20 Questions with Early Vehicle Historian, David Sneed

Published by: David Sneed
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Whether it’s a Q/A session after an extensive historical presentation, an email query, or someone stopping me on the street, I regularly field a number of questions about western vehicles. As new life is breathed back into this blog, I thought I’d share a few of those questions and, perhaps,some details that may not be readily known...

1)     How did you get started studying early American transportation? That’s a long story that began before I was born but kicked into high gear in my early 30’s. Someday, I’ll probably write an article or post about the journey.


2)     How much did you know about wagons, stages, and western vehicles when you started? Very little. My dad grew up the hard way... plowing behind mules, driving wagon teams, and using horsedrawn equipment for almost everything done on the farm. He taught me to drive a wagon when I was 12. That was also my first runaway experience! Possessing a blank slate of knowledge, though, turned out to be a huge blessing. This is a massive subject with a lot of lost, forgotten, and wind-blown pieces. As I began to collect large amounts of period literature, photos, and related history, I picked up a lot of information from the original makers themselves. It helped me avoid many of the pitfalls in misconceptions, hearsay beliefs, and false narratives.


3)     What was it like starting from a near-zero base of knowledge?  Imagine trying to make sense of a jumbled-up jigsaw puzzle with literally billions of loose pieces.It sounds crazy but, it was both overwhelming and exciting. I had stumbled upon a part of our past that most historians had ignored. As a result, very few knew much about it. Certainly, there was no comprehensive writings on the makers or industry. What really intrigues me is that these vehicles are connected to almost every portion of our western history! In the beginning, I was this wild sponge, soaking up anything and everything. It took a while to get my focus narrowed to the farm, freight, ranch, stage, business, and military vehicles that had so much to do with the American frontier. Once I had direction, it was easier to make sense of the priorities of learning. The process was – and still is – like trying to drink water from a fire hose!


4)     Why do you focus your studies on western wagons and stage coaches? For me, these are the wooden vehicles with the most intrigue. More than simple transports, these pieces are forever tied to some of the most exciting parts of U.S. history. They were witnesses to an enormous amount of Old West excitement. Carriages, buggies, and many lighter vehicles have their place but they’re not something we typically focus on in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.


5)     What value is there is studying this history? We don’t have time for a complete answer to that. However, beyond the incredible stories tied to every aspect of these machines as well as the western frontier being heavily dependent on them, there’s the collector and authentication side of every vehicle. The more we know about a particular set of wheels, the more intriguing it is. To that point, I’ve been on the most incredible treasure hunt for the past 30 years! Learning what to look for and how to recognize it has been a learning curve like no other. The rewards, though, are amazing. We have numerous one-of-a-kind pieces in our collection...all because of this unwavering passion to find, document, and preserve the rarest pieces of our transportation past.  


6)     What do you look for in a vehicle? First and foremost, I want a story. It can be the vehicle’s brand story, style and use, or maybe the background history on the specific set of wheels. For me,the story – or provenance – is what holds the greatest potential of driving a collector vehicle’s value. Condition, Originality, Completeness, Uniqueness, Age, Brand, and many other elements are important. The story, though, begins with a vehicle’s identity and is the most important thing to be aware of, in my opinion.


7)     Do you give away any trade secrets, so to speak, in the presentations and talks you give around the country? Absolutely. Most of the information I share in my writings and talks is not available anywhere else – including the internet. There’s so much to know about these vehicles. As a result, I’m never able to cover everything in an hour-long talk. I’ve forensically studied this subject EVERY DAY for over 3 decades and am still learning.  


8)     What’s the worst collector decision you’ve ever made? Ha! I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes. In many ways,though, that’s how we all learn some of the most important lessons in life, right? Like a lot of folks, there have been times when I spent more than I should, sold something I shouldn’t have, or bought something without thoroughly checking it out. With all of that said, though, probably the decisions I regret most are the ones where I procrastinated. In this pursuit, if you snooze, you may lose. I’m typically focused on the rarest machines and when I see something that fits that bill, I’m going to look much harder at it.


9)     Is there a vehicle you regret not buying when you had the chance? I’ve been extremely fortunate in my collecting but there are a few times when I didn’t listen to that internal voice. I remember a wagon at an auction that sold cheap. It still haunts me to this day. It was early; easily 1870’s or 80’s. I can’t shake the feeling it was a special piece. I was much younger and less knowledgeable back then. It wasn’t in the best condition, but it had history oozing out of it. I’ve always felt like Imissed a huge opportunity. If it still exists, it’s probably a rotted down yard ornament today.


10)  Are there still historic wooden vehicles available that aren’t in the hands of collectors? Without question, there are many good pieces waiting to be found. I’ve been fortunate to uncover several extraordinary pieces in the past few years and I know of others scattered around the country. Many are ancestral heirlooms that the family isn’t willing to part with… yet.


11)  How many vehicles do you have in the Wheels That Won The West® Collection? That’s easy. Too many and not enough.


12)  What’s a vehicle you’d love to find? There are a lot of them. It would be great to locate the double-sized Moline brand wagon that was used for promotion in the first decade of the 20th century. I tracked it down as far as anyone, I suppose. My ultimate belief is that it was scrapped prior to WW1. There are some great makers that have no (or very few) known surviving wagons. Joseph Murphy, Hiram Young, Jackson, Kansas, Cooper, and Winchester & Partridge’s Whitewater brand (not the later Sears & Roebuck version) are just a few of the rare makers that I’d love to find at some point. I published an article back in December of 2014 that focused on the top wagon makers in the Old West. Any of those brands, especially survivors from the 1860s-1880s, would be a thrill to find.


13)  What’s the rarest wagon or stagecoach that you’ve discovered? That’s a hard question. It would be hard to narrow the discoveries to just one builder or brand. I’d like to feel that every piece in our collection is special for one reason or another. I think an awareness of true rarity is an important consideration for every enthusiast to focus on.


14)  What labels a wagon as being ‘rare’? All period vehicles are rare in the sense of scarcity. So, rarity in and of itself is not necessarily the primary driver of value. With that said, there are areas that help us determine how rare an old wagon might be. The vehicle type, features, design, originality, condition, and provenance are all considerations that figure into how rare the survivor may be. Most of the wagons that still exist are from the early 20th century. True 19th century pieces built prior to the late 1890’s are far less common and will often possess different features.


15)  Do you have a favorite old wagon brand? You know, it’s hard for me to narrow it down to just one. If I had to, it would probably be a Chicago-built, Peter Schuttler. That said, there are countless brands I have a high regard for and would love to have.


16)  How many Schuttler wagons do you have? Five. Two are roller bearing wagons. The different Schuttlers will date from 1887, 1900, 1908, 1910, and 1923.


17)  Just focusing on the original vehicles and related parts, what brands are covered in your collection? American, Weber, Bain, Peter Schuttler, Springfield, Missouri Mule, Studebaker, John Deere, Moline, Mogul, Newton, Abbot-Downing, Carver, Overland, Brown, Owensboro, Luedinghaus, Gestring, Weber & Damme, Birdsell, Charter Oak, Cooper, Missouri, Kentucky, Old Hickory, Moline Mandt (Moline Plow Company), Stoughton, Milburn, Mitchell, Jackson, Winona, Pekin, Flint, Florence, Nissen, and others.


18)  What’s the biggest shift you’ve made in your collecting from when you started? Just about everything has changed from when I started. When you’re serious about collecting, you’ll grow and, with that growth, you’ll refine your focus. Sometimes the ‘shifts’ get made for us. For example, as prices of the pieces in better condition have continued to rise, many have outgrown my pocketbook. It’s actually been a good thing as it’s forced me to research these pieces even more. The result has allowed me to delve deeper into these wheels and better understand when something is being overlooked and undervalued. I enjoy those discoveries the most.

19)   What’s the most common mistakes you see enthusiasts make? There are two things I see folks repeatedly do. First, many often assume these are simple vehicles. In truth, they’re complicated machines and no two – even if the same make and brand – will be the same. It’s important to listen to what the piece is saying about originality, condition, use, distinctions, time period, and the like. Likewise, sometimes there’s a lack of regard for the vehicle history (provenance) and a tendency to accept everything told with no supporting documentation. Even with the best intentions, facts can be distorted. As with any other collectible, it’s important to KNOW what you’re looking at and potentially investing in.


20)  When it comes to these vehicles, is there any information that you’re hesitant to share? The hardest part about sharing accurate information is that some details aren’t always welcome. Folks regularly write or stop me with a question and, sometimes, there’s an agenda. I can usually see it coming. There’s a particular narrative they’re looking for me to confirm and, if I don’t, it’s upsetting to them. That’s not something I ever desire. However, my focus is on details that can be backed up with primary source documentation. If I know something can’t be proven, I’m going to shy away from saying it’s true. Some would like the answers to be more simply stated like, ‘This was the way it was always done’ or ‘this maker never did this and always did that.’ Unfortunately, speculation, best guesses, and all-inclusive statements are usually a fast way to a healthy dose of humble pie. Insufficient research is a common driver of misunderstandings and false information. From the beginning, my biggest goal has been to accumulate reliable and documentable primary source truths.


If you have other questions or a desire for a vehicle evaluation, authentication, build date assessment, or some other service, please reach out. We’d love to hear from you.

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

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