently, we’ve come across a few additional pieces of our past and are excited to see where the artifacts take us.

Over the last two decades, there have been plenty of other trails we’ve followed.  I’ve stood inside the walls where the famed Kentucky-brand wagons were once made by the hundreds of thousands, walked the historic grounds of the Luedinghaus, Espenschied, and Weber & Damme shops near the mighty Mississippi, followed the trail north to the hallowed remains of Studebaker, searched for the exact locations of M.P. Henderson’s coach factory in Stockton, found the last wagon parts that will ever be recovered from the Gestring Wagon Company site, helped rescue literally thousands of early transportation artifacts, and ran my hands over the lingering fingerprints and ink-filled impressions made by none other than legendary St. Louis wagon maker, Joseph Murphy.  Still, it’s not enough.  There’s too much out there.  Too much to recover and too much to learn.  Most of all – there’s too little time.  What drives me is more than than curiosity; more than the unknown; and more than countless sets of old tracks.  What pushes me forward is the chance to help set records straight while delivering a clearer picture of early western travel.  Every day, we have the opportunity to make a difference; meeting amazing people while finding and giving back to America’s history books something that should never have been left out.

Today, I’ve begun a new chapter in these efforts; a redoubling of our focus - a hunt we hope will bring even more discoveries and greater appreciation for the wheels that built the American frontier.  As we embrace an even stronger resolve to uncover more history, we’ve added some new apparel to our website as well.  Take a look.  If you see something you like, we’d appreciate your support.  If you don’t, please let us know what you’d prefer to see.  If there’s sufficient interest, we’ll do all we can to make it happen.  To those who have encouraged our work in the past, ‘Thank you.’  You’re helping bridge a gap that is saving history and, hopefully, building a stronger future for these incredible wooden machines... wheels that bore more than things – They carried the deepest of dreams for a nation and its people. 

Back to the discovery of the Steamboat Malta… it seems clear that there are strong parallels to the wheeled history so many enthusiasts search for.  For generations, farmers have plowed and walked over the field covering the Malta.  For generations, no one realized what treasures might lay below.  Today, there is a great deal of excitement as many wonder just what will be uncovered.  Similarly, there are volumes of information (and lost vehicle brands) from America’s first transportation industry just waiting to be discovered.  We may have walked by some rare pieces and never even noticed them.  Ultimately, every day is a new opportunity to uncover and share more of what is still out there.  So, if you see something you’ve never seen before, do some homework.  It could be something we’ve all been searching for. 

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, March 16, 2016

Milburn Wagons – Another Legacy Found

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of seeing a lot of early western vehicles.  Most have been in collections, auctions, or barn finds.  A few had literally been unearthed.  One was the 1856 Peter Schuttler running gear that I was able to identify and feature extensively for both our website and the Carriage Journal magazine back in 2008.  Another came about when an archaeologist from the Los Angeles area contacted us after a reservoir was drained.  Still another, more recent, discovery came to our attention when Christena Brooks, a writer from Detroit, Oregon, contacted us.  Seems the mountainous area had been suffering through a drought and as the local lake began to recede, a complete wagon emerged from the watery depths.  The wagon was lying on its left side in a soupy sea of mud and silt. 

The area in Oregon had been flooded in 1953 upon completion of a dam.  No one seems to know why the wagon was in the lake.  It’s possible that even if this set of wheels had been left above the water line prior to the filling, it may have dislodged and became part of the lake’s structure over time.  After more than six decades under water, though, the discovery led to a fair amount of speculation as to its age, original purpose, design, and builder. 

These images were difficult to acquire as the old Milburn wagon was completely surrounded by a vast sea of mud.  Thank you to Dave Zahn for sharing them.

A large clue as to as to the brand identity of the wagon lay in the name cast into the reach plate connecting the front and rear gear sections.  The plate was labeled as ‘Milburn.’  After careful evaluation, we confirmed that the entire gear did match a Milburn hollow axle wagon.  Closer examination led us to confirm a likely timeframe of manufacture as being somewhere from the turn of the 20th century to the teens.   The box, on the other hand, was not an obvious match to the Milburn brand.  In fact, it appeared to be from another era and maker.  Boxes and gears were often interchanged so it’s not unusual to see a mismatched wagon box/gear.  Ironically, the whole story reinforces a point that I’d mentioned a few weeks ago – you never know where you may run across one of these unique pieces of history.

This early trade card promoted the light-running capabilities of a Milburn wagon.

The roots of the Milburn Wagon Company can be traced to owner George Milburn and his start in Mishawaka, Indiana in 1848.  He was contracted by the U.S. government to build wagons for the army in 1857 and ended up seeking help from the Studebakers in South Bend, just to get the order filled in time.  In 1873, he moved the firm to Toledo, Ohio and, within a few years, began producing buggies and spring wagons.  By 1888, Milburn was one of almost two dozen vehicle shops in the city.  A decade and a half later, Toledo was home to nearly three dozen vehicle shops – yet, Milburn continued to dominate the city’s vehicle production. 

As a bit of additional insight on the Milburn Wagon Company, immediately below is a segment taken from an 1882 issue of “The Hub.”

“...Ten years ago, the house held an important position in the trade, but their product then was exclusively confined to the specialty of Farm Wagons, while they are now manufacturing an extended line of both business and pleasure vehicles, including Farm Wagons of all kinds, Log Trucks, and heavy special wagons, both heavy and light spring Drays, spring wagons of various patterns, a full line of buggies, and some light carriages.

The Company makes a specialty of good substantial work, well-finished; and claims with apparent justice that they supply for $150, (wholesale rate), as good a buggy as can be had for that price in this country.  Their trade is widely distributed, not only all over the United States, but in various foreign countries.  They report a large and growing demand for their work through the Eastern states, especially New-York state... They make some very fine Delivery wagons, with solid wood panel sides, beveled corners, and double doors in the rear, handsomely lettered and ornamented, for which they get from $400-$500.  They are shipping business wagons to almost every city east of the Rocky Mountains, and have a fine trade in the Mountains from Deadwood to Denver.  In addition to this home trade they also report a fine trade in Australia, to which country they shipped three car-loads last spring, with several to follow; and they are now working on orders for Manilla, Philippine Islands, where they have been shipping goods heretofore.  They anticipate a large increase in the demand from these countries, as the goods already shipped and heard from have given perfect satisfaction.” 

During the mid-1800’s, Milburn was producing around 600 wagons per week.  That’s one full wagon finished almost every 10 minutes.  It’s the kind of statistic that helps reinforce just how efficient the production processes of many of these mega-sized wagon firms truly were.  It also puts to rest any misconception that these folks were limited to crude hand tools and inconsistent design standards.  Clearly, by the 1880’s, many of America’s largest wagon makers had come into their own and were a serious competitive force to be reckoned with.

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, March 9, 2016

The Paper Trail

As America moved West in the 1800’s, there were numerous routes and trails that the explorers, traders, prospectors, cowboys, immigrants, and so many others followed.  Legendary routes like the Oregon, California, Santa Fe, Chisolm, Bozeman, Western, and Goodnight-Loving Trail have all rightly garnered their share of attention.  Even so, as committed to research as we’ve been, the trail we end up following a good part of the time is a bit different.  It’s called, the ‘Paper Trail.’ 
Twenty-one years ago, it was a bit of a pipe dream to believe that anyone could assemble enough scattered files from an all-but-forgotten industry to add much to our knowledge of wagons and western vehicles.  And ‘yes,’ I still have folks tell me the same thing... that the subject isn’t worth pursuing, isn’t interesting enough, or even the coup de grâce of discouragement – “There’s already sufficient research and knowledge about wagons and western vehicles.”  I’ll admit these are comments that I don’t really understand.  After all, as a historian involved in this study for more than two decades, there is one thing I know for certain... with all we think we know, America has only begun to learn about this industry, its vehicles, stories, and the values associated with each. 
Perhaps it’s too big of a stretch to believe we can uncover and preserve all of what might still exist.  Then again, why wouldn’t we try?  After all, a lack of knowledge is what has allowed too many historic pieces to drift into oblivion.  Don’t believe me?  Have you ever seen a wagon whose maker you couldn’t identify?  How many of those unknown vehicles might have been a 19th century powerhouse brand like Murphy, Caldwell, Kansas, Espenshied, Jackson, LaBelle, or other set of wheels highly desired in the West?  These were just some of the renowned names that helped open the frontier and, incredibly, there are none of these 19th century pieces conclusively identified today.  Hundreds of thousands of these particular vehicles are gone.  So, how can we tell the complete history of the legendary trails in the West without at least one of them?  The answer seems clear, which helps explain the urgency in tracking down so much history.  The vast majority of America’s surviving wood-wheeled wagons were built in the 20th century.  So, how do we determine the evolutionary differences and how can we categorize them within the individual brands?  In a nutshell, that’s why we began an earnest study of this part of America’s heritage so long ago.  It’s allowed us to separate a great deal of fact from fiction and unsubstantiated claims from actual history.

This image shows a small sampling of original catalogs and promotional materials in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

So... what’s included in studies of the Paper Trail?  Reams of period business correspondence, catalogs, ledgers, photographs, illustrations, blueprints, advertising, news articles, legal documents, and other government records all work to provide a more complete picture of what was a massive industry with extensive histories of individual brands.  It’s another reason why it would be impossible to ever produce a single book volume outlining everything a person could know about these complicated machines.
Even so, tenacity has a way of accomplishing what often seems fruitless.  We see it in the effects of time, wind, and water wearing down solid rock, creating the Divine masterpiece we know as America’s Grand Canyon.  Persistence has always had a way of delivering great things.  The diligence it manifests has allowed us to uncover near countless trails to our past.  In several circumstances, the materials we’ve come across were just days away from being destroyed.  Clearly, history doesn’t seem to be overly important to everyone.  It’s interesting to note, though, that some of the world’s best marketers and advertisers are students of history.  They work hard to uncover past consumer habits in an effort to better predict future behavior.  It’s one of the reasons why bread and milk are typically located in the back of the store and not the front, why certain shelf space is more valuable than others, and the understanding that, given an equal choice, most folks will go to the right side of a store first.  This research may be called a lot of things but, make no mistake; it’s the study of history as much as anything else.  In a similar way, our nation’s first transportation industry offers insights that help us see and appreciate our entrepreneurial, free market roots in a more responsible way. 

This extremely rare warranty from the Fish Bros. Wagon Company dates to the mid-1870’s.  

Week in and week out, our own determined study is punctuated by countless discoveries.  The process has given us rare gifts of original materials produced by legendary St. Louis builder, Joseph Murphy.  Likewise, we’ve been able to secure previously unknown records outlining exact paint specifications for 1870’s–era Studebaker wagons.  We’ve stumbled upon the only known photograph of a legendary Caldwell/Kansas wagon and acquired through-the-years visuals documenting the changing look of Weber, Mitchell, Bain, Fish Bros., and so many more vehicles dominating the Old West.  Recently, we’ve also been fortunate to pin down a number of obscure facts related to the operations of both J. Stephens Abbot and Louis Downing during the years when these legendary coach makers were separated (1847 – 1865).  These kinds of details can be crucial when evaluating a specific vehicle’s identification and authenticity levels.

Ultimately, the same pitfalls don’t generally lie in wait for us as they did for those headed west in the 1800’s.  There are other challenges, though.  There are long, dry spells of finding nothing.  There are dead-ends in search directions that prevent us from moving forward.  Equally taxing are issues with transportation as we travel for research.  And then, there's the ever present mental voice asking, ‘Are you crazy for doing this?’  I may already know the answer to that last one.  Even so, the stories and discoveries continue to draw me in.  In the end, the old trails of the West allow us to feel a connection to who we are as a people while the ‘Paper Trail’ helps us better understand how we got 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, March 2, 2016

Where Do You Find These?

When it comes to collecting wagons, I have a penchant for perfection.  That doesn’t mean I insist on a flawless character for every vehicle.  In fact, as I’ve written before, some blemishes are actually welcomed as they can help showcase the authenticity and provenance in a set of wheels.  In this case, being a perfectionist simply infers that, like most collectors, I have a specific profile I’m looking to fill.  Some of those traits were outlined in the “Borrowed Time” book we produced several years ago.  In general, we’re looking for pieces that best tell the story of America’s first and largest transportation industry – especially as each relates to westward travel.  It’s another reason we continually work to acquire papers from these old makers as well.

One of the most common questions we’re asked is, “Where do you find these wagons?”  It’s an inquiry with both a short and long answer.  The short reply is that ‘we find them where they are.’  I recognize that quip can sound a bit evasive so, today, we’ll take the long way around the barn.

“Sometimes you have an instinct, Mae.  You see somethin’ in a fighter.
You don’t even know if it’s real, you’re lookin’ for it so bad.”

The quote above is from a scene in “Cinderella Man,” a movie based on the Depression-era story of champion heavyweight boxer, James J. Braddock.  The Ron Howard film stars Russell Crowe as Braddock, Renée Zellweger as his wife, Mae, and Paul Giamatti as his manager, Joe Gould.  In the script above, Gould is trying to convince Mae that James still has a gift when it comes to boxing.  He feels that he can see something in Braddock that is exceptionally special.  
For serious collectors, I believe there is a connection to this quote.  After all, in much the same way, collectors can develop intuitions about certain vehicles.  Don’t get me wrong... I’m not getting all mystical, talking about some type of clairvoyant message.  Rather, I’m referring to experience-based senses that can sometimes cause us to stop and take particular notice of something we might otherwise pass by.  In other words, the more time we spend around early vehicles, the easier it becomes to recognize traits that truly stand out from the crowd of survivors.  If you’ve been married for a length of time or are particularly close to someone, you know what I mean.  It’s possible to become so familiar with another person that we’re literally able to finish their sentences.  The same thing happens as we spend countless years with these rolling works of wood-wheeled art.  After a period of time, it becomes easier to recognize time-honored traits in old friends (brands), that we’ve spent so much time studying. 

Even so, as is the case with any discipline, there’s no substitute for sweat equity and time spent in the field.  Patience, persistence, and broad experience will drive the process of recognition.  Like most other subjects, we can’t learn all we need to know from a book.  While access to sufficient amounts of old promotional literature is crucial, practical encounters in the field are just as important.  We have to spend time in the regions where these old vehicles were used.  Not only does that exercise provide valuable knowledge of different environments but it can also expose us to uncommon construction features.  Some of those design distinctions may be driven by the demands of the terrain while others can be indicative of a particular brand style. 

This small stage wagon is set on thoroughbraces and includes a rear luggage rack.  It's on display in Angels Camp, California.

So, back to the question... Where do we find the vehicles we’ve been fortunate to add to our own collection?  They’ve come from almost half of the contiguous U.S. states... North Carolina, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, California, Nebraska, Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Colorado.  They, literally, are where you find them.  The best ones aren’t typically sitting along a highway waiting for buyers.  Networking, research, and visiting other collections can help you set priorities and goals for your own acquisitions. 

One of our newest additions is a small stage wagon from California.  This same style of vehicle was referred to as a ‘Mail Jerky’ by M.P. Henderson in Stockton.  These custom vehicles were set up for shorter runs between communities; hauling lighter loads of mail, packages, and passengers.  We’re pleased to have Doug Hansen and his team of craftsmen helping to conserve this unique set of wheels.  The small stage will add an even broader dimension to our collection and studies.   

This California stage wagon was built with 1.5” steel axles, triple reach, rear boot, side springs, hand forged foot brake, and heavy brake beam with return spring.

As with each of our vehicles, one of the chief priorities is to preserve the surviving originality and history of the wagon.  Ultimately, we want to pass along as much of the true nature of these pieces as possible to future generations.  As a result, we’re working with Doug to help keep the history intact while reinforcing the overall structural integrity and presentation quality of the piece.  We’ll share more in the coming weeks as the vehicle progresses through Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop

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.