Wednesday, September 21, 2016

More on the Giant Moline Wagon

It’s been over two and a half years since I’ve reported any new findings on the huge, double-sized wagon unveiled by the Moline Wagon Company in 1904.  As many know, the head-turning piece was designed as an unforgettable display for the St. Louis World’s Fair that year.  Back in 2013 and 14, it was encouraging to discover more previously unknown details about this huge promotional piece.  Those particulars can be seen in two different blog posts from January 2014 and February 2014.  For decades, collectors and history seekers have scoured the country in search of this famous set of wheels.  I’ve certainly spent my share of time looking for clues as to where this iconic piece of transportation and agricultural history ended up.  The trek has taken up countless hours of research and plenty of conversation.  Still, it’s managed to hang onto a certain amount of intrigue while remaining an elusive beast of burden.

This 1906 photo from the Lincoln, Nebraska Fair is one of only two surviving images known to have captured the giant Moline wagon at that event.

Again and again, folks familiar with the story of this giant ask the same question… “What happened to it?”  From our own research and archives, I’ve repeatedly been fortunate to find significant and largely unknown information.  One of the more interesting revelations has been that the wagon was used within multi-state promotional tours by the Moline company and its dealers years after the first showings at the World’s Fair.  Still, the trail has been cold for some time.  The last glimpse we were able to get of the wagon was at a fair in Nebraska during 1906.  Since then, nothing.  No trade reports.  No newspaper clippings.  No photos.  No other details have come to light.  It’s as if the wagon just disappeared.  But, as I mentioned in my February 12, 2014 blog, details on mysteries like this can sometimes come right out of the blue. 

That’s just what happened last week when I was canvassing an April 1909 issue of “The Hub.”  Positioned just below a short story about the Abbot-Downing Company falling into receivership was an equally brief write-up sharing the whereabouts of the colossal Moline wagon.  Finally, after more than 100 years in hiding, the secret of what happened to this magnificent piece of history was being revealed!

As the story points out, five years after first being shown at the St. Louis World’s Fair, the wagon was being given a permanent home.  The article reiterated that the show-stopping attraction had been publicized extensively in state and national fairs during the previous years.  As of the 1909 writing, though, the big wagon was in the process of being placed on top of four, concrete pillars at the east end of Moline Wagon Company’s lumber yard.  The pillars were nine feet in height, meaning that the entire structure with the wagon would stand at least twenty-five feet tall!  It was intended to be the final tribute to the legendary set of wheels (and brand), standing where it would be a continuous topic of conversation to all passers-by. 

The enormous concrete platform was a fitting display, visibly reinforcing the power, reputation, and legacy of the historic brand.  Nonetheless, after reading this report, it’s not hard to imagine what ultimately happened to the huge wagon.  After a few years atop the concrete pedestal, the effects of a continual barrage of sun, snow, ice, and raw elements would have surely taken their toll; leaving the wooden titan in a deteriorated condition.  Also, knowing that just a year later, John Deere would buy the firm and two years after that change the name from Moline to John Deere; it’s easy to understand that the hulking wagon would have ultimately been dismantled and disposed of.  It had served a strong purpose for many years but, as the Moline brand disappeared from daily life so was the fate of the equally colossal wagon.  Both appear to have vanished at the same time and, even with their once prominent fame, are merely a pale curiosity today.  

This graphic from an 1870 company letter is easily among the oldest survivors from the legendary Moline Wagon Company.  It’s just one of numerous rare artifacts housed in the Wheels That Won The West®Archives.

It would be interesting to know if any photos may yet be found of the old promotional icon mounted on its concrete-column throne.  Even if none were taken or have survived, I can now finally put this legend to rest.  No longer do I expect to come across an actual piece of this three-dimensional superstar.  Like so many other notable wheels pointing to another time, this five-ton monster was likely allowed to wither into oblivion. 

Used throughout the West as farm, freight, military, emigrant, and chuck wagons, Moline was among the most competitive and revered brands inside America’s first transportation industry.  By the time John Deere purchased the firm, Moline was building 30,000 wagons per year.  It’s a rate that translated into 600 completed wagons per week (10 per hour – 100 per day).  Even with so many produced, original Moline wagons with respectable amounts of factory paint are still among the rarer finds today.

On another note, it’s been a while since I included a sign-up reminder but if you'd like to have these weekly writings sent to you - saving the time it takes to look it up on our website - 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.  Remember - IF YOU DON'T VERIFY - you won't receive the emailed blogs.  So, make sure you check the email confirmation and verify.  If you don't receive a request to verify your email address, you might check your spam filter as it may have flagged the correspondence.  Once you've verified, you'll be among the first to receive these weekly insights into America's first transportation industry.  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. 

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, LLC 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tom Watt Tour

While my introduction to horse-drawn vehicles can be traced to a runaway experience in my early teens, my dad and grandad grew up using wagons and horse-drawn equipment – on a daily basis.  Sometimes I have to remind myself that, even though America enjoys a host of modern conveniences today, it wasn’t that long ago that motorized wheels were an unaffordable luxury. 

Like a lot of folks across the globe, my grandad’s wagon-related stories were highlighted by runaways and wrecks.  Of course, my dad would want me to add that grandpa often fueled the problem by purchasing green (unbroken) mules to work the fields and wagons.  For obvious reasons, they were cheaper.  Dad laments that just about the time they would get a single mule or team working well, grandpa would sell them.  No doubt, for a good profit.  During the process of breaking them, though, there were times when explosive excitement and quick action ruled the day! 

After hearing the old stories and having my own ‘incident’ behind the traces, it took a while for me to come back to wooden wheels.  Still yet, I couldn’t shake the history of these pieces and in the mid-1990’s, I began a more serious focus on researching and collecting unique vehicles.  Since the internet was relatively unknown at that time, it wasn’t always easy to find details on antique horse drawn vehicles.  My earliest ‘guide’ was a used book store in Springfield, Missouri.   Visiting it a half dozen times a year, I was blessed to some across a number of important primers.  “Conestoga Wagon 1750-1850” and “The Prairie Traveler” were among the pieces found there and they continue to be valuable assets in our Wheels That Won The West® library. 

As the years progressed, I became acquainted with more folks of a similar bent.  Turns out, my intrigue with discovering and preserving this segment of American history is not so unusual.  Over and over, I’ve met collectors and enthusiasts from all walks of life and all parts of the U.S. as well as several foreign countries.

Positioned at the entrance to Tom Watt’s collection, this Newton brand chuck wagon is fully equipped and set up as an authentic display.

A number of years ago, I was introduced to Tom Watt.  Tom is a long, tall Arizona Coloradan – meaning he spends about equal time between properties in each state.  Not only is he one of the friendliest fellas I’ve run across but he’s also an astute businessman and early vehicle collector.  The pieces he’s helped preserve include several dozen historic wagons, carriages, and stages.  In fact, one of the small thorough-brace vehicles he owns is purported to have carried President Theodore Roosevelt during the 1904 World’s Fair at St. Louis.

Years ago, I wrote a brief history for Tom outlining the background of another equally rare, hand built vehicle he has on display – a Rhoads brand wagon from Anderson, Indiana.  Some of that particular brand’s heritage can be found in our “Borrowed Time” book which also covered other hard-to-find details from national wagon brands like Birdsell, John Deere, Peter Schuttler, Weber, Newton, Studebaker, and more.

Not long ago, Tom hosted a large group from the Larkspur and Cherry Creek Valley Historical Societies.  Walking them through his collection is akin to stepping back in time to a day when horseflesh ruled the road and the big ‘three’ in transportation was more like the big 50 or 100.  All total, there were tens of thousands of horse drawn vehicle makers in the U.S.  While most were small makers, a number of them became strong regional, national, and even international forces.  Tom’s compilation includes an impressive lineup of notable brands and wide variety of vehicle types including those built as a farm wagon, chuck wagon, sheep wagon, hearse, sleigh, mail wagon, buckboard, buggy, carriage, mountain stage, mud wagon, Concord coach, stock rack, and military ambulance.  Seldom do we have a chance to see so many different vehicles in one setting. 

Business wagons, such as this one promoting early Watkins products, were once a common sight as peddlers hawked their wares to rural sections of the U.S.

Making the most of every opportunity to pass on knowledge, appreciation, and insights from America’s first transportation industry is just one of the unspoken duties many collectors gladly embrace.  After 50 years of collecting, Tom Watt and his wife, Betty, have put together some of the country’s most impressive vehicle survivors and, in the process, have preserved a tremendous amount of history.  From rare brands to unique designs, we are all the richer for it.

Beginning in the late 1890’s, light wagons such as this one carried the mail via Rural Free Delivery (RFD) to farm families living distances from town.

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, LLC

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Lost Abbot Downing Stagecoach?

There’s something about a mystery that’s spellbinding.  Questions, uncertainties, and lost national treasures have a way of nagging their way into the forefront of our minds.  Tracking down details of the unknown can be equally addictive and, for those following the trails of our past, there are plenty of discoveries still waiting to be uncovered.  Each comes with its own set of challenges while focused curiosity and sheer determination often deliver amazing results. 

Again and again, researching yesterday’s transportation has a way of bridging the past, helping us actually connect with and ‘hear’ what an old set of wheels has to say.  Reinforcing that point, some time back, I purchased several 19th century issues of “The Carriage Monthly.”  This early trade publication was a prominent voice inside America’s first transportation industry.  As such, the magazines are a treasure trove of insights and information.  Thumbing through the pages, I made note of pertinent articles; anything from patents and construction techniques to factory transitions, industry successes, and timber shortages.  Then, alongside a story dating to 1899, I noticed a poorly reproduced photo of an early Concord Coach.  The vehicle was said to be sitting in a rundown shed in Kentucky and the image looked similar to Abbot Downing’s western-style stagecoach.  Equipped with lights (small windows near the passenger doors), leather boots, a thorough-brace suspension, and baggage rack irons, the historic look of the piece is pure Americana.  Even so, at first glance, the stage didn’t seem overly distinct from other Concords.  As with any vehicle evaluation, though, it’s the details that make the difference. 

According to well-known Concord coach historian, Ken Wheeling, this old Abbot Downing stagecoach may date to as early as the 1840’s.

Looking closer, the body style lines of the old coach didn’t exactly match the contours of virtually all Concords that I’ve seen.  For instance, the twin body rails extending forward of the doors do not come together in a pointed fashion as is often the case with Abbot Downing designs.  It’s an interesting observation.  After all, even small details can share insights into a vehicle’s provenance, originality, timeframe of manufacture, and so forth.  In this case, the construction variances could be a reflection of several possibilities such as a particular buyer requirement, a repair to a damaged coach, or they could simply be indicators of an older Abbot Downing work.  Based on the 1899 article that I’ve transcribed below, the historic coach does seem to be among the earlier pieces built by Lewis Downing and J. Stephens Abbot in Concord, NH.  Those considerations may be sufficient to explain the differences between this particular piece and most of today’s surviving western Concords.  Yet, there is a lingering question… “Where is this coach today?”

With a little more research, I discovered that the account I stumbled across in “The Carriage Monthly” had actually ran – at least in part – in as many as three other local newspapers in 1898 – a full year earlier.  Even so, the timing was still long after the heydays of western coaching.  So, has this particular Concord survived?  I reached out to well-known stagecoach historian, Ken Wheeling, for answers.  Ken is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge related to Abbot Downing history and extant Concord coaches.  Coincidentally, as I pointed out in my July 13, 2016 blog, Ken has just written a new article about the oldest-known surviving Concord.  The story is scheduled to be in the October 2016 issue of the “Carriage Journal.”  (FYI… if you’re not already a subscriber to this magazine, the upcoming story is a good reason to make the call.) 

Okay, back to the Kentucky Concord story.  According to Ken, the old coach in the photo is a nine-passenger bag boot design.  Not being able to see the complete running gear, he couldn’t confirm whether the vehicle was built as a ‘western’ stage.  He noted that the coach does not appear to have a passenger seat on the roof immediately above the driver and agreed that the forward body rails/style lines being widely spaced were unusual in their position.  Close examination seems to confirm that the rear rails are also widely spaced.  Equally curious are the small windows – referred to as ‘lights’ – near the passenger doors.  Almost all western coaches will have a matching set of lights balancing each side of the center door.  The right side of this coach body is partially obscured but it almost appears as if there may not be a ‘light’ forward of the door.  It’s possible that the framed signage or photo is actually hiding the forward light but, as Ken pointed out, if the light is missing, it may have been an early construction variance or order distinction by a customer.  Whatever the case, we’ll continue working on the mysteries within the photo as well as what may have happened to the coach.  Regrettably, it was not a match with any surviving Concords known to Ken.  

As is the nature of so much of our research and Archive holdings, the bulk of this original information can be difficult to locate.  So, in an effort to share some of our findings, the following text is from “The Carriage Monthly” article as it last appeared almost 120 years ago…

“Under a weather-beaten shed in Bloomfield, KY., is an old dismantled stage coach which has a notable history.  If it were put on exhibition, it would be an object of curiosity and wonder to the people, not only of Kentucky, but of the United States.  This old stage has had many ups and downs during its time.  It was at first the property of Ham Jones, a noted stage driver away back in the thirties.  After the pike was built from Bloomfield to High Grove, (which, by the way, is the oldest highway in the State,) by the late Henry McKenna, a man who had a wide reputation as the originator of a famous brand of whisky, this stage was then run between Louisville and Bloomfield.

The old coach was built at Concord, N.H.  During the war it was captured many times by the Confederates and recaptured by the Federals.  It was also captured many times by the guerilla bands, led by Munday, Magruder, Quantrell, One-armed Berry and Captain Terrill, who robbed the passengers, plundered their baggage and destroyed the mails and freight.  Thousands of dollars in money were hidden in the cushions and trimmings of this old stage and carried to Louisville during the war.

Among the distinguished men who rode in it were Governor Charles A. Wickliffe, James Guthrie, Governor John L. Helm, Generals Buell, Phil. Sheridan, and Rousseau, and it is said that General John H. Morgan, on one of his raids through Nelson County, took passage on this stage to Louisville, where he remained for several days.

Many of the most noted stage drivers of ante bellum days have sat on the box of the old vehicle.  The following are the names of some of them who are still remembered by many of the older people along the route between Louisville, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn.:  Ham Jones, Charles Simpson, Lee Withrow, John Goodnight, John Martin, John Brown, Billie Hall, and Tim King.

John Showalter, of Mount Washington, who died about a year ago, and who claimed to be the oldest stage driver in the Southwest, also frequently engineered the old stage on its perilous trips during the war.  Mr. Showalter, at the time of his death, was ninety years old, and could relate many interesting stories of the old stage-coaching days.  He began driving on the line between Bardstown and Nashville, Tenn., in the twenties, and during that time carried more prominent men than any other man in the country.  Among the celebrities he had driven at various times were Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Generals Lafayette and Taylor. 

This old stage is the last of its kind in the southern country, and it is a relic of more than ordinary interest.  It has been resting beneath the old shed for more than twenty years, and its trappings and woodwork are fast falling to decay.  The picture herewith shown is a faithful representation of the antiquated vehicle.”

With so much time passing since this coach was featured in the “Taylorsville Courier” (KY) and subsequent articles in “The Weekly Argus News” (IN), “The Recorder-Tribune” (KS), and “The Carriage Monthly,” we may never know what happened to this particular part of our past.  Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing story since so much provenance is revealed in the old news reports.  Like so many other vehicle mysteries I’ve shared, this one is holding tight to its secrets.  Perhaps some of our Kentucky readers can help shed some additional light on the whereabouts and well-being of the coach? 

As Ken Wheeling has pointed out in a number of his presentations, less than 10% of all Concord stagecoaches produced by Abbot Downing (individual or collective company) have survived.  With the discovery of this photo, it appears this may be another lost coach.  As such, the image is likely the only fragment remaining of such a valuable part of American history.

This authentic, western-style Concord coach, built by Doug Hansen and his team in South Dakota, is an extraordinary symbol of the American West. 

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, LLC