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!

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