Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Memorial Day 2016

For many, this coming weekend will offer a respite of sorts; a time to enjoy activities with family and friends, do a little traveling, cookout on the grill (or in Dutch ovens), or just relax with an extra day off.  It’s a special time in our busy schedules where we pause and pay our respects to so many who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country. 

This year, Memorial Day in America is on Monday, May 30th.  Whatever we find ourselves doing, the day and weekend are reminders that we have a great deal to be thankful for.  Part of that appreciation is in the remembrance of what freedom has cost.  It is of incredible value and we’re blessed to have so much liberty in this nation. 

During this springtime commemoration, we honor our fallen heroes.  After all, we live in the Land of the Free because this God-given soil is also the Home of the Brave.  We’re able to count our blessings because so many others counted the cost and paid the price.  To the families of those brave men and women, we say, ‘Thank You.’  We remain grateful and salute the devotion and vigilance of all of our armed forces and servicemen and women.

May God Bless each of you and your families.  

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, May 18, 2016

Summertime Vacations & Old Wheels

Summertime is just around the corner and with school activities wrapping up for many, there are countless vacations being planned.  It’s the time of year that reminds me of several trips we took with our kids.   Even though we tried to ensure that every retreat included elements for everyone, I’m still accused of planning those getaways in the vicinities of early vehicle collections.  Okay, I may be a little guilty but the reality is that there are numerous examples of period wagons and coaches scattered all over the U.S.  So, our trips to Washington D.C., Mount Rushmore, Pikes Peak, Ft. Worth, Nashville, St. Louis, Kansas City, and even Disneyland always managed to have a stop or two to take in some wood-wheeled wonders. 

One of the most rewarding parts to traveling and viewing vehicles in other parts of the country is that you can see a lot of different features and configurations.  Fact is, specific areas often had particular designs and ways of doing things that aren’t seen elsewhere.  Once you begin to notice those details, it becomes easier to recognize regional styles.  It’s another part of the authentication process that’s crucial for collectors. 

Last week, I shared a few details about an original stage wagon we were conserving with the help of Doug Hansen and his team.  While I was at the South Dakota shop, I had a chance to walk through Doug’s bone yard of wheeled relics.  As we passed by one piece, he mentioned that it was an Indian wagon.  It's a term you don't hear too often but, still yet, the legacy is an important part of Old West history.  These wagons were sold to the U.S. Government as part of provisions made available to American Indians.  While this particular set of wheels happened to be a Studebaker, there were many other brands that also built these wagons.  Competition for the contracts was fierce and sometimes resulted in legal actions when a bid was lost. 

I took special interest in the piece for several reasons.  First, even though there were thousands of these wagons built, they are rarely identified today.  Second, these vehicles can easily date to the 19th century and that construction timeframe is becoming harder to find outside of a collection.  Third, some of today’s most legendary and elusive brands were known to have built these wagons – Caldwell and Jackson being among the most difficult to come across.  So, running across this kind of history in a South Dakota pasture was a bonus I wasn’t expecting.  It’s yet another reminder that you never know what you’re going to see or where.  As a result, it’s best to stay vigilant and take plenty of photos and notes.  Scarce pieces can show up when least expected and aren’t always immediately recognized.  Thorough documentation can be especially beneficial years later when more insights are known about a particular brand or design. 

While heavily deteriorated, this Indian wagon gear is a rare find.  The mountain wagon design is equipped with steel skeins, a clipped gear, tire rivets, bolster iron extensions, and an overlapping reach.

I’ll share a little more about these wagons in a later blog.  My main point here is to encourage watchfulness when you travel.  While millions of America’s earliest wooden vehicles have disappeared, many are still out there.  As an example, in the past two weeks, my travels have allowed me to see dozens of different designs – and even more individual pieces.  Almost all of them were a surprise to find.  Some of the most logical places to run across early wagons and coaches are in museums.  Even so, there are some truly amazing survivors in private collections.  Without a little guidance, though, it can be tough to know what pieces are where.  Joining organizations like the American Chuck Wagon Association, Carriage Association of America, and the National Stagecoach & Freight Wagon Association can be very helpful.  Networking opportunities within these groups can open doors to rare pieces that are seldom seen. 

Ultimately, if you have a vacation on the horizon and time to squeeze in a stop or two focused on early vehicles, do your homework.  Every part of the U.S. has its own share of rare and remarkable parts of yesterday.  My bet is you can weave it into your time off without any other family member knowing you planned the whole trip around these visits – or, at least I wish you better luck than I’ve had!  Have a great 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, May 11, 2016

Preserving History

At some point, most collectors have been asked the question – “Why do you collect the things you do?”  There can be any number of reasons but, ultimately, it’s fairly simple; we all tend to gravitate toward the things we like.  Beyond that, collectors also typically look for pieces that increase the quality and noteworthiness of their compilation.    

When it comes to antique, horse-drawn vehicles, there are at least a handful of characteristics I like to see.  In particular, I look for higher quality features that enhance the condition of the piece.  Coupled with significant originality levels, desired rarity, provenance, and completeness, each has a way of setting an individual vehicle apart from the crowd.  The overall depth of a collection can also reinforce its significance.  To that point, recently, we were fortunate to expand the diversity of our collection to include an original California stage wagon. 

The conservation work done on this mountain stage wagon was focused on preserving the original look and legacy of the vehicle’s history. 

Deaccessioned from a museum, this western stage will date to the late 1800’s.  The smaller, do-it-all design was geared for shorter runs over the rugged terrain between mining communities.  Supported by 1 1/2 inch steel axles, Sarven hubs, and 1 3/4 inch springs, the configuration carried lighter loads of passengers, mail, packages, and gear.  Highlights of the pattern include a triple reach, covered rear boot, footbrake, side curtains, heavy brake beam, and period correct tongue.  From top to bottom and everything in between, it was engineered for strength, fleetness, and flexibility.

Over the last several months, the stage has been at Doug Hansen’s shop in Letcher, South Dakota for a little TLC to bring it back to operating condition.  At the same time the reconditioning was taking place, we wanted to preserve the original, as-used character and hard-earned patina. 

In fact, throughout the conservation efforts, we worked closely with Hansen’s team to both maintain and protect the historic integrity of the vehicle.  As with virtually any century-plus-old set of wheels, some pieces were missing or broken and needed repair.  The work process went so far as to use timeworn materials wherever possible.  In several places, we were able to employ aged wood and even period leather left over from the restoration of another old California coach.  So, today, those parts of yesterday live on in this stage wagon.  It’s just the kind of serious attention to detail and period-correct conservation that helps perpetuate authentic history for generations to come. 

From features to function and purpose to place, stagecoaches came in all sizes, shapes, configurations, and capacities.  Some of the most recognized designs are the heavy Concord coaches built by Abbot-Downing or the lighter mud wagons or even touring coach styles built by a number of manufacturers such as M.P. Henderson of Stockton, California.  Even so, there were many other types of stages serving both remote towns and popular destinations.  All of these wheels have a way of reinforcing the rich history of America while showcasing the true depth of our nation’s first transportation industry. 

Anytime we can help save and share another part of the Old West we pay tribute to those who came before us while serving as good stewards to those who come after.  After all, the process of collecting is always bigger than ourselves.  It’s about preserving time and sharing a historic way of life.  As such, it has a way of bringing people together who may have been worlds apart – just the way the original coaches did so many years ago.  

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, May 4, 2016

150-Year-Old Steering Idea

The last thing most folks would believe about wood-wheeled wagons is just how much ‘technology’ is packed inside the vehicles.  Nonetheless, these rolling works of art are loaded with innovative design distinctions.  A few months ago, I was privileged to share details on a fair amount of technology built into America’s early wagons.  The rare details were included in a lengthy presentation I gave to members of the Carriage Association of America and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.  Overall, it’s an area of tremendous fascination to me because so much of this part of our history is regularly overlooked.  Just because it goes unnoticed, though, doesn’t mean it’s a trivial pursuit.  In fact, it’s possible for some of these design elements to add important details to a vehicle’s provenance.  The individual features can also point to a timeframe of manufacture while simultaneously reinforcing identification and authentication efforts.  Even so, gathering information on individual parts, processes, and patterns takes time and detailed record-keeping to keep the entire transportation story in perspective.

With that in mind, I recently read an article highlighting how much Henry Ford had done for the early auto industry.  Clearly, Mr. Ford is due considerable credit.  But, he didn’t start from scratch.  In fact, a number of design concepts in those period wheels came from other sources.  For instance, where did the ideas originate for the steering systems?  For running boards?  Bodies?  Tops?  Suspensions?  Spoke designs?  Seats?  Well, you get the picture.  Early wagon makers had a tremendous influence on America’s first automobiles.   Truth be told, the influence hasn’t stopped.  Just as a point of reference, have you ever heard of beadlocks for truck tires?  Simply put, they’re used on many 21st century trucks to help secure the tires on wheels... especially for off-roading adventures.  Believe it or not, the roots for the idea are grounded in early tire rivets found on western wagons.  Just as beadlocks are purposed to help hold modern vehicle tires on their rims when the tire pressure changes, tire rivets on wooden wheels were also engineered to help hold wagon tires in place.  That way, when the wooden rims (felloes) shrank, it was harder for the metal tire to slip off and leave the driver stranded.  So, even though the look of the ride changes through time, the needs of transportation have a way of remaining similar.  As a result, it’s easy to draw countless parallels between modern wheels and 19th century designs.   

 Beadlock wheels have a very similar design purpose as tire rivets on period, horse-drawn vehicles.

Beyond tire rivets, in the paragraph above, I also made a reference to early steering systems installed in America’s first autos.  Believe it or not, some of those steering designs were extraordinarily similar to a wagon patent granted during the Civil War.  That’s right, the Civil War!  At least 40 years before most autos were being seriously considered, some of the first tie rods and independent steering systems were being highlighted on wagons.  To get a feel for how significant this idea was, it’s important to realize that most all wagons and carriages at the time were steered by the entire axle turning on a center pivot.  It was a method of construction that had endured for thousands of years.

The two illustrations above are part of a Civil War era patent featuring steering system elements similar to early auto designs.

In contrast to the traditional ‘axle steer’ system, this 1860’s patent left the axle stationary and fixed; so, only the two front wheels turned.  It meant that the wagon could be much more stable as it retained a wider, four-legged stance even in hard turns.  The idea also helped keep the tongue from being thrown side to side when a front wheel hit an obstruction or hole.  It was a concept that took a great deal of wear and tear off of the draft animals.  Ultimately, there were several brands that used variations of this configuration in both the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Again and again, the makers of early wagons, stagecoaches, and western vehicles helped provide solid inspiration for the early auto industry.  Even more amazing – from the demands of modern off-roading to the many present-day methods of marketing vehicles – the ideas and impact of America’s first transportation industry are still being felt. 

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.