Wednesday, August 30, 2017

American Transportation – The Whole Story

As an early vehicle collector and historian, I’ve had a number of people ask me what I gravitate toward when adding wood-wheeled transportation to our collection.  Many expect the answer to center around a popular make or type of vehicle – and I can easily provide a response like that.  Beyond my intrigue with the heavier work and western-themed vehicles, though, perhaps the real question should be ‘why’ I collect what I do.  In that case, my response will touch (at least partially) on the selection of pieces with the best investment potential.  You’ll also probably hear me share some stories related to the thrill of the chase.  Even so, there’s still another driving force behind what we do – the stories.  For me, this is where the real rewards are.  The background behind each of the transportation pieces we collect is full of drama, struggle, failure, and triumph.  It’s real life adventure we can watch unfold and learn from.  Growing through these discoveries is what really fuels our efforts.  As a result, our collecting isn’t limited to just vehicles or brands but to almost everything that surrounds the unique history of America’s first transportation industry.  After all, that’s essentially what gives anything intrigue – those feature-rich, back-stories highlighting interesting details we never knew.   

This small stage wagon once plied the trails around California’s most lucrative gold mine – The Utica at Angels Camp.  From the incredible rags to riches story of the mine to the exceptional rarity of the vehicle, this mail stage is an extraordinary survivor from America’s Wild West.

It’s a focus that sounds simple enough but the truth is that, in roughly two hundred years of travel in the New World, there’s an extraordinary amount of depth and breadth to this topic – far beyond the old vehicles, themselves.  The ‘extra’ pieces I find myself searching for and stumbling across do more than tell their own story, they help flesh out the overall accounts while reinforcing the vastness and complexity of this old trade.

This traveler’s guide dates to 1836.  While it provides details of stage, steamboat, canal, and railroad routes in those days, we have other western guidebooks that once supplied important information related to western overland trails.

So, while we have a few dozen vehicles in our collection, the supporting elements that help profile the entire industry will measure in the thousands.  Original photos related to makers, patents, lifestyle activities, brands, vehicle types, and special events are among the countless black and white remnants we’ve salvaged and assembled.  These pieces are complemented by several hundred period brochures and promotional pieces.  Even multiple hardware variations within the categories of skeins, wrenches, drag shoes, brake ratchets, reaches, rub irons, springs, chains, maker tags, and the like can each have stories associated with them.

This new, old stock sign was designed to be applied to the inside of glass windows.  It was made by Palm Bros. & Co. and was referred to as a translusign.

Other elements of our collection include vehicle-related patent documents, maker ledgers, manufacturing equipment, antique signs, hames bells, unique wrenches, and other all-but-forgotten-but-once-important elements from yesterday.  It’s a collage of commerce that consistently helps bring a prominent part of our past back to life.  We’ve even assembled some horse drawn transportation pieces as a result of their relevance to the beginnings of the auto industry.  After all, this part of history heavily relied on the wagon and carriage business to get themselves established.  How so?  In some cases, as with Chevrolet/General Motors, the motorized upstarts needed others who could help secure financial capital and production insights.  In other circumstances, brands like Ford and others, depended on the body-making skills from craftsmen who had learned the trade from wagon and coach building.  Still others, leaned on the engineering acumen from period machine builders, blacksmiths, and wheel makers.  The truth is, the American automobile story can’t be completely told without sharing the foundation of the whole enterprise – the horse-drawn vehicle industry.  In many ways, it was a good news/bad news kind of relationship between the two.  It was an opportunity for some employees and entrepreneurs to embrace the next generation of vehicles.  In the beginning, they each capitalized on the other, although one was destined to lose during the transition.

Many early innovators hired a photographer to capture patented advancements while using the image within sales promotions.  This image highlights a unique, folding step that could easily be attached to the sideboards of wagons.  

The criteria for inclusion within our collection often requires us to look beyond the individual value of the single piece.  If it’s a unique element that helps tell the story in a more detailed and interesting way, there’s a fair chance we’ll try and include it with all of the other artifacts we house.  

As is so often the case, the history we’ve assembled has a way of finding us as much as we find it.  It's a truth we discovered some thirty years ago when we purchased the acreage we live on.  The place is an old farm with roots dating back hundreds of years.  A well-worn wagon road still runs alongside the original stone farmhouse on the property.  Over the years, we’ve found numerous transportation-related artifacts along this road; a heavy, 56-inch steel tire (likely from an ore or freight wagon), an early-style rub iron, a brake lever, box rod parts, brake shoe, and other similar parts.  The truth is that wheeled transportation has always been a big part of this country’s history and only through continued research will we be able to pass along the most accurate details about period vehicles.  Surely, we owe that much to future generations.

An extraordinary find, we were pleased to add this original catalog of Pabst Beer wagons to our collection years ago.

Period photos can be helpful to restoration professionals as well as historians by providing a clearer understanding of what a particular vehicle looked like during the different seasons of its life.

Many will be traveling this week and next, enjoying the blessing of a long Labor Day weekend.  We wish you safe journeys and encourage you to keep your eye out for unique parts of our wheeled past.  There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle still out there but, it often takes intense focus to help locate and understand all of what we find.  Slowly and collectively, we’re putting everything back together, growing appreciation for a huge and immensely complicated industry.  Good luck in your own collecting endeavors and send us some shots of your ‘finds’ from time to time.  We’d enjoy seeing the fruits of your labors.  

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, August 23, 2017

Trail Wagons

America’s early growth was shaped by a host of transportation routes.  From the National Road in the eastern U.S. to numerous western trails like the Santa Fe, Oregon, California, Chisolm, Goodnight-Loving, Western, and Sedalia, there’s a great deal of our past that still surrounds the present.  Reinforcing America’s tie to legendary trails, I have a fair amount of early vehicle information that I’ll be unveiling in just a few weeks.

To that point, have you ever really thought about all it took to go from point A to point B one hundred fifty to two hundred years ago?  Excruciating summer heat, violent storms, piercing winters, and very few creature comforts were a regular part of cross-country transportation via equine or oxen.  Merciless environments were inescapable, making long-distance trail travel largely incomprehensible today.  Absent the comforts of air conditioning, GPS maps, modern weather forecasting, convenience stores, and even legal protection, countless wagons moved along these corridors throughout the nineteenth century.  While there were a lot of differences in the vehicles, one thing they all had in common was that each one was a product of its time.  In other words, every set of wheels on these trails was subject to the technology available up to and including the time of its use.  As an example, this means that a wagon built in the 1860’s typically carried noticeable differences when compared to one crafted in the 1890’s.  Due largely to the driving force of competition, virtually every era was full of advancements and distinctions in these wooden warriors.  As a result, we’re able to use many of the variations as part of an authentication process.  The same information is also crucial when determining timeframes of manufacture.

Freight wagons on the Santa Fe Trail varied in a number of ways, including by design, size, and construction features.

Ultimately, the differences in every set of wheels are important points to anyone interested in the real story of these transports – and America’s growth.  In the absence of these details, every old wagon is typically treated the same as another.  In fact, rarely a week goes by that I don’t find myself re-explaining this truth.  Blanketing every wagon with the same history is an all-too-common, backward, and wholly inaccurate way to look at these vehicles.  Think about this example for just a minute.  Would you say that a pickup truck produced in 1967 is the same as one built in 1997?  Clearly, they both have four wheels, a tailgate and bed, hood, lights, a transmission, and motor.  That makes them the same, right?  Of course, the statement is wrong.  They’re nowhere close to being the same.  It’s the same situation with early horse-drawn wagons.

Still, there are deeply ingrained perceptions that persist in lumping all wagons together into one mass heap of indistinguishable identities.  Perhaps that’s why few – if any – major western films are known for using period-correct wagons.  The presence of wood in the wheels seems to be the only criteria many use to automatically pigeon-hole a wagon as a member of the 1800’s.  On one hand, there’s a case to be made for rolling with the flow and ignoring the lack of accuracy.  On the other hand, what is the history we pass along if it’s not accurate? 

This photo of an early freighter shows a number of transitional design elements.  Each helps show how America’s heavy vehicle industry evolved beyond the traditional Conestoga styling.   

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be finishing up an extensive study that’s part of a presentation to the Santa Fe Trail Association and National Stagecoach and Freight Wagon Association.  The conference is open to interested parties (although there are registration fees) and takes place toward the last of September.  It will include a host of speakers covering topics from American Indians, surveys, soldiers, harness, wagons, and more topics related to the history of the Santa Fe Trail. 

There’s a fair amount of information in my presentation that won’t be available anywhere else.  Some of what I’ll be sharing centers around new discoveries that have not been reported in nearly two centuries.  If you haven’t signed up for the event, I’d encourage you to do so.  It will be a rare opportunity to ride along for a special look at early wagons on the Santa Fe Trail as well as these nineteenth century vehicles in general.  The timeframes covered will stretch from the 1820’s through the 1880’s.  The on-line registration ends on September 15th so there’s not a lot of time left to make plans to be there.  

The only real disclaimer I’ll give is that the presentation is limited to an hour.  In that small amount of time, we’ll be rushing through a lot of information and, undoubtedly, will not cover all there is to know.  Even so, it should be a great time to step back into the past and not only profile more of what these vehicles looked like but a good number of the differences as well.   

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Blacksmiths, Wheelwrights, Wainwrights, & Painters

Nearly a quarter century ago, I set out on a quest to learn more about America’s first transportation industry.  It’s been quite a journey since those early days when I was struggling to find primary source materials. 

Today, I’m convinced that, as much as we’ve uncovered, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to learn about this industry and how it prepared the way for the automobile.  One of the biggest hurdles we had to overcome in the beginning was the perception that the wagon and carriage industry was fairly small with only a few thousand manufacturers scattered over the whole country.  Over time, I was able to locate period books, directories, trade publications, and other resources that added clarity and valuable insights.  Now we know that there were literally tens of thousands of horse-drawn vehicle builders and repairers in the U.S.  In fact, Clement Studebaker (then-president of Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Co.) stated in 1887 that he conservatively estimated the United States had at least 80,000 vehicle makers.  Talk about competition!

It’s a tough industry to fully study since the majority of these builders were small and often didn’t stay in business for an extended time.  Some engaged in carriage and wagon making as a sideline to another primary business like hardware, lumber, and even undertaking! Complicating matters a bit more, most did very little, if any, promotion beyond the local shop signage and word-of-mouth advertising.  The end result is that there tends to be very little (if any) surviving information on many builders.  In tribute to the small and mid-sized vehicle makers, I thought we’d share a few more of the countless manufacturing-related images we have in our collection.  There’s a wide variety of subject matter in those photos since horse-drawn vehicle production required at least four categories of skillsets – blacksmiths, wheelwrights, wainwrights, and painters.  Enjoy!

This extremely rare photo shows how A. Meister’s shop in Sacramento, California looked in 1872.  The well-known firm survived into the early 1920’s.

This old image shows the employees of Short & Smith.  The firm built carriages, spring wagons, and sleighs in Syracuse, New York.

Note the workers in the second story of this building.  These upper sections were often used for painting as they had less dust and debris compared to the ground floor where blacksmithing and woodwork were done.

This super-scarce image shows a group of wagon and carriage makers comprised predominantly of African-American craftsmen.  They're standing in front of wood stock that's being air-seasoned versus the kiln-drying process.

Small blacksmith shops were common to almost every community across the United States.  This one was located in West, Texas.  It was owned by Frank Divin, the inventor and patentee of a 2-row cultivator.

This 1880 photo provides a rare glimpse of a period, Jackson-brand wagon as well as the legendary J.A. Polley vehicle shops in Topeka, Kansas.  Photos like this are invaluable when determining levels of originality and authenticity.

Dated to 1896, this photo shows a builder in Ashfield, Massachusetts.  Note the stepped ramp allowing vehicles to be moved upstairs for painting and striping work.

The artwork on the entrances of some old blacksmithing buildings was amazing.  This one includes a mural of the builder’s wagons.  To the right, additional signage promotes “Horse-Shoeing, Wagon Work, & Plow Work.”

Comparatively little is known about the Holmes wagon brand built in Barry, Illinois.

The Pitts & Blume operation was a decent-sized shop for a small community.

While early vehicles were designed with their share of art and style, additional creativity was displayed in other areas as well.  Either of the 1890’s-era signs on this building would be a great addition to an early vehicle collection today.

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, August 9, 2017

Antique Vehicle Interest & Pricing

Not long ago, I was reminiscing with my parents about my growing-up years.  It was certainly a unique time in the history of our nation.  During those days, my mom and dad owned a small gas station/grocery store – kinda like Ike Godsey’s country store on The Walton’s television series – only smaller.

That store was a connection to people, events, and social interactions that were part of the close, friendly feel of the community.  It was a place where people were down-to-earth and kids could be kids.  As such, it holds a number of memories for me.  I remember when gas was 27 cents per gallon, water and compressed air were free for the asking, soda was a dime and came in a 10-ounce glass bottle (3 cents of which was refunded upon return of the bottle), someone always pumped your gas while you waited and, many times, checked your vehicle’s oil – just as a courtesy.  ‘Those were the days’ as the old song says.  Of course, back then, we didn’t have many of the modern conveniences that we do today.  Reinforcing that point, my sister and I were the forerunners of a TV remote control for our family.  We had a total of three free channels (sometimes four if the local PBS signal was clear enough).  It all came in through a metal antenna to our black and white, small-screen TV.  Cell phones and personal computers were non-existent, cars often had no seat belts, and phone lines were shared resources referred to as a ‘party line.’  Somehow, we survived and each of us, at one time or another, has probably wished for elements of the good old days to be back again.

This old country store holds a lot of fond memories from my childhood. 

What does all of this have to do with this week’s blog?  Bear with me for one more story.  About a month or so ago, I was talking with a fella who related an account about a wagon he saw back in the 1970’s.  It seems the old wooden warrior had been found in a barn, completely covered by hay.  It had sat that way for decades; dry, undisturbed, and forgotten until the property sold and new owners took over.  The wagon was taken to an auction and that’s where this gentleman had seen it.  As you can imagine, it attracted a lot of attention.  Even in those days, the condition of the piece was a novelty for most to see.  Seems the wagon was a high wheel John Deere – new old stock – still having the shipping tags attached to the wagon and seat.  So extensive was the original paint that the man remembered it still looked brand new.  As the slew of onlookers watched the sale, the auctioneer worked hard to get the highest price for the showpiece.  When the bidding ceased, $700 had bought the wagon.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard a story like this but, it’s one of the few times I’ve had someone say they witnessed the event.  It’s been the better part of a half century since that vehicle sold and most early vehicle collectors would love to find something like that (especially for the same price) today.  Like another song, this one by the duo, Montgomery Gentry, those days are ‘Gone.’

The purpose for this intro is to say that, while we can wish for things from days gone by, generally speaking those moments have happened and aren’t coming back.  This past week a friend of mine was bemoaning the rocketing prices of good antique wagons.  He told me that they’ve gotten too high for the average person to afford.  He’s right that some have reached record heights but, isn’t that what the best investments are supposed to do?  Even with that point agreed upon, I believe we often miss opportunities to add great vehicles to a collection because we’re fixated on a very narrow group of survivors.  I’ve shared parts of this narrative before but I thought I’d go over some other elements this week.  My hope is that I can help others see that there are still plenty of quality, affordable wagons and western vehicles out there – whether you’re looking for something for a collection, competition, or some other want/need.

First things first and make no mistake – when it comes to art and antiques, the best of the best tends to consistently climb in financial value.  In fact, every early vehicle owner likely wants these resale values to grow because, ultimately, those higher prices of the elite pieces also pull along the prices of others.  I’ve yet to meet a person that actually preferred to buy things that would lose money.  Without realizing what he was saying, my friend was really just stating the obvious.  That point being that, these days, even the most casual enthusiasts can often look at a wagon and pick the better ones – thereby helping drive them to the higher price tags.  Additionally, the very best ones are often already in a collection or are spoken for.  In other words, a great deal of the low-hanging fruit has been picked. So, when a piece in extraordinary condition does come along, it will likely draw a fair amount of interest. 

With or without paint, this original Winona Sheep Bed wagon would be a great find and rare addition to any collection today.

Whether a person finds a great piece at a bargain basement price or a higher cost, have you ever thought about what happens to money invested wisely in one of these rolling works of art?  Consider this... What you pay for one of these vehicles is not really what it costs you.  That’s right.  Because, what you pay is eventually offset by what you get back when you sell the vehicle.  So, let’s say you spend $4,000 for an old set of wheels, keep it for a number of years and then sell it for X amount, you’ve either made some money, broke even, or possibly not gotten all of your money back.  In every case, though, the vehicle is virtually assured to have cost you less than what was initially paid – not to mention the enjoyment you reaped during those years of ownership. 

In the past several years, I’ve added a number of very special pieces to our collection and spent far less than others competing for the few-and-far-between, premium specimens (which are almost assuredly twentieth century pieces).  As collectors, we have to get past the point where we only see one element of the vehicle.  The most obvious thing that most people notice is the ‘condition’ of the piece.  Understandably, everyone wants the highest quality and so do I.  As I’ve already mentioned, though, the pieces that are clearly extraordinary are the most likely to attract the most attention of others.  The good news is that to successfully compete against those with deeper pockets, sometimes all you need to do is look around you.  What do I mean by that?

Okay, I’ll quit beating around the bush and ask you, ‘What are the features you look for in an old vehicle?’  From my perspective, there are a number of important elements to review; many of which I’ve covered in our Borrowed Time book and I’ve also shared in several blogs.  You can put most of that criteria, though, in the acronym – CUP.  For me, C-U-P stands for Condition, Uniqueness, and Provenance.  When all three of these are optimized, you’re likely to have a truly impressive survivor.  That said, I have some extremely unique pieces that are not in mint condition.  Like most one hundred to one hundred fifty year old artifacts, they have some age spots.  Yet, they still carry significant value.  How?  Well, they may have a great historical background, time frame of manufacture, unique construction features, be one of a select few from a well-known maker, or some other rare aspect of historical provenance.  The most important thing I’m getting to here is the need to train ourselves to recognize opportunity when it comes along.

This Texas town scene shows a number of wagon brands including Peter Schuttler, Racine, Fort Smith, and Springfield.  It’s part of a vast story highlighting fierce competition among wagon makers.

As enthusiasts, if we want to continually enhance our collections, it’s important to push ourselves to grow beyond the obvious choices run after by so many others.  Admittedly, part of the reason for this is selfishness – so we can find special pieces and improve our own investments.  However, part of the reason is completely unselfish and I’ve also shared details on this thought in previous posts.  When we get to the point that we truly understand identity and the impact of the personal history these pieces carry (Provenance), then we can start connecting with these old wheels in a way that everyone will appreciate more. 

Several years ago, I co-judged a Sheep Camp wagon competition in Douglas, Wyoming.  One of the most impressive things the organizer did was encourage the entrants to include the personal histories of a piece whenever possible.  It was an intriguing insight into the personalities of the vehicles and, as such, was highly lauded by the public (and the judges).  I’m convinced that the end result of looking deeper into these wagons is that more amazing history will be uncovered and fewer of the feared-lost pieces will be passed over as insignificant.  In other words, sometimes the easiest way to find a better deal is to get more curious about these vehicles and work to discover what sets each one apart.  That process and the history it unfolds continues to pleasantly surprise visitors viewing our collection.  Ultimately, it brings a world of history, intrigue, and uniqueness into the vehicles we've gathered. 

These days, most of us have more access to information about these old transports than ever before.  Unfortunately, though, we tend to get distracted by just one feature in collecting – the Condition (good or bad).  In other words, we don’t really see the individual tree because we’re looking too broadly at the whole forest.  If I could give just one piece of advice to new or long-time collectors/enthusiasts, it would be to quit wishing for the prices of yesterday and start looking for the treasures that are going unnoticed today.  They are out there and I’ve been extremely fortunate to come across my share again and again.  Over the years, I’ve had countless calls and emails asking for insights and recommendations about a particular antique vehicle.  By passing along my own observations, it’s been a blessing to help so many improve their collections while also preserving the maximum amount of history for future generations.

I have a great deal more that I can share on this topic but will wait for a later date to dive into the details.  In the meantime, I’d encourage any that don’t have a methodical evaluation process to consider broadening the search.  Acronyms like C-U-P can be a good reminder to be even more diligent when reviewing a set of wheels – no matter the Condition.  

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, August 2, 2017

The American Wagon Company

Well over a decade ago, I wrote a feature article on the American Wagon Company.  It was a unique firm with distinctive products utilized by both the horse-drawn wagon and early automobile industries.  I don't recall ever posting this story to my blog or website so, I thought I’d share it this week along with a little more info that I’ve come across.  Enjoy!

“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”  It’s an often-heard phrase associated with the rewards of true ingenuity and hard work.  To that point, in the early 1900’s, the American Wagon Company was one of several firms testing out that philosophy by offering a new twist on an old design.  Wagon boxes, the cargo-hauling portion of a horse-drawn wagon, were the company’s specialty.  Believing necessity to really be the mother of invention, American was perfecting some of the most visibly significant changes to farm wagons in close to a half-century.  Between 1905 and 1909, multiple patents were secured on the new creations.  Internal enthusiasm and faith in the product’s success was high.  But, in just over a decade, the wheels of progress would take a hard turn. 

The folding box designs from the American Wagon Company enabled farmers, ranchers, and business owners to optimize their time and financial investments.

Locating themselves in Dixon, Illinois in 1911, American brought a promise of greater prosperity to the local area.  Sales offices were maintained in nearby Chicago and catalog rhetoric indicated that more manufacturing sites were being contemplated to meet the growing demand.  According to period accounts in the “Dixon Evening Telegraph,” the old Grand Detour wagon plant was unoccupied and had been re-modeled to meet the needs of the newly-arrived company.  After celebrating the nation’s 135th birthday, the factory officially began manufacturing in Dixon on July 5, 1911. 

The American Wagon Company name seems to imply that the firm was involved in full-scale wagon production.  However, the box, often called the bed, was the only part of the wagon that the organization actually manufactured.  But the box was far from ordinary and, in many ways, typical of the agricultural inventive genius prevalent during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Farmers, ranchers, and businesses of the day needed different wagon beds to haul different types of payloads.  Most wagons met this requirement with designs that allowed the box to be lifted off of the running gear and replaced with a different rack or bed as the need arose.  For some, though, this type of traditional wagon design offered a less-than-adequate solution to hauling multiple varieties of cargo. 

At issue was the added time, money, and manpower involved in adjusting the wagon to meet every need.  In order to help customers avoid the difficult and costly exercise of buying or building different beds and frequently changing them, the American Wagon Company marketed just one box that satisfied more than a dozen common uses.  So, whether the farmer needed a hay rack to bring in loose hay from the field, a stock rack for hauling livestock, a corn wagon with built-in bang boards, a flax-tight grain wagon, an enclosed box for transporting poultry, or even a custom rig with ladder-back seats to carry a couple dozen folks to a Sunday afternoon church picnic, these quick-changing boxes catered to almost every need a rural farmer, rancher, and businessman could encounter.

Custom built for many different uses, the Melrose wagon box was much more versatile than traditional wagon beds.

Early print ads and catalogs went to extraordinary detail in explaining the value and benefits of American’s ‘Melrose’ brand convertible wagon bed.  The ads warned against confusing their unique designs with cheaper, heavier, and more crude imitations.  Some of the designs that American competed against could be found in the pages of Montgomery Ward’s discount catalogues as well as among a few other makers and independent dealers.  American Wagon Company’s morphing design was touted as a time and money saver.  They also boasted greater durability, capacity, flexibility, and efficiency… all for about the same cost as a “first-class, single-purpose bed.” 

Even though the concept had been on the market for several years, a 1912 full-page print ad describes the wagon bed as a “new farm invention.”  Specific advantages included a “15-wagon-beds-in-one” design… a no tools, easy changeover configuration… strong, warp-free construction… and a 5-year guarantee.  To get an idea of just how strong this pledge was, it’s important to note that typical horse drawn wagon warranties were limited to just one year of coverage.  Additionally, the box came with a free 30-day trial.  The American Wagon Company even paid the freight.  We may be accustomed to these types of incentives vying for our attention today but it was truly innovative marketing a century ago.

The boxes were offered in widths of 38” and 42”.  Lengths of 9 ½’, 12’, 14’, and 16’ were available and the boxes were said to hold as much as 100 bushels of shelled corn, 4800 pounds of hay, or two full-sized cows/bulls.  A 12’ Melrose bed from the American Wagon Company cost $30 in their 1911 catalog.  While the 12’ bed weighed 75 pounds more than the average wagon box, it was also a foot and a half longer.

American was proud of the fact that no nails were used anywhere in the bed.  Instead of hardwood supports that might break or warp, they used steel sills to strengthen the bottom of the bed.  Telescoping side braces were integrated with the hinged metalwork to fold the entire length of the box into its multitude of shapes.  End rods were double galvanized for extra protection against rusting and all metal parts were made from cold rolled steel.  Sales catalogs proclaimed the wood to be long leaf pine, free from knots, and double kiln-dried.  With superior quality and real functional value as their watchwords, American worked hard to gain consumer confidence and make the buying process as simple as possible.  Compared to the planned obsolescence of many products today, American stated that, “In building this bed our whole aim is permanency.” 

American’s five-year warranty provided a huge marketing advantage, especially since virtually all other boxes were limited to a one-year guarantee.

By 1918, times were changing and the company had begun producing cabs, beds, and other wooden parts for motorized vehicles.  Like many others in the wagon-making trade, they were compelled to branch out into additional lines of business once the automotive industry gained a foothold.  Following virtually the same production plan now with truck bodies, the company built at least four variations of truck beds.  The convertible motor-truck bodies included 8-in-1, 4-in-1, 3-in-1, and 2-in-1 designs.  Applications ranged from grain bodies to hog, stock, flat, poultry, basket, and flared racks.  Years ago, I came across a fine example of one of the motor truck beds in a private vehicle collection in Bolivar, Missouri.  The 8-in-1 American folding bed was mounted on a 1918 motor-truck.  More than just a good-looking fit to the truck, the combination offered its original owner a great deal of hauling options. 

Whatever the reasons - whether it was the consumers’ reluctance to accept change, a limited distribution system, weak financial capital, or simply a casualty of transitioning times - there is no evidence to suggest that the convertible wagon beds ever grabbed a strong hold on either the automotive or farm wagon market.  Even with an ingenious design and strong marketing principles, the wagon company disappeared from city directories after 1922.  Ironically, the firm noted for such a highly adaptable product couldn’t quite adapt itself to the rapidly changing times.

Interestingly, among the directors of the American Wagon Company were John Ringling of Ringling Bros. Circus as well as H.H. Windsor who was the president, founder, and first editor of Popular Mechanics magazine.  The man that started the American Wagon company was Ellsworth B. Overshiner, president of the Swedish-American Telephone Company.  In 1910, Overshiner worked hard to jump start the wagon box company’s capital with editorialized ads in publications like The Railroad Telegrapher and Locomotive Engineers’ Monthly Journal.  The ads were strongly worded with promises like, “A new Million Dollar corporation which I am heavily interested in and President and Director of, will be one of the greatest and best paying Industrial Corporations in the United States and its stock will advance many times in value.”  Overshiner ratcheted up the hype with comments like, “I want to, and will make every railroad man that joins me in this new enterprise, some real money in sums worth while and on an investment of only fifty dollars and five months to pay it in... Come along and get in on the ground floor.”  It was a lot to live up to and, unfortunately, the firm never came close to those expectations. 

In addition to their offerings for horse-drawn wagons, American's folding beds also brought quality, versatility, and convenience to those using motor trucks.

One hundred years ago, it was fairly easy to avail yourself of one of the ‘all-in-one’ wagon box designs.  Today, the story is much different.  Finding the rarest of rare artifacts has become a challenge as many race to rescue the most significant parts of our past before they’re gone.  After all, it’s these pieces that are the proverbial needle in a haystack – ultra rare history that adds real intrigue to a quality collection while helping preserve a valued portion of America’s farming, ranching, and transportation legacy.

With just over a decade of production, the Melrose convertible box is one of those genuinely hard-to-find pieces.  By the company’s own admission, the boxes were built to last.  So, while the whereabouts of most of these pieces isn’t known, somewhere another American Melrose box is undoubtedly waiting to be discovered and its creative dreams passed on to future generations. 

The American Wagon Company worked to overcome product stereotypes by offering unique, patented wagon box designs.

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