Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Emily Ann O’Neill Bott and her GGF, Joseph Murphy

I learned a new word the other day – gobsmacked.  Feel free to look it up but, rest assured, it’s exactly how I sometimes feel while researching America’s first transportation industry.  Reinforcing that point, I woke up on September 15th to find an email in my inbox from Emily Ann O’Neil Bott.  It was quite a surprise.  For those familiar with early U.S. transportation history, you know that name.  Emily researched and wrote about one of the (if not the) most legendary American wagon maker, Joseph Murphy.  He was her great grandfather or, as she put it, her ggf.  Over the years, her research has garnered a tremendous amount of attention – particularly in reference to the wagons Murphy purportedly built to overcome excessive taxes placed on freighters doing business in Mexico.

Sixty-five years ago, this year, Emily’s Master’s thesis on Joseph Murphy, his wagon business, and Santa Fe Trail wagons was published by the “Missouri Historical Review.”  With my presentation on Santa Fe Trail wagons looming, I’m more than a little awed by the irony of being contacted by this wonderful lady.  I tried to respectfully refer to her as Ms. Bott and she quickly told me she was ‘Emily.’  So, you’ll understand that I’m not being disrespectful or presumptuous when I reference her by first name.  It has been a tremendous honor to correspond with her.

Emily’s Bott’s 1952 article is entitled, “Joseph Murphy’s Contribution to the Development of the West.”  After 65 years, it remains as one of the most intriguing studies of Mr. Murphy’s St. Louis-built wagons.

Emily is now 95 years young, sharp as a tack, and an absolute pleasure to talk to.  The ‘ggf’ (great grandfather) moniker she uses for Joseph Murphy was how her grandmother, Mrs. L.J. Moore (1856-1948), Joseph Murphy’s daughter, had referred to Emily’s connection to Joseph.  Emily shared that many of the details she obtained for the thesis came from conversations with her grandmother.  Opportunities to interview a person responsible for helping preserve such a vital part of our nation’s early transportation industry don’t come around very often – if at all.  So, I wasn’t going to miss a chance to learn as much as I could from Mr. Murphy’s ‘ggd.’

I asked Emily a number of questions related to how the Murphy article came about.  She related that, while in graduate school, she was pondering the pursuit of a teaching or writing vocation.  With so much of her family history tied to the development of the U.S., she decided to take the stories she’d heard from those who had lived alongside Mr. Murphy, reconnect them to a wealth of additional research, and share the results in her master’s thesis.  The finished product has been of great help to many doing their own studies of the topic. 

As we discussed Joseph Muphy, Emily passed along a few tidbits related to his character.  His demeanor, she said, could often be defined as a “steel will.”  It was a stubborn trait of commanding authority that was difficult for the immediate family to escape.  That very attribute, though, is likely a large reason his wagons were so well received.  He was a stickler for quality.  Even the original Murphy letters in our collection confirm his serious dedication to excellence.  It’s a point not missed in period accounts either.  Multiple early articles showcase Murphy vehicles as a favorite to both freighters and emigrants headed west.

A special thank you to Sarah Bott, Emily’s daughter, for providing this nineteenth century photo of Joseph Murphy.

There are additional reports that Joseph Murphy was so committed to the expert craftsmen in his employ that he provided rooming accommodations at the wagon works.  The move wasn’t entirely benevolent on Murphy’s part.  Apparently, he wanted to keep his workers close so it would be harder for competitors to lure them away.  It’s a premise that comes as no surprise to me.  America’s early wagon industry could be extremely aggressive.  It not only took a great deal of personal drive but an equal amount of forward-thinking to stay abreast of competitive challenges. 

As for his own introduction to building vehicles... Murphy became an apprentice wagon maker in 1819 when he was fourteen.  In 1825, he started his own firm.  Fourteen years later, in 1839, freighters on the Santa Fe Trail took a significant financial hit when the Mexican government added a $500 tax to each wagonload of merchandise coming into the country.  An important part of the Murphy legend surrounds the large wagons he’s believed to have built to overcome this financial setback.  (I’ll share more details on these legendary wagons during my presentation to the Santa Fe Trail Association on September 28th.)

Murphy retired from the factory in 1888.  That would have put him in his early 80s.  Well over a decade later, he still considered himself spry enough to take on about any chore around the house.  Emily passed along a final insight into the confidence, drive, and determination so characteristic of Joseph Murphy.  Even though that passion for perfection had served him well for decades, overconfidence can carry a dark side.  So it was, in 1901, that Murphy was determined to climb up and over yet another obstacle.  Here’s how Emily put it...  “A thorough craftsman, at the age of 96, Murphy went up on his roof to repair some chimney flashing. A fall, a broken leg, pneumonia, and it was over.”  It was a tragic end to a remarkable life.

Born in 1805, Murphy had emigrated to the U.S. when he was twelve.  He saw virtually every part of America’s westward expansion in the nineteenth century.  From the discovery of gold and military campaigns in the West to the exploits of outlaws, the building of the transcontinental railroad, development of stagecoach routes, and the unfolding of countless tragedies on the frontier, Murphy’s products and reputation were thoroughly immersed in the events of the West. 

While the whole subject continues to be intriguing to Emily and her family, she confessed that she was surprised her work was still of interest to others.  Her modesty belies her own accomplishments and commitment to making a difference in the lives of others.  Over the years, she’s authored a book, written regular newspaper columns, had a career in insurance, volunteered with the Make-A-Wish foundation and her local hospital, as well as raised seven children.  By her own admission, her children and their families are her greatest pride and joy.

When I think back over the early transportation experiences I’ve encountered over the last quarter century, I’m beside myself.  From archaeological digs to rare vehicle finds and relics rescued from the brink of destruction, the events continue to open my eyes to the rich history of our nation as well as the incredible people that still make it the best place on earth.  As of this year, the trail of old paper and worn wheels has led me to resources in all fifty of the United States.  Thank you, Emily Ann O’Neill Bott, for reaching out and sharing even more from our past.  Like your ggf, you’ve made your own mark in American history and we are all the better for it.

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 20, 2017

Early Vehicle Maintenance, Mysteries, & Musings

September has been an interesting month.  We’ve both sold and purchased some early vehicles and have made headway into a number of research projects.  Here in the Ozarks, leaves are beginning to fall, tree colors are slowly turning and, as I’m told, the persimmons have ‘spoons’ in them.  For the uninitiated, that formation within the inner realms of persimmon tree fruit is purported to forecast a heavy dose of snow this winter; never mind the fact that the same thing occurred last year with minimal accumulations and extremely mild temperatures.  We shall see, I guess.

In the meantime, as the seasons once again go through a change, it made me think of all the changes antique wooden vehicles go through.  As custodians of these pieces from yesterday, it’s up to each of us to help maintain and preserve them for future generations.  With that in mind, I thought I’d run over a few tricks-of-the-trade, so-to-speak, and highlight some areas of maintenance that may prove helpful to others. 

Removing Dirt Dauber Nests...

If you’ve ever come across an old set of wheels that’s been stored away in a drafty barn, shed, or outbuilding, you know that dust isn’t the only thing that can accumulate on these rolling icons.  Animal droppings, rats’ nests, and mud dabber homes can overwhelm a piece if left unattended in the wrong environment.  While the first two issues can be addressed with a careful sweeping and light cleaning, the last point needs a little more attention.  After all, knocking off the earthen incubator of mud daubers might seem simple enough but, if done carelessly, there can be problems – chiefly, the loss of paint.  Oftentimes, these hollow huts can be so firmly affixed to the wood of a wagon that the simple act of taking them off can also destroy valuable paint and stenciling.  Once original paint is gone, there’s no such thing as a ‘do-over.’  So, it’s important to exercise caution.  One method I’ve found helpful is to take a spray bottle of water and lightly soak the entire mud dabber nest.  I allow time for the nest to become saturated yet still maintaining its original shape.  This softening of the dirt allows a thin putty knife to be gently slid between the paint and the dabber nest.  The nest can then be pried off without creating a mess of mud or losing valuable original paint.

Knocking dry and hardened mud dauber nests off of antique vehicles (as was done here) can contribute to the permanent loss of original paint and stenciling.

Powder Post Beetles...

Period wagon makers faced a slew of challenges beyond the basic need to pay the bills and meet payroll.  One of the greatest threats to the trade was a tiny critter known as a powder post beetle.  If you’ve looked at very many wagons over the years, you’ve likely seen evidence of just how much havoc these tiny insects can wreak.  Drawn to virtually every part of a wagon’s wooden structure, these wood-boring critters are not only known for riddling wood stock with countless circular holes but they can also reduce the infected wood to a fine powder.  Many times, when we see these peppered perforations, the bugs have long since departed.  However, at other times, the wood is being continually re-infested and destroyed.  You definitely don’t want to allow this problem to continue unabated.  While the insects are very small – typically 1/8 to 3/4 of an inch in length – you’ll instantly know you have a problem with live insects if you start noticing a fine layer of dust under a wagon or running gear.  The easiest way I’ve found to deal with this challenge is to spray on a coat of household bug spray.  Then keep a watchful eye out to make sure the powder-making has stopped.  The chemicals in the spray seem to do an effective job without damaging the vehicle further.  You may want to try it on a small area before tackling large sections.    

As shown in these photos of an old wagon axle, insects can be merciless to antique wooden vehicles.  Proper treatment of the vehicle and environment can help to minimize damage.

Careful application of insecticide can help eliminate issues with powder post beetles.

Loosening Rusty Bolts...

Anyone that’s ever needed to repair or replace part of an early horse-drawn vehicle knows the challenge posed by frozen, rusty nuts and bolts.  Heat, oil, a hammer, a cheater bar, and sometimes fits of rage are among the most commonly-employed ways we try to loosen what decades of neglect have sealed.  Several years ago, a good friend of mine, Gerald Creely, introduced me to a product called, “Aerokroil.”  The company’s tagline says this is the “oil that creeps.”  I’ll have to say that when coupled with a little patience, this fluid is absolutely amazing.  (Thanks Gerald!)  I’ve seen it loosen bolts that no other lubricant would touch.  Needless to say, I try to keep several cans of this stuff around the shop at all times.

Loosening age-old nuts and bolts can be simplified by allowing Aerokroil to soak into the frozen parts.

Mold & Mildew...

My blogs for August 17 and August 24 of 2016 focused on ways to both remove and prevent the blight of mold on antique, horse-drawn vehicles.  I’m not going to re-write that two-part series here but, I thought it might be helpful to include the links.

As for the ‘mysteries’ mentioned in today’s blog title, there are countless unknowns in any study of America’s first transportation industry.  I’ll be talking about some of these (and some recent discoveries) in my presentation to the Santa Fe Trail Association next week.  Hope to see you there.  Oh, and one other thing.  I recently had the rare opportunity to conduct a bit more research into the legacy and legend of St. Louis wagon maker, Joseph Murphy.  What a privilege!  I hope to be sharing more on that in the near future.

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, September 13, 2017

Finding Unique Antique Wagons

Most folks have likely heard the phrase, “You have to kiss a few frogs to find a prince.”  For collectors of early transportation, we can often apply the same principle to the process of finding truly unique western vehicles.  It’s easy to locate the common stuff.  Those rolling works of art that consistently stand out in a crowd, though, are not only in high demand but, by definition, are in short supply. 

Over the years, we’ve managed to assemble a few dozen wagons and western vehicles in our collection.  As with any significant gathering of history, it takes a lot less time to view it than it usually involves to bring it all together.  Like so many other collectors out there, we’ve committed a fair amount of resources to research as well as shelling out healthy doses of patience and persistence.  Along the way, we’ve seen a number of good, bad, and ugly pieces.  Even so, every vehicle I’ve been privileged to see has been a valuable encounter.  Why?  Because, each one has taught me something.  One of the main things I’ve learned is the value of unceasingly searching for the best pieces.  It sounds simple enough but, I know a number of collectors and enthusiasts that limit their efforts, rarely expanding their searches beyond a fifty or sixty-mile range.  The old adage about people getting ‘luckier’ the harder they work for something is true in this case as well.  Focused commitments may strike out a lot but they’re also in a great position to make it home with the best pieces.

This heavy-duty Moline Mandt gear with original bolster extensions is a relatively new addition to our collection.  It was built with a 56-inch track and 3-ton capacity.

I’ve been chasing these wheels for more than two decades and, from time to time, I’ve heard folks express frustration over an inability to find the right piece at the right price.  First off, IF a person has truly found the right set of wheels, the price may need to take a back seat to personal satisfaction.  In fact, for collectors, personal satisfaction may be the most important consideration when looking at a set of wheels.  I remember a particular gentleman at an auction years ago that purchased a piece, then began to really look at it and was immediately disappointed in it.  At that point, it really didn’t matter how cheap the old vehicle was.  Truth is, I’ve never come across anyone with buyer’s remorse that had done the appropriate research and knew exactly what they were buying. 

So, how many special pieces are still out there waiting to be appreciated for the uniqueness they possess?  Who knows?  One thing I’ve become convinced of is that there is still A LOT of America’s transportation past waiting to be discovered.  Since my pocketbook won’t allow me to buy every good piece I come across, I’ve learned to enjoy the thrill of the chase and opportunity to learn.  After all, the chance to see so many different pieces as well as a wide variety of construction styles employed over the years is an important part of recognizing what was done when, where, and by whom.  Reinforcing that point, this week, I thought I’d share a few of the latest pieces I’ve come across. Best of all?  Each of the examples below are available for purchase as of this writing...

This exceptional Bain wagon gear retains almost all of its original paint.  It’s a rare treat to find pieces of this quality.  For more photos, visit


When it comes to locating some of America’s best western vehicles, Doug Hansen, in South Dakota, has a knack for gathering exceptional early pieces from all over the country.  As of this writing, the “In Stock” section of his website includes one of the finest high wheel running gears that I’ve ever come across.  I’ve seen it in person and, honestly, I’m not sure the photos do it justice.  He even has a brand-matching, lazy back spring seat that would be ideal for this piece.  The gear is a Bain brand wagon – which also happens to be one of the most legendary western vehicle names on the planet.  For collectors, competitors, and serious enthusiasts, this is a piece that instantly commands attention.  After all, true quality is a feature that almost everyone can recognize.  Plus, it’s a truth that often bears significant fruit when it comes to resale values. 


Some of the historical features I’ll be covering in my upcoming presentation to the Santa Fe Trail Association involve how to spot generational differences in dead axle wagons – especially those used in farm, freight, trail, and ranch applications.  Generally speaking, we rarely see as many wagons that were made in the 19th century as we do those from the 20th century.  In fact, even with an extensive travel schedule over the last two-plus decades, I can probably count on one hand the number of 1800’s-era Peter Schuttler brand wagons I’ve come across.  Nonetheless, that challenge doesn’t stop me from continuing to search for these elusive survivors. 

Not long ago, I was traveling through Oklahoma and stopped in to see Jim Doyle with Doyle’s Antiques in Lawton.  As is usually the case, his grounds were covered with antique farming equipment, old windmills, early horse-drawn graders, and period wagons.  Jim knows I’m a fan of Peter Schuttler pieces so he tempted me with a few wagons and a spring seat, then told me he’d just gotten another Schuttler gear in that he hadn’t cleaned up yet. 

As we walked into a side bay of one of the enclosed buildings, I instantly noticed several features that got my attention; taller standards, through-bolted construction, three-quarter circle irons, and more.  I’m always looking for older pieces.  Yet, as I’ve mentioned, they are few and far between.  Leaning over to check the date stamp on this one, the year “1894” was clearly visible on the front axle.  For me, it was exciting to see this ultra-rare, original condition, true 1800’s, high wheel Schuttler.  After taking a few photos for our Archives, I thought I would share the find with our readers.  I suspect someone out there is looking for a nineteenth-century piece from a major western wagon maker like Schuttler.  For anyone interested, Jim’s phone number is 580-574-9570.

This rare, high wheel Peter Schuttler is almost 125 years old.  It dates to the same year that four members of the Dalton Gang were killed in Coffeeville, Kansas and actually pre-dates the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch.   


Another person that seems to have an uncanny ability to uncover barn-fresh wagons is Tom Elliot.  A few weeks ago, I stopped by Tom’s place and he shared one of his finds.  It’s a wagon with an amazingly well-preserved Buerkens box.  For anyone that might not have heard of the company, it was located in Pella, Iowa and may have been the longest continuously operated business in Pella.  Mr. Buerkens began building wagons in the town during the mid-1860’s.  The company survived well into the twentieth century.  In fact, industry directories still list the firm among active makers as late as the early 1930’s.  If you’d like more information on this vehicle, feel free to drop Tom a note by visiting his website at 

It’s tough to find this much original paint on surviving wagon boxes.  

Even the end gates of this Buerkens box retain a significant amount of original paint.

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 6, 2017

The Espenschied & Luedinghaus Wagon Companies

Several years ago, I wrote a feature article on a half-dozen of the most legendary wagon makers in St. Louis.  Even though some vehicle builders in Mound City (as St. Louis was once called) were in business for close to one hundred years, automobiles and the Great Depression ended the dreams of most of them.  Among the wheeled icons in the city were two names with establishment time frames dating to the 1840’s and 50’s.   Today, both are tough-to-find examples from America’s first transportation industry.

Once a common sight, high-wheel Luedinghaus brand wagons are hard to come across these days.

The Espenschied Wagon Company

Of all the early St. Louis-built wagons, there is likely none that gave mega-legends like Joseph Murphy greater competition than those made by Louis Espenschied.  In the city directory of 1859, sixty-five wagon makers were listed but only two paid for advertising space – Murphy and Espenschied.

Established in 1843, the Espenschied Wagon Company is eternally tied to the growth and history of America’s movement west.  From emigrant travel to the needs of the gold fields, freighters and army, Espenschied wagons carried a huge reputation for quality and dependability.

As part of that leadership, Louis Espenschied headed a group of four wagon makers that solicited the U.S. Army in 1861, offering to build as many wagons as were needed by Union forces.  Espenschied proposed construction of six-mule wagons with two-and-a-half-inch iron axles.  The wagons were designed to carry five to six thousand pounds and the same configurations were said to have been used by freighters traveling to New Mexico and Utah.  Espenschied priced them at $125 each and pledged that they were better than Army regulation wagons.  The proposal noted that the companies’ “many years’ experience in making Wagons for the Great Plains” enabled the four of them to craft the very best vehicles.

According to period reports, the proposal was immediately accepted and an order for 200 wagons was placed within ten days of the July 6th offer.  No other bidding took place as the needs of the Civil War were urgent and the reputations of the four wagon makers – Louis Espenschied, Jacob Kern, Jacob Scheer, and John Cook were unquestioned.  The wagons were promptly built and, by December of the same year, Espenschied made another proposal to the Army for another one thousand wagons at the same price.

Like other makers of his time, Espenschied’s attention to detail not only showed in quality but also in design innovations.  In 1878, he was awarded a patent for a built-in grease reservoir on the axle skein.  That feature allowed the wheel to go longer periods with less worry over the need for lubrication.  Furthermore, in an 1882 company profile, Espenschied is also given credit for an even earlier advancement in wagon design – the thimble skein.  Dating to the 1840’s, this invention was adopted by virtually all wagon makers.

Louis Espenschied passed away in 1887, leaving an estate valued at almost a half-million dollars (close to $13 million in today’s money).   Soon after, his firm merged with that of Henry Luedinghaus, forming the Luedinghaus-Espenschied Wagon Company.  Today, there are still a few existing Luedinghaus-Espenschied wagons, but an Espenschied dating to the original firm has yet to be identified.  Complicating this point a bit more is the fact that Luedinghaus appears to have resurrected the stand-alone Espenschied brand for a brief time during the 1920’s.  So, determining whether an Espenschied is a nineteenth or twentieth century survivor requires awareness of the product’s features and evolution.

As with most major wagon makers, Luedinghaus also built a popular line of huge freight wagons.

The Luedinghaus Wagon Company

Henry Luedinghaus started his own wagon manufactory in 1859.  The Luedinghaus Wagon Company was located just across the street from his original partner in the business, Casper Gestring, – pronounced “Guess-String” – founder of the Gestring Wagon Company.  In fact, the areas once occupied by Luedinghaus, Gestring, Espenschied, and Weber-Damme were all within blocks of each other.  I’ve had the privilege of walking the grounds of three of these builders and it’s hard to imagine how challenging the competition was with each of them so close to the other. 

Henry Luedinghaus’ company distinguished itself by making high-quality farm, freight, business, log, and lumber wagons.  Within his second decade of operation, Luedinghaus was not only building to order but also maintained an inventory of wagons that could be purchased on-site.  Around the same time, the company began bidding on government contracts but, by this time, there were a number of builders vying for the same business.  An 1880 Luedinghaus proposal of $61.50 per wagon was soundly beaten by the Austin, Tomlinson & Webster Manufacturing Company (Jackson Wagons).  The winning bid from this Jackson, Michigan company was $57.  It was a price advantage that was hard for traditional makers to overcome – primarily because Jackson wagons were built by state prison workers operating at a fraction of the labor rate paid to law-abiding citizenry.  Ultimately, these unfair practices would be frowned on by the courts – and the general public.  For a number of years, though, the use of prisoners to gain a competitive edge was a serious problem for many wagon builders. 

In spite of the challenges associated with nationwide competition, Luedinghaus continued to grow.  One company motto was, “The wagon will speak for itself.”  It’s no wonder the vehicles were so popular.  Luedinghaus claimed to be the first major manufactory to offer the exceptional strength and reliability of bois d’ arc (Osage Orange) wheels.  All wood in the wagons was said to have been thoroughly seasoned for two years before use and the paint was painstakingly hand-brushed, not dipped.  Dipping was a faster process but some found the resulting paint adhesion to be inferior. 

At the 1904, World’s Fair, Luedinghaus displayed a pyramid of eleven wagons.  The massive exhibition dominated the competition and generated a huge amount of publicity.  The spectacle was a physical duplication of the company’s official trademark and tagline that proclaimed, “We Tower Above All.”

For a brief time in the 1920s and early ‘30s, Luedinghaus built auto bodies, trailers, and even trucks.  It was a valiant attempt to change with the times, but the challenges of the Great Depression were just too much to withstand.  The firm closed its doors in 1934.

Shown in 1904, this tower of wagons was a head-turning display for the Luedinghaus Wagon Company of St. Louis, Missouri. 

For years, I’ve been interested in finding examples of as many old St. Louis brands as possible.  As the ‘Gateway to the West’ and home to so many early vehicle builders, it would seem that these brands might be fairly easy to locate.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  We do have quality, early examples of both Gestring and Weber-Damme wagons in our collection.  However, we continue to search for significant pieces from the Murphy, Linstroth, Luedinghaus, and Espensheid firms.  It would also be a  bonus to someday find an original piece built by John Luking or Peter Wagner.  It’s entirely possible.  Patience, diligence, and keen observation are among the greatest assets to locating the rarest of rare survivors.

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