A Puzzle with Promise

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Sometimes folks look at me a little funny when I say I’m a historian studying early wagons. I can see the disconnect and, in a way, completely understand it.  I mean, it’s not every day the world runs into a guy that gets excited about a century-plus-old chamfer on a rotting wagon axle.  But, when a person understands that this manufacturing history is directly connected to almost every part of our nation’s founding and early growth, the lights start to come on.  Fact is, these vehicles didn’t just exist during some of the most dramatic moments in America’s past, they made it possible for that history to happen! From cattle drives and emigrant travel to building the transcontinental railroad and protecting the nation’s borders and interior, these wheels (and the associated brands) are the forgotten heroes and wheeled sentinels of our past.  So, whether you’re an “American Picker” looking to cash in on undiscovered wooden gold, a community looking to memorialize a part of its past, an enthusiast wanting closer ties to a different time, a prop coordinator on a movie set, or museum hunting that ideal vehicle straight out of the Old West, certain pieces are naturally more attractive. 

Not long ago, I had an opportunity to view a numberof wagons that appeared to have lost their identities.  With careful review, I was able to authoritatively label a good number of them. Brands like Studebaker, Newton, Weber, Deere, and Pekin had previously gone unrecognized in this assemblage. The Studebaker would have dated close to 1900 while most of the others were from well within the 20th century.  One of my purposes at this gathering was to look for legendary wagon makers seldom seen today.  Likewise, I wanted to identify – if possible– a wagon that had been built before the end of the 1800’s.
One piece, in particular, stood out.  It wasn’t flashy.  It had minimal paint remaining and a number of the original parts were missing.  Still, it was different.  My regular study of so much original literature and period photographs made it clear that this set of wheels was old; likely the better part of a century and a half old.  Complementing its age, the hand forged metal was rusted and pitted.  Wooden parts were rotted, broken, and replaced with non-original elements.  Soundness was definitely not its strong suit but heritage very well could have been. Taller wheels and an early banded reach combined with at least a dozen more nineteenth century clues to make it clear this piece hailed from a day when horseflesh ruled the road.  Many ofthe contours on the axles and bolsters included specially shaped woodwork, fullof style and manufacturing pride.  It was the kind of evidence that has a way of opening doors to future finds.
With the location of these vehicles being close toSt. Louis, I had hoped I might be lucky enough to discover a wagon built by Joseph Murphy.  Since no Murphy vehicleshave been conclusively identified to date, I knew that finding one capable of being authenticated would be a stretch. However, I was motivated by the fact that we’ve been able to uncoverseveral other equally “impossible” finds over the last two decades.  While Murphy didn’t show up this time, I didfind a contemporary of that legendary brand; a vehicle easily from the 1880’s and perhaps earlier.  It was a piece with a lot to say, even though I couldn’t quite put together all of the clues regarding the maker.  Nonetheless,recognizing special wagons with deep western roots is what the Wheels That WonThe West® Archives are about. 

Clearly, with every early vehicle found and cataloged, we’re that much closer to creating a more comprehensive picture of America’s largest transportation industry. If you have a piece you believe may hold a special history from the 19th century, feel free to send us some photos. We’d be glad to take a look, comparing it to so many others we have onfile.
History, after all, isn’t just what’s behind us.  It’s alongside and in front of us;often disguised by the unknown, it’s a puzzle with promise and a rolling record full of potential rewards.  
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