Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Antique Wagon Values – Taking Another Look

Throughout the nineteenth and early half of the twentieth centuries, millions of horse-drawn wagons were built by tens of thousands of makers in the United States.  With some firms producing as many as fifty thousand to one hundred thousand vehicles per year, it’s surprising to discover just how little is left of America’s first transportation industry.  Clearly, the bulk of America’s wagons and western vehicles disappeared long ago, whether buried, burned, rotted, or forgotten.  Others are vanishing regularly as they succumb to the rigors of weather and lack of care.  Nonetheless, even though the survivor percentages are small, there are still a number of century-plus-old, horse-drawn wagons remaining in the U.S.  Which of these are the more desirable and what are the reasons some will be more significant than others?  Both are great questions and both have fairly involved answers.  

Back in November of 2015, I wrote a piece that highlighted a number of elements affecting antique wagon values.  At the time, my goal was to help others see the power of individuality in different pieces.  I also wanted to help folks recognize the benefits of spending more time getting to know a particular set of wheels.  Every vehicle has a specific story to tell.  Even so, I still receive presumptive questions about the financial worth of an old wagon.  I say ‘presumptive’ because, often, there is an assumption that a wagon should carry a certain value just because another one has been seen listed with that price.  Too many still consider the severely limited comparisons of on-line value assessments to be the first resource in price determinations.  Truth is, the overall evaluation process can be very involved, requiring extensive knowledge of the individual vehicle, brand, condition, originality levels, the industry, historical relevance, current market trends, and more.  It’s also important to know something about the anticipated purchaser.  For instance, buyers of collector-grade wagons often have higher standards and more strict requirements than first-time shoppers.  It’s a reality that can leave some wagons labeled as less desirable due to commonness, poor condition, construction features, or originality issues.

Early vehicles crafted by small makers are not necessarily limited in value just because the builder was out-sized by others.  Design quality, vehicle condition, time-frame of manufacture, and other provenance elements can affect values of all makes.

Ultimately, determining authoritative values for these antiquities is not as simple as checking out an asking price on an internet auction service or the list price for another website that 'appears' similar.  I’ve shared many times that no two wagons are ever exactly the same.  That means we must know more than the asking price of a different vehicle to determine the actual value of a separate set of wheels.  Understanding the variances that distinguish one wagon from another can make all the difference in getting an accurate assessment. 

To that point, there are countless elements that can affect the value of an old set of wheels.  One category that influenced price back-in-the-day was the inclusion or absence of certain ‘Accessories.’  That same consideration can still hold true today.  From the running gear (undercarriage) to the box and a host of completely separate items, there were a lot of options that an end-user could include with the purchase of a wood-wheeled wagon.  Even so, this is an often-overlooked area when it comes to evaluating price differences between similar-looking but still very different vehicles. 

Folding end gates were not necessarily a standard item on an antique wagon.  As a result, a number of surviving farm wagons do not have this feature.

Accessory-related differences can come in a number of forms.  Some distinctions might be as small (not necessarily in importance) as a set of tire rivets on each wheel or as obvious as a third set of sideboards (often referred to as a tip-top box).  Other items that might be listed as add-ons include brakes (multiple types and configurations), a footrest, rein tie, seat risers, spring seat, tool or provision box, feed box, bows, bow staples, cover, bolster iron extensions, folding end gate, scoop board, anti-spreader chain, steel skeins, bois d’arc wood, grain cleats, tongue spring, bolster springs, lock chain hardware, and a multitude of different wear irons spaced around the running gear and box.  Certain wheel and tire sizes were also considered to be an extra-cost item.  Of course, the double tree, singletrees, neck yoke, stay chains, and tongue style could also be options – especially since different configurations were needed if a person used oxen instead of equine. 

As many items as I’ve mentioned here, there are still more features that can affect (both positively and negatively) antique wagon values.  It takes diligence and understanding to wade through the myriad of considerations.  Reinforcing that point, let’s assume we’re looking at a pair of vehicles for sale.  Both may be in similar condition but there are likely to be several differences in construction characteristics.  Let’s say one has taller, 52-inch rear wheels, a matching spring seat, foot board, brake, and western tire rivets.  The other wagon carries a little later (newer) time frame of manufacture and does not have a seat, foot board, brake, or tire rivets.  In this particular example, it’s reasonable to expect more interest to be expressed in the vehicle with the brake, rivets, etc. as it is likely to better exemplify wagons used on the western frontier.  Oftentimes, there is a greater pool of folks looking for that type of wagon.  That said, even these vehicle differences don’t necessarily mean it’s always a slam-dunk that the higher wheeled, better-featured wagon will command a higher price. 

Since other factors like condition, originality, completeness, and documented historical provenance can also impact values, it’s important for both buyers and sellers to take stock of every element that can affect price.    

Not only were rein ties usually listed as an accessory, when purchased, they could be mounted on the front end gate, on seat risers, and even on the foot board. 

Ultimately, every vehicle is an individual and, as such, every evaluation should be done on a case-by-case basis.  Generically lumping values of all ‘similar-looking’ wagons together can bring about frustration and remorse.  Likewise, attempting to focus too much attention on one element without taking stock of the entire vehicle, can also create misunderstandings and disappointment.  At the end of the day, the most accurate evaluations will consider a host of factors without ever focusing on what someone is “asking” for another wagon.  

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, March 22, 2017

On The Stagecoach Trail

Many of you have been faithful readers of this blog for years.  Along the way, you’ve been privy to a number of discoveries that we’ve been fortunate to be a part of.   Like any time-consuming undertaking, none of those revelations came easy.  We’ve been doing this long enough now that there are a number of success stories.  Yet, it’s taken us quite a while to get to the point where we understand where to look – and more importantly – how to recognize a significant lead.  The actual process of locating rare pieces is a pointed reminder of just how much can still be learned about America’s first transportation industry. 

With that in mind, you may remember that, last September, I wrote a blog entitled, “Lost Abbot Downing Stagecoach?”  The title was posed as a question because we weren’t sure if a recent ‘photo-find’ was a unique Abbot-Downing coach or an equally elusive example from another maker.  After all, while Abbot-Downing is the acknowledged originator of Concord coaches, there were other firms mimicking the design as well.  So, this particular discovery of an old photo actually stirred up even more questions.  It’s a scenario that can easily happen with breakthroughs of any type.  The unveiling of new knowledge tends to spur even more curiosity. 

Truth is, the ‘find’ that I’d stumbled across was both a photo and an article about an old stagecoach.  The story was written in an 1899 issue of The Carriage Monthly.  The account indicated that the legendary coach was an Abbot-Downing-built vehicle.  Even so, speculation remained as to whether the claim could be substantiated.  One reason for the uncertainty was that the coach was designed with a different feature than is typically seen on an Abbot-Downing Concord.  Herein was the problem... the raised, side rails on the body were spaced much farther apart at the ends instead of converging at the front and rear portions of the coach. 

Some might say that an examination focused predominantly on these style lines is too small of an observation.  However, many times, this type of truly unique detail has opened doors to additional provenance.  Plus, in all of my reviews of true Abbot-Downing-made Concords, I’ve never seen a coach body with these lines.  They seem to always converge, coming together at the ends.  The mystery was further fueled when other authorities consulted could not recall a surviving coach built like this either.  For the moment at least, I had reached a dead end.  Fortunately, in the world of research, dead ends can also be the uncharted beginnings of more discoveries. 

This close-up detail shows the converging style lines that we’re generally accustomed to seeing on an original Abbot-Downing Concord coach.  Our thanks to Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop for sharing the photo.

Compared to the uppermost photo in this blog, the area near the 'W' watermark clearly shows a wider variance in the stagecoach body style lines.  The construction difference is unique and caught our attention.    

So, with my interest piqued, I became even more vigilant, actively seeking out additional Concord coach photos and looking for any that might have a similar body design.  Months passed and, while the pursuit was slow-going at first, the efforts did finally pay off.  To date, I’ve run across a handful of images that appear to show this same stage both operating in and on display in Montana.  These photos show both sides of the coach and the style lines are the same for either side.  Nonetheless, without actually locating the old stagecoach, there seemed to be no way to know who had built it or when it was created.  Was it truly made by Abbot-Downing as the 118-year-old article had stated?  Perhaps, instead, the wider rails were indicative of an equally obscure coach built in Troy, New York or some other region?  Troy, after all, was known for building these types of stages.  Other questions also remained... where is the coach today... why is it designed differently... and who was it built for?

Why is any of this important?  Well, beyond the satisfaction of curiosity, every step that draws us closer to finding answers (for any antique vehicle) is a step toward restoring more provenance and meaning while also helping us better understand the builder.  Additionally, cultural provenance can often increase both financial values and public appreciation for an early set of wheels.  Along the way, it also helps reconnect the pieces of long-forgotten puzzles, weaving a unique story that can only belong to one set of wheels.

Over and over again, I’ve experienced the rewards of persistence while digging for answers.  While some dead ends are just that; sheer determination can bring about amazing surprises.  This is one of those stories.  While I’ve continued to search for this coach, I never really expected to find undeniable provenance to its history as well as confirmation of its maker.  The long stretches of searching have taught me to temper my expectations while still hoping for the best.  While we still don’t know everything we’d like to know about this old transport, we can say with confidence that the coach is an Abbot-Downing.

Our archives hold a number of original Abbot-Downing materials.

How did we get to this conclusion?  Because, in our searching, I came across an original cabinet card photo actually produced by Abbot-Downing in 1897.  Incredibly, the card featured the exact same photo as the one shown in The Carriage Monthly and identified the coach as one that A-D had built in 1868.  The well-worn promotional image is tattered, stained, and showing its 120-years of age.  Even so, all of the important details are still intact.  The image was produced by the Kimball studio in Concord, New Hampshire and it’s imprinted by Abbot-Downing as well.  The reverse of the card also includes a fair amount of background to the coach’s provenance.  Turns out that the coach was shown in the 1893 Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) in Chicago.  From the look of the surrounding exhibits in the old image, it’s conceivable that the photo was actually taken at the 1893 event. 

Visually examining all of the content contained within the image, we noticed that the old stage has a framed image hanging from it.  Close inspection has confirmed that that framed piece shows a well-known photo taken in 1868.  It depicts thirty Concord coaches that Wells Fargo purchased and had transported in one trainload to the edge of the frontier at Omaha, Nebraska.  With Abbot-Downing’s mention that this coach was built in 1868, we’re left to wonder... could this coach be one of those thirty?  It may be difficult to know without laying hands on the actual coach and getting a look at a serial number.

Even though we now have several images of this unique coach and now know the maker as well as some very interesting provenance, we still don’t know where the coach is today.  The most current photos we have appear to date to the 1920’s.  Locating any imagery after that timeframe has been tough.  Once again, the trail has turned cold.  It’s possible that this legendary icon was destroyed by a fire or some other natural disaster or perhaps it’s still hidden away somewhere?  We’ll certainly keep our eyes open.  After all, what are the chances that we’d come across the original nineteenth-century mounted photo card from Abbot-Downing in the first place?  It’s another reminder that anything’s possible if we’re committed to the search.  Over the years, I’ve seen that statement borne out as fact again and again.  We’ve managed to find a number of needles in haystacks.  This one not only helped us conclusively identify the coach’s maker but may have put us a step closer to adding another chapter to Wells-Fargo’s legendary order of thirty stagecoaches.    

Next year, the coach – if it still exists – will be 150 years old.  Within its life, it was among the first to carry mail in Montana, was once captured by Indians, and is documented as making a 108-mile run (Fort Ellis to Helena) in eight hours.  The last evidence we’ve found shows that it was put on display in Yellowstone National Park.  Perhaps Park officials may have some information as well.

As a final note... Interestingly, there are a fair number of discrepancies between the personal history of the stage as shared in the 1899 Carriage Monthly article and the historical provenance of the coach provided by Abbot-Downing a full two years earlier.  There’s no doubt that the photos are one and the same.  Since the magazine story is a much later piece and Abbot-Downing would easily have been able to identify their own work, our belief is that the news publication may have used an image they had on hand to describe a completely different story that needed a photo.  Further affirming the reliability of the Abbot-Downing-supplied history are the extra photos we’ve found showing the coach operating in Montana (as described by A-D and not by the trade publication).  

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, March 15, 2017

The Tranquility of Days Gone By

Sometimes, in the hustle and bustle of the twenty-first century, it’s easy to pine away, wishing for the easier, more peaceful days of old.  There’s just one problem with that image...  nothing is that simple.  From the dawn of time, every generation has had its own producers of stress, anxiety, and reasons to look for an escape.  Wheeled traffic, it seems, has been a source of irritation for ages.  For instance, anyone living near or driving in a congested area knows the challenges and annoyances of road racket.  It’s so troubling in some towns that ordinances have been put in place against excessive vehicle noise.  At a minimum, it’s an experience that takes some getting used to and not everyone is comfortable with the learning curve. 

With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to show how some things have remained fairly similar between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.  The following article was taken from the June 1880 issue of “The Hub,” an early trade publication for those involved in the carriage and wagon industry.  After reading this 137-year-old account, it’s clear that traffic-related nuisances are far from being a new problem...

“An English gentleman, who recently visited this city for the first time, gives the following entertaining description of the vehicles and noise of the New-York streets:

There is one thing in New-York that I confess I do not enjoy, and that is the noise.  It is the noisiest place I was ever in.  I don’t believe there is a quiet street in it and, as the heat during the summer necessitates keeping all the windows open, the houses and even the churches are nearly as noisy as the streets.  Our New-York friends had laid down spent tan in front of their church, which greatly mitigated the nuisance.  It softened the horrible noise made by unceasing carts rushing at full speed over the great, coarse, uneven paving stones, but not the voices of the costermongers who pervade the city with incessant yells, or the clanging bells, screaming of engines, and clashing of pieces of old iron used by the ragmen to advertise their precious presence in your neighborhood.

At 4 o’clock in the morning it begins; the milk-carts drive with horrid roar right past your open bedroom window; away they go, full gallop, one making as much noise as several of our carts would.  The first night I spent in New-York I was awakened by this diabolical performance, and bouncing out of bed, ran to the window in full expectation of seeing a half dozen fire engines galloping to the scene of their labors, but lo! and behold it was nothing but peaceful milk!

Then come the ice-wagons, – great, white, four-wheeled, clumsy vehicles with round tops covering their crystal but ponderous loads, and they must needs gallop too.  So must everything else.  If you are not run over six times a day in New-York, thank your stars and not the drivers.  But, you are run over, if not by carts and carriages, by railway trains; for there are elevated railroads over your head, and these, to my thinking, are the greatest wonder I have yet seen in America.

I have noticed also that the noises in America are worse to bear than in our sedate old country.  The atmosphere is so clear and the nerves are so highly strung, that every sound penetrates very deeply into the inside of the head, and after a little while a continuous succession of noises sets up a disturbance there that half stuns and half maddens you.  I have been most devoutly thankful to get out of the great transatlantic Babel."

When I first came across this short article, I laughed to myself.  It seems that people are still people, no matter what century they’re born in.  In spite of the technologies and conveniences (or lack thereof) we all have the same basic desires for harmony.  We yearn for the leisure of a weekend or days off so we can focus on things that rejuvenate our souls.  Oftentimes, the things that revive our spirit can be something as basic as a quiet day at home, mornings sitting in a front porch rocker with coffee in hand, or even the opportunity to catch up on a personally fulfilling project.   

Over and again, we’re reminded that the rush and flurry to push forward has always been there.  I’m fortunate to live in a part of our state that benefits from vacation-seekers looking for an escape to the serenity of the outdoors; folks looking for opportunities to create special memories and put aside the tensions of traffic, jobs, deadlines, or other pressures.  Anyone accustomed to the tranquility found in quiet, picturesque settings can fully appreciate the basic human need for serenity.  Shot nerves, quick tempers, shouts from vehicles, and inconsiderate drivers can make all of us look for greener pastures.  Clearly, noise pollution and courtesy failures are far from being an exclusively modern problem.  Like others reading this blog, I’ve read similar firsthand accounts from witnesses to the great western land rushes.  Yelling, bumping, wheel-grinding races to the best real estate sites were not uncommon.  It seems that no matter how much time passes, the strains of life are always there, ready and waiting to wreak their own havoc. 

So, this week, if you happen to find yourself sitting in bumper-to-bumper, honk-happy traffic or maybe you’ve been the recipient of a less-than-friendly wave from another vehicle, it’s probably good to remember that this too will pass.  You may not be able to completely escape but, then again, unlike the writer in the 1880 story above, you probably won’t have to hop on a steamship and re-cross the Atlantic to regain your sanity.

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, LLC

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Ten Reasons to Chase History

There are all sorts of reasons people pursue different activities.  It may be an escape, a way to wind down, a means for staying mentally and physically fit, spending time with others, satisfying a craving for adrenaline, or a number of other factors.  For me, there’s no single draw that continually pulls me into America’s early world of wheels.  The intrigue comes from a number of places.     

Maybe I’m feeling a bit nostalgic this week (my youngest daughter is getting married) or maybe today’s post is meant to remind us all of the rewards offered by a good sideline interest.  Whatever the inspiration for this week’s topic, there are a number of reasons that the study of America’s historic vehicles can be infectious.  In order to open the window to that world a little more, I thought I’d share, in no particular order, ten reasons I find myself continually involved in this subject. 

1)  The Thrill of the Chase – There’s something about the ever-present hope of making new discoveries.  It’s a mindset filled with anticipation and rewarded with the excitement of both recognizing and rescuing lost treasures.  Likewise, the expectation of uncovering another piece of America’s transportation puzzle has a way of driving us forward through the next obstacle.  To that point, numerous historians have contributed countless details that can help us better understand this part of our nation’s growth and development.  It’s a foundation of knowledge that’s easy to jumpstart by reinforcing your own library with published works; many of which I’ve covered in previous blogs and articles.
2)  Meeting New People & Reconnecting with Old Friends – One of the greatest thrills in chasing history is the opportunity to hear from others and share in their stories.  Inevitably, folks from all over our great country have questions and personal experiences of their own.  Those individual accounts are always intriguing and go a long way in continually piquing my curiosity as well.  After all, each of us tends to work with a little more enthusiasm when we see the same excitement in others.  Iron sharpens iron. 
3)  Traveling to New Places – Trekking across America in search of our country’s earliest wheels is an extraordinary experience.  The trips allow us to more fully appreciate the challenges faced by period vehicle makers while also giving us a front row seat to the amazing geography, culture, and natural beauty evident in all parts of the U.S.  From the desolation of Death Valley and the gurgling caldrons of Yellowstone to the breathtaking views in America’s rivers, plains, mountains, and wooded cathedrals, the land is full of incredible wonders.  In fact, these are the places where the industry of transportation has consistently brought the country together.  With that said, what better way is there to connect with the past than to go where so much transportation history took place? 

Traveling has always been an exciting part of my pursuit of early vehicle history.  Even so, arriving back home to familiar surroundings tends to be an even more welcome sight.

4)  Experiencing Other Collections – There are countless public and private collections available for viewing all over the U.S.  Featuring not only some of the best surviving examples of America’s horse-drawn transportation, these compilations can also highlight regional manufacturing distinctions, evolution of designs through different eras, and variations between individual brands. 
5)  New Historical Discoveries – This part of the search process plays a huge role in refueling my determination and drive.  There can be long, dry spells in the hunt for history.  The occasional ‘finds’ have a way of re-energizing us and instilling hope that more lost artifacts and information can still be found.  Lately, I’ve uncovered unpublished primary source details on some of America’s earliest wagon makers and freighters.  Names like Hiram Young, Alexander Majors, Lewis Jones, Francois Xavier Aubry, and many more are part of this newest find.  It's already filling in gaps of history while providing a more detailed look of transportation in the mid-1800's.  Just this week, I’ve also discovered previously unreported details related to Abbot-Downing.  Some of this material will be shared in the Santa Fe Trail Association meeting in September.  Ultimately, we enjoy helping locate and preserve these all-but-forgotten parts of American history.

6)  Adding Provenance to Vehicles in Our Collection – Time and again, our search and rescue efforts have uncovered important details related to brand histories as well as facts tied to individual vehicles in our collection.  It’s an exercise that also helps highlight the interest levels and values of vehicles all over the country.
7)  New Vehicle Finds – Superficial searches for historic vehicles can quickly deliver the impression that the most significant survivors have already been found.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  There are still a number waiting to be recognized, recovered, and have their stories told.  How many?  Who knows?  If I learned nothing more from the past twelve to fourteen months, it’s clear that diligent pursuit has a way of increasing the amount of luck we can experience.  Throughout that timeframe, we were fortunate to come across several previously unknown pieces dating to just after, during, or immediately preceding the Civil War.

8)  Understanding More – With tens of thousands of reported vehicle builders, America’s first transportation industry was a massive institution that we may never fully understand.  Nonetheless, every part of the puzzle that can be put back in place helps us paint a more complete picture of a very complex and competitive industry.  The industry was so deeply tied to banking, agriculture, forestry, mining, government services, and countless other facets of trade, that it was far from the primitive levels of business savvy that some have wrongly assumed it occupied.
9)  Reminders of Opportunity – Quite a few emigrants and others looking for a fresh start in America took up a trade in the field of transportation.  Many were already trained in the art of vehicle manufacture but others, recognizing the economic demand, made preparations to learn and benefit from the experience.  Just as today, everyone had a need to travel or move goods from one place to another.  The early industry was one of tremendous growth (especially in the mid-to-late 1800’s) and quality work was rewarded with even more business.  As such, it’s another reminder of the opportunity freedom affords as well as the responsibilities those pursuits carry. 
10)  Memories – Over the years, we’ve traveled to countless places, meeting so many amazing folks with great stories.  It’s a lot to take in and reflect upon. When I started this journey, our kids were young.  Through the different seasons, we’ve had our share of family trips, many centered around places where I could see more vehicles.  That said, it wasn't exactly a sacrifice for the family to agree to these trips.  Believe it or not, there are countless wooden wheels near Disney Land, Washington D.C., St. Louis, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, and so on.  I’ve truly had the privilege of having my cake and eating it too.  Along the way, the memories have become a treasured part of our family legacy.  Special get-togethers invariably have a way of re-sharing those times together.  Even instances much closer to home can bring smiles and fond recollections.  I’ll forever remember the looks on my young girls’ faces when I would tell them we needed to move some wagons to make room for another.  They hated that because, in truth, it was a chore.  In typical parental style, though, I always assured them it wouldn’t take long.  It was a statement based solely within the guise of wishful thinking with no reality to back it up – and they knew it!  Nonetheless, we have memories of doing things together and enjoying the time, wherever we were. 

A few years ago, against the backdrop of what I tried to convey as a manly, yet tear-stained face, our oldest daughter was married.  This weekend will mark the same occasion for our youngest daughter.  She’s no longer a little girl.  Where does time go?  Wasn’t it just yesterday that these creatures after my own heart were here, standing at the ready, excited to fly kites, ride horses, go fishing, catch June bugs, lizards, and fireflies, play ball, go sledding, share a movie, and still find time to ride in an old wagon?  It’s a bitter-sweet moment marking time in so many families; a time of reflection and reminder that the decisions we make and pursuits we follow are impacting others as well.    

To that point, there are a lot of reasons that I’ve studied America’s earliest wheels for so long.  Not the least of which has been the opportunity for our family to share even more memories together.  Unfortunately, like the early transportation industry, life moves on and new directions take hold.  Through it all, I’m thankful for the gifts of friends, freedom, and family that God has given.  And, yes, I will probably need to carry a handkerchief to this wedding as well.  After all, this girl is more than a bride, she’s a product of my past and, like her sister, she’s something good I’m thankful to be part of.  That kind of history is the hardest to let go. 

Twenty years ago, our youngest was a regular threat to the barn cats.  My wife and I have laughed until we cried as we watched those felines see her coming and scatter to places just out of reach.  From her view, though, all those choke holds were done purely in the name of love.

Growing up on a farm, our girls found beauty and intrigue in even the simplest things.  Note the ‘treasure’ of a shed snake skin held in our oldest daughter’s left-hand grip.

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, March 1, 2017

Finding & Losing America’s Rarest Vehicles

I’ve been closely studying America’s early western wheels for decades.  Yet, the last half of that time has been the most visibly productive.  I’ve learned more, found more, and shared more during those years.  For me, the single-most important factor helping my growth has been the act of communicating my findings to others.  Why?  Well, if you want to discover how much you really know about a topic, start writing about it.  It’s a process that, ultimately, requires intensive and continual research.  For historians, the need for homework remains a vital part of any serious study. 

When we commit to fully explore a topic, the experience has a way of stretching and growing us.  It certainly has me.  Far from knowing all there is to know about wagons and western vehicles, the last few decades have shown me how much there is to learn and how little of it I’ve actually mastered.  Nonetheless, the process has made it much easier to recognize, identify, and evaluate even the smallest details.  To that point, there are countless construction variations on wagons made in different parts of the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries.  Knowing who did what, when, why, and how helps develop the true personality of a piece while overcoming misconceptions and putting a structure in place for accurately assessing America’s wood-wheeled icons. 

With millions of wood-wheeled wagons created throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some near-forgotten survivors are still tucked away in secluded sheds, barns, and outbuildings.

Ultimately, mentally parsing every old set of wheels has become something of a Rumpelstiltskin-style chess game for me.  I love to match wits with an antique wagon, going piece-by-piece through its makeup to see how much can be conclusively determined.  Score marks, brush strokes, hammer strikes on ironwork, the custom shaping of a particular part, patented designs, and so forth...  Everything on these old wheels has something to say.  Whether we understand the language or are as attentive as we should be is a different story.

Sometimes, even when a vehicle is recognized, we may be too late to save it.  More than once, I’ve borne the brunt of an opportunity missed.  In fact, it’s happened to me multiple times in the last year.  In one case, I missed saving an ultra-rare piece by just a few hours.  Put into perspective, in the time it would have taken to watch the movie, Open Range, the ancient vehicle was given up, parted out, and hauled away.  Dismantled, demolished, gone, and forgotten, the withered wreckage was scattered to the wind.  That’s all the difference there was in the preservation of irreplaceable history and the complete loss of an untouched artifact from another time.  It’s a scenario that’s hard to shake.  Another one lost.  Another firsthand link to the Old West purged.  Another opportunity to share the way things were with future generations – completely eliminated.  It’s a scenario that happens all too often in our search for the rarest connections to America’s western history.

Leading up to all of this, I’d been sent a series of photos showing an ‘old wagon’ that the owner wanted to clean off of the property.  As I looked at what was left of the hand-made hulk, I recognized the work fairly quickly.  The unique design, specially-contoured wood, and hand-forged irons all contained conclusive evidence from another place and time.  The elements not only told me the brand of the old wagon but placed its date of manufacture as early as the 1870’s – maybe late 1860s!  Pieces from these eras are extremely hard to find.  Knowing the wagon was made by a St. Louis builder during or before the period when George Custer and the 7th Cavalry met their demise made it an even more unique part of the story of America.  Unfortunately, by the time I was able to finally catch up with the owner, the pieces had already been disposed of.  For those curious to know, the vehicle brand was a very early Weber-Damme.  The remaining elements of it would have made an exceptional display.

From guns and knives to clothes and tools, society has learned to recognize and respect historical treasures tied to the life and times of America’s Wild West.  Even so, there seems to be an exception for the wheels that actually made every part of our western growth possible.  Oh, I don’t believe it’s a deliberate slight.  I’m convinced it has everything to do with understanding what separates one make and era from another.  While most folks wouldn't confuse a 1971 Mach 1 Mustang with a 1991 Taurus, those same twenty years' difference in an antique wagon are often portrayed with no difference whatsoever. Clearly, there’s a difference in value as well as history between the two. 

Wagons built within the individual decades of the 1800’s can vary greatly.  Understanding when certain design elements came into use is an essential part of any authoritative evaluation.  

So, why have we not been as successful getting the same message across about America’s early transportation?  At the end of the day, I believe this shortfall is the real reason so many of these pieces remain unrecognized.  Too often, the results lead to valuable pieces being categorized as rudimentary minutiae.  From modern westerns to casual auction listings and even representations in museums, there has long been an epidemic of misguided mindsets on early wagons.  We've drifted so far into vague, surface-level generalities that it’s a common occurrence for twentieth century farm wagons (even farm 'trucks') to be displayed as nineteenth century western relics.  In fairness, I’m confident most don’t realize the mistake - even though there can be numerous differences. Ultimately, though, what I’m asking is... Shouldn't we want to keep the right history with the right pieces?  Don’t we owe that to future generations?

Reinforcing that point a bit more, this past year I traveled to a half dozen museums – some in the east but, most were west of the Mississippi.  Of course, each had at least one type of exhibit in common – antique wagons.  I enjoy looking at vehicles all over the country as there is often a great deal to be learned.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot of ‘un-learning’ that needs to be done in some circumstances as well.  I’m referring to a lack of objective research that sometimes accompanies a vehicle’s supposed provenance and interpretive signage.  Again and again, I’ve come across inaccurate details attached to a particular vehicle.  In many cases, the background of the vehicle claims to be from such and such a date and made by so and so maker.  Sometimes this information is well documented.  Unfortunately, I could give countless examples of times when the professed ‘facts’ have not been properly vetted.  One encounter from last year epitomizes these types of challenges... 

Clearly, no one is perfect and mistakes can and will occur.  Even so, one oversight I stumbled upon was a doozy!  I visited a large museum last summer with quite a few early vehicles.  After paying to enter, one of the first pieces the self-guided-tour brought me to was a metal-geared, covered wagon purported to have brought a family from Ohio to the Dakotas in 1882.  The details were so specific that it sounded as if there must have been some corroborating documentation.  After reading the signage, I began to visually dissect the wagon.  First, I’ll say this... metal wagon gears were in existence during (and well ahead of) the 1880’s.  So, in and of itself, that point is not an issue.  Looking over the gear, though, it quickly became clear that this was no ordinary – or necessarily early – running gear.  It was a highly identifiable Bettendorf brand, made in Bettendorf, Iowa no earlier than, and likely well after, the mid-1890’s.  If I’d had greater access to the piece, it’s quite plausible I could have confirmed that the undercarriage would date to several years after the turn of the century.

Okay, that was the running gear.  Looking at the box, it was devoid of original paint or obvious markings.  However, as I scanned the piece top to bottom and side to side, it too was full of recognizable design elements.  Without exception, it was an exact duplicate of Studebaker’s “Twentieth Century” wagon box.  These boxes (beds) were promoted as the industry’s most advanced designs and were featured in Studebaker promotions for over a decade.  Reinforcing the prominent marketing of this design, the box possessed exclusive and patented features dating no earlier than the immediate timeframes surrounding the turn of the twentieth century.  I get no enjoyment from debunking purported history and, in reality, the truth is often much more interesting than hearsay generalizations passed on as fact.  From the beginning, my own focus has been to help others with supportable documentation and appropriate details related to a particular set of wheels. 

Beyond the obvious thought that erroneous information should be corrected, why should these slip-ups be a concern to any of us?  Well, if we don’t share accurate information, society tends to make up its own stories, effectively lumping every one of these vehicles into a single, catch-all class of sameness.  It’s a process that has historically positioned these vehicles as a relatively irrelevant part of our past.  The end result is that we miss out on the evolution of transportation design and how/when it was being used during some of the most stirring days and events of the Old West. 

Like many other brands, ‘Weber’ wagons were crafted in a number of design and paint configurations over the years.

Over and over, we all see antique wagons viewed as overly-simplistic, ubiquitous creations with little more to offer than a quick photo op in a simple yard display.  It’s exactly how the casual perception of these pieces can lead to them being burned up, melted down, parted out, or buried in a forgotten hole somewhere.  When true identities and authoritative provenance are lost, devaluation can quickly follow.  Over the years, I’ve restrained many of my thoughts on this subject out of respect for those placing these pieces on display.  More and more, though, I’ve come to believe this restraint has actually helped in the loss of key parts of American history. 

Some of the most popular searches for wagon history on the internet involve folks looking for details on Murphy Wagons.  Have you ever wondered why there are no confirmed, period examples of brands like Murphy, Espenshied, Jackson (I’ve actually seen one), or other legendary brands that played such a strong role in building the West?  Is it because they’re already gone?  I don’t believe that’s totally true.  Yes, attrition has taken a hard toll on these wooden warriors.  Even so, the most important point, I believe, is that we often don’t recognize the identity of an old piece when we see it.  All wagons look the same, or so society tends to think.  So, time and again, we look at an old piece and allow ourselves to be satisfied with not satisfying any element of curiosity.  In some cases, the lack of action (or a delay) is a death knell for a rare and legendary piece. 

This September, the Santa Fe Trail Association will hold a symposium in Olathe, Kansas.  There will be a host of topics covered.  As part of the event, I’m privileged to share some details on early wagons and their development.  The hour-long presentation will include points not typically available – even in my blogs or articles.  If you have an opportunity to attend, I’d enjoy seeing you there as well as the chance to hear about your finds and challenges.  In the meantime, if you happen across an old wagon with features you don’t recognize or maybe seem to be a little different – shoot me an email with some clear photos.  At the end of the day, it takes all of us to preserve history.  YOU could make all the difference in helping showcase an ultra-rare part of our past or losing it forever. 

When closely evaluated, it’s fairly easy to point out differences between wagons produced in different time periods of the nineteenth century.  

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