Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Recognizing the Right Kind of Different

Recognizing the rarest parts of our transportation past is not always easy.  For me, the journey’s taken decades of research and discovery.  It’s easy to look back on the past and see benefits in it.  In moments of disappointment, though, the frustrations of dead ends, lackluster finds, and even mistakes can be tough to deal with.  Like any journey, there’s a lot that can be learned through the process of taking on a destination. 

The more I’ve studied America’s earliest wheels, the more intrigued I’ve become with the whole story – especially those elements related to heavier western transports.  As I’ve traveled, I’ve discovered that if my search is too focused and narrow, I’ll miss a lot of great and truly rare pieces.  So, today, our collection includes much more than vehicles and associated sales literature.  Original signage, manufacturing tools, vehicle accessories, and the like, all contribute to the story of the whole.  As such, each can add to the intrigue and interest in a collection while helping preserve all-but-forgotten parts of our past.

For those that may be relatively new to vehicle collecting, there are a couple things that are likely going to happen as you seek out your favorite treasures.  First, you’re going to make mistakes.  Second, you likely won’t appreciate the value of those mistakes at the time.  Nonetheless, this process happens to anyone serious enough to stick with collecting – whether for investment potential or just the fun of it.  Along the way, there’s a hard side to learning.  Some things that may look valuable, often aren’t.  At other times, some things that don’t look valuable, may very well be.  How do you determine what is and what isn’t the best investment?  Dedicated research and lengthy experience can be great teachers.  The problem with experience is that it usually involves a past full of mistakes.  One shortcut is to listen to those who’ve gone before us.  Hence the value of primary source materials.  They can open up a world of knowledge to guide us through the maze of what’s what. 

Sometimes, we all can get impatient as we search for pieces we really want.  The challenges in finding those truly desirable pieces might even knock us down from time to time, convincing us that “all the good stuff is gone.”  In fact, I’ve heard folks repeat those words many times.  Unfortunately, if we hear things repeated enough, we may start believing them – even if they’re not true. 

Time and again, patience and persistence have a way of paying off.  You may be looking for a certain brand wagon and have no luck for years.  Then, one day, it appears out of nowhere.  I’ve been looking for a nice 42” Peter Schuttler spring seat for years.  Over and over, I failed in my searching.  Then, earlier this year, I casually mentioned my search to a fellow bidder at a sale.  Yep, she had one.  Great paint, great logo, original in every respect.  And yes, I have it now.  Point being... don’t give up your searches.  You never know what’s waiting just around the corner.

To reinforce that point, I thought I’d share a few more finds we’ve been fortunate to come across in the past few months.  Some are now in our collection while others reside with other private collectors.  All offer an opportunity to better understand America’s first transportation industry.  Through these surviving elements, we’re able to know more about individual brands, vehicle timeframes of manufacture, levels of originality, unique features, manufacturing techniques, vehicle performance, and more.  Hopefully, it’s a reminder that there are still exciting finds out there just waiting to be uncovered and saved from oblivion.

The Kansas Mfg. Company from Leavenworth, Kansas was a legendary provider of western vehicles during the 1870s and 1880s.  We recently found a virtually untouched 4-page flyer promoting their spring vehicles.

This oversized, 1860-era Parker coffee grinder is missing the handle but is an extremely rare find.

Earlier this year, I ran across a very early Columbus brand wagon in a private collection in Kansas.  While most of the vehicle’s paint is gone, it’s a rare survivor, likely dating to 1904 or 1905.

As the name implies, drag shoes were used to help create drag and slow the descent of vehicles in hilly terrain.  They came in an almost-endless variety of designs.  While many had a fairly smooth drag surface, others utilized in difficult or slippery terrain might employ studs, spikes, or runners for added security and support.

Doug Hansen is not only an exceptional craftsman, when it comes to collecting, he has a real eye for quality.  The two photos above show him with a one-of-a-kind rave frame wagon box likely used as a patent model or promotional sample.

This 1900 Peter Schuttler chuck wagon includes numerous features predominantly seen on nineteenth century pieces.  It offers a rare look into this legendary brand’s design standards during their transition into a new century.  

This spoke tenoning machine was patented near the end of the Civil War.  At more than a century and a half in age, it’s a fully-functioning survivor.  

While primitive by today’s metal-shaping standards, this 1879 tire bender can still craft a wide variety of steel tire circumferences, widths, and thicknesses. 

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, November 22, 2017

Thanksgiving 2017

The leaves have turned and continue to fall here in the Ozarks.  Morning temps are brisk but mild compared to what January likely has in store.  There are faint scents of wood smoke in the air; evidence of a warm, country home and the crackle of a fireplace already in use.  Deer browse in the fields surrounding our house, squirrels are busy gathering the last walnuts from the yard, and the sunlight doesn’t hang around as long these days.  It’s the time of year when reminiscing comes easy for many of us. 

Just like the period vehicles we look after, every day is full of memories and stories.  You know what I mean… those fond, funny, and unforgettable experiences with family, friends, and acquaintances.  Along with those recollections are reminders to slow down and enjoy the seasons and time God gives us.  This Thanksgiving, whether you’re on the trail somewhere or back home at the ranch, we wish you and yours a wonderful time together.  

From our crew to yours, Happy Thanksgiving!

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, November 15, 2017

Birdsell Wagons

To my wife’s chagrin, our collection of century-plus-old vehicles now numbers in the dozens.  It’s a tally that’s been fairly fluid over the years.  As with any serious collecting effort, the ebb and flow of buying, trading, and acquiring different pieces has gradually grown the group into a unique set of quality survivors.  One of the wagons I picked up eons ago is a Birdsell with a boot-end box.  I’ve hung onto this one due to its completeness and overall condition.  It’s a heavy rascal, as we found out when we first pulled it out of a barn in Ohio.  It’s still in its ‘as-found’ condition.  

Based on a number of design features on the box and running gear, the wagon was most likely built around or just prior to the turn-of-the-twentieth-century.  It was made in South Bend, Indiana.  Similar to Detroit’s connection to several major automobile companies, the city of South Bend was once home to a number of notable wagon manufacturers.  In fact, major brands like Winkler, Coquillard, South Bend, and Studebaker all called this city in north-central Indiana ‘home.’ 

Like most wagon makers with extended histories, the look of Birdsell design features, logos, and paint styles evolved over the years.

John Comly Birdsell started his company in the mid-1800’s and for years was known as a manufacturer of clover hullers.  Near the end of the Civil War, Birdsell moved his factory from Monroe County, New York to South Bend to improve the firm’s access to quality timber, skilled labor, and railroad facilities. He added farm wagons to his product offerings in 1887 and they quickly gained national acclaim.  Reinforcing their popular reputation, Birdsell claimed that every piece of wood was air-dried from 3-5 years.  Early promotional literature also pointed out that the wagons were “carefully painted by hand (not dipped).”

The Birdsell Mfg Company built a number of different types of vehicles including farm, spring, express, and delivery wagons as well as carriages and buggies.

Like a few other large-scale manufacturers, Birdsell had its own foundry to produce its skeins (rhymes with trains).  Skeins are the metal thimbles on the end of the axle on which the wheel hub rests and rolls.  Some of the earliest skein sizes that Birdsell offered included 2 3/4 x 8 ½, 3 x 9, 3 ¼ x 10, and 3 ½ x 11.  The first (and smaller) number in these measurements is a reference to the size opening where the wooden axle enters the hollow 'bell' of the skein.  The second number highlights the length of the skein’s running surface.  Collectively, the numbers point to wagon sizes, hauling capacities, and, by default, the type of work a particular vehicle might be limited to. 

From the start, the company built both narrow and wide track wagon gears.  These variations not only served different load capacities but were developed for the specific needs of farmers, ranchers, and freight haulers in different parts of the country.  Initial wheel heights measured 44 inches in the front and either 52 or 54 inches in the rear.  Boxes were sold in 38 and 42-inch widths.

Birdsell is one of several notable builders that offered a spring seat very similar in appearance to those used by the Peter Schuttler brand.

According to the first wagon brochures published by Birdsell, their inaugural axles incorporated a ‘new’ design style.  Instead of the wooden axles having a rounded shape to the top and bottom, as was often the case in the 1880’s and earlier, the bottom was left squared off so more wood remained for greater support.  Makeup of a Birdsell running gear was created from several different types of wood stock.  While the doubletree, singletree, neck yoke, and axles were generally made from hickory, many other parts of the gear as well as the spokes, and felloes were often fashioned from white oak.  Hubs were made from black birch or white oak.  Elsewhere in their construction designs, boxes were made of poplar and box bottoms employed yellow pine.

In addition to clover and alfalfa hullers as well as two-horse farm wagons in multiple variations, the Birdsell product line included log wagons, dump carts, one-horse wagons, lumber gears, oil pipe gears, and spring wagons.  In their earlier years of vehicle manufacture, they also made buggies, carriages, and phaetons along with express and delivery wagons.  While the Birdsell facility was considerably smaller than its mega-competitor and city neighbor, Studebaker, the business dwarfed most wood vehicle makers.  Reinforcing that point, Birdsell's factory occupied 21 acres of floor space with a production capacity of 18,000 wagons per year.  Similarly, their wagons and running gears were distributed throughout the United States and were consistently touted for their strength, durability, light draft, and quality finish.

This image shows a variety of early promotional material distributed by the Birdsell Manufacturing Company.  

Like most other wagon brands, Birdsell transitioned from a widely traveled transportation icon to a more sedentary and utilitarian piece of farm equipment by the 1920’s.  By the early 1930’s, factory repair parts for these wagons were only available through Kentucky Manufacturing Company with no parts serviced for the brand by the mid-1940s. 

From research to recovery, whether we’re looking at a national name like Birdsell or a lesser-known local brand, it’s important to understand the history of particular piece – where and how it was used, the distinctions of its design, unique accessories, timeframe of manufacture, and more.  All of these elements help us better appreciate a set of wheels while also preserving and perpetuating history. 

See ya next 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, November 8, 2017

2018 Stagecoach & Freight Wagon Conference

Whether you’re looking for the perfect spring seat to complete a wagon, need help determining a maker name, or are trying to figure out how a certain thing was crafted ‘back-in-the-day,” it's not always easy for western vehicle enthusiasts to know where to get the right information.  Thankfully, that’s one of the great benefits of getting to know folks with similar interests.  After all, it often takes more than individual diligence to locate crucial details.  Ultimately, we all need help from time to time.  It’s why networking with like-minded enthusiasts can be so helpful to collectors, historians, museums, and vehicle owners. 

To that point, I recently received some interesting information from Jim Pomajevich with the National Stagecoach & Freight Wagon Association.  This great group of folks is holding their 11th Annual Conference in early spring of 2018.  One of the most notable aspects of this gathering is the packed roster of activities and learning opportunities.  It’s such an impressive lineup that I thought I’d pass along some details this week.  Hopefully, the heads-up is early enough to allow everyone a chance to make the March 15-18, 2018 event.  

Over a dozen speakers are slated to address a wide range of topics; everything from M.P. Henderson wagons and stagecoaches as well as details on ambulances, blacksmithing, wheelwrighting, a look at East & West stagecoach variations, overland trails, and much more.  Ultimately, the get-together should be a rare opportunity to network and get up-close to a lot of quality, period vehicles.

For more details, check out the particulars on the National Stagecoach & Freight Wagon Association website.

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, November 1, 2017

A Little More About Joseph Murphy

Over the years, I’ve written several articles and blogs that provided information about the Murphy Wagon Company in St. Louis, Missouri.  From the history of early trails and freighting to the opening of the West, the firm and its founder, Joseph Murphy, are easily among the most legendary transportation icons in America.  As such, there are many historians, collectors, and enthusiasts who chase the Murphy star, intently hunting for surviving pieces from this part of our past. 

I stumbled onto my first materials related to Murphy over fifteen years ago.  Since then, our focused search and rescue efforts have been painfully slow in rewards.  Even with so little primary source data uncovered through the course of time, our archives are fortunate to hold a number of rare and important insights into the Murphy legacy.  Still, finding original materials from this maker remains a daunting task.  How daunting?  Well, period accounts report that Murphy built some 200,000 wagons in his day – 200,000!  How many of these have been found?  Let’s see... would you believe none, nada, zero, zilch?  Truth is, not even a particle of a piece of one of his wagons has ever been authoritatively identified.  Clearly, the difficulties of discovery surrounding this acclaimed builder make the brand one of the most elusive and desirable on the planet. 

I’ve said all of this to help explain my feelings about a decade ago when I unexpectedly came across not one or even two letters from the Murphy firm but thirteen.  It was one of those times as a collector and historian that felt a bit surreal.  During the acquisition process, I kept a record of some of my feelings and always meant to share them within a feature magazine article at some point.  As time has passed, I’ve never gotten around to putting the finishing touches on the piece and – since I needed material for this week’s blog – below are some excerpts from what I’d started along with a few insights into those incredibly rare surviving letters from J. Murphy & Sons... 

The above image is part of an 1883 letterhead promoting Joseph Murphy’s wagons.

The area I’ve fronted in red helps point out the Murphy Wagon Works where it was located on Broadway street in St. Louis.

I was nervous and fumbling with the perforated zip tab, trying to carefully open the small cardboard package.  It was hard to believe what was happening.  My hands shook with excitement and my mind was a whirlwind, consumed with anticipation.  I knew I should look for a more tranquil setting than the post office parking lot but I wanted to know more, first hand from this man I had heard so much about. 

A few days before, I had received an email confirming my purchase of several dusty, brittle, age-stained and seemingly worthless nineteenth century letters.  Lost, forgotten and packed away in the stale, cramped quarters of an otherwise ordinary box, these handwritten notes were now part of our Wheels That Won The West® collection of early western vehicle history.  They were an amazing discovery.  Taking us back more than one hundred and thirty years, the tracks of deep blue ink on the soiled envelopes are surrounded by the invisible fingerprints of a literal legend in the development of the American West.  The notion of such a fresh find set my mind to wandering, drifting to a time in transportation history when wheels were wooden, tires were steel, and horse flesh was king of the road.

This photo collage shows a number of the 1880’s-era Murphy letters held in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

The 1880’s were heady days for many of the most established American vehicle makers.  The U.S. had just celebrated its first century and the nation’s yearnings for transportation and travel were well-rooted.  Reinforcing that point, in October of 1887, the 15th Annual Convention of American Carriage Builders took place in Washington, D.C.  As President of the association, Clement Studebaker – also President of the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company during this time – delivered the keynote address.  Within the body of his speech, Mr. Studebaker estimated the number of horse drawn vehicle makers in America at 80,000.  Contributing to that number with its own share of vehicle makers was St. Louis, Missouri.  As the ‘Gateway to the West,’ the city had a long history of outfitting emigrants headed toward the setting sun as well as supplying transports for military expeditions, freighters, farmers, businesses, and ranchers.  That same year, the population of St. Louis hovered around a half million and the city claimed more than 125 wagon and carriage makers/repairers.

Also in St. Louis during 1887, legendary wagon maker Joseph Murphy was celebrating his 62nd year in business and was working to transition the management of the company to his sons by the following year.  During his last handful of years running the firm, Mr. Murphy penned several letters to a wood mill in America, Illinois.  It was this group of letters I had stumbled across and almost immediately I learned that they are likely his last surviving business correspondence.  Together, they shed even more light on the reputation of a man who made quality the ultimate standard for heavy, horse drawn vehicles while leaving a legacy that continues to overshadow almost every other western vehicle maker. 

Setting up shop in 1825, Murphy quickly became known as an expert in his knowledge of wood.  From primary source research to later interviews with relatives sharing the family’s oral history, this legacy is a consistent message continually repeated about Murphy.  That fact has significant bearing on the content of the letters we acquired.

In addition to the letters, we've managed to acquire a few more pieces, including an 1881 promotional flyer.  Most of the materials include illustrations of a Murphy farm-style wagon (which also happens to be the only authenticated images of any type of Murphy wagon).  There are variations in the letterhead designs and one is written on a plain, ruled sheet and then embossed with a seal.  The writings encompass a five-year period from 1883 through 1887.  Surrounding each of the folded letters, the tattered and discolored envelopes hearken to a period in American history when Geronimo was surrendering to the U.S. military, numerous U.S. states were still territories, and William F. Cody was introducing his first Wild West shows. 

While close to two-thirds of the letters contain the flowing script and carefully penned words of a schooled clerk, the others are even more exciting.  For in those letters, there is something very different.  Dated to the specific years of 1883 and 1887, these individual pieces are written in an aged hand with occasional phonetic misspellings, an authoritative tone, and a clear command of experience with raw timber and wagon construction.  The most stirring part of this is that these letters aren’t the only place where I’ve seen this exact handwriting.  Precisely the same penmanship can be seen in Joseph Murphy’s account books held at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis.  From the punctuation and misspellings to the individual character strokes, shapes, slants, and overall alignments, roughly a handful of the letters were clearly connected to the same writer in Murphy’s earliest surviving account books – Joseph Murphy, himself.

This image showcases one of the earliest known advertisements for Joseph Murphy wagons.  It dates to the 1850’s.

As I’d mentioned earlier, these letters had been sent to a saw mill in America, Illinois, roughly 150 miles southeast of St. Louis.  The mill was owned by Benjamin Franklin Mason.  Mr. Mason had been engaged in that business since 1865 and had, apparently, first been approached by Joseph Murphy around 1880 to supply him with custom-sawn hickory for axles.  The letters to B.F. Mason contained specific instructions for raw timber that Murphy needed to produce wagons.  The content of the notes was straight-forward and business-like.  One, in particular, gave explicit instructions on the type of wood stock needed, when it should be cut from the forest, the dimensions needed, when and where to be sent, and the expected costs.  Murphy also detailed his interest in what he referred to as “No. 1 timber” as well as his concerns with bugs – i.e. powder post beetles.  As an established and well-respected builder, he knew the problems these critters could wreak and made no bones about his disdain for this part of nature.  Murphy’s writings also included references to at least six different axles sizes for wagons being built in his shops.

There are more details in the letters and it’s possible that some of that information may hold the key to the eventual discovery and authentication of a Murphy wagon.  At any rate, we continue to be vigilant.  While there are no known Murphy wagon survivors, we can confirm – through Murphy’s own firsthand accounts – that he was a stickler for quality, attention to detail, and customer satisfaction.  Hearing it directly from the man himself, more than one hundred thirty years later, is a clear reminder of the value of continuing the search and remaining optimistic. 

To some, Joseph Murphy is celebrated as a successful Irish immigrant.  To others, he’s remembered for his connections to freighting on the Santa Fe Trail.  But, to historic vehicle enthusiasts, he’s perhaps the most legendary American wagon maker of them all.  It’s been almost two hundred years since his beginnings in St. Louis and well over a century since the last Murphy wagon was made.  Tomorrow could be the day when the first one is found.  A long shot you say?  Maybe.  But then, what chance did a small collection of 1880’s-era letters have of surviving for so long?  People move every day.  Forgotten items are lost, tossed, and regularly destroyed.  Tucked away, isolated in an attic, time somehow stood still and these pieces survived.  I’m convinced it was all for a reason.  A reason surrounded by hope and reinforced by a promise that those who truly seek will find.

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