A.A. Cooper: Another Rare Survivor

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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When it comes to locating early wagonsfor collections, many folks wonder where to start.  Over and over I’m asked, “How do you findcollector grade wagons?”  The answer iseasy to share.  The process involved,though, can be a lot more difficult.  Thereal secret to finding these vehicles is to never stop searching for them.  Honestly, that’s it.  You never know when one is going to popup.  It’s a little like a ‘jack-in-the-box’toy you might have played with as a kid. You’re turning the crank, hearing the music, and you know fromexperience that the thing is going to pop up – yet, it still has a way ofsurprising you.
Before you can search, however, it’simportant to know what to look for.  Whilethis statement sounds simple, it’s the part of the process that can beconsiderably more difficult.  In fact, itcan take years to learn how to interpret a vehicle’s identity, condition,originality, features, and overall desirability.  There are so many important distinctions ofearly wagons because the industry was vast and the time periods covered areextremely broad.  Equally challenging,makers frequently had multiple ways of building the same or similar pieces and,to make matters worse, truly authoritative information can be frustratinglyhard to locate.  Once you have adirection for the search, though, the history chasing can begin.  I usually supplement my quests for the rarestwagons by putting out the word that I’m interested in a particular brand and justhope that enough paint has survived to make the vehicle easier to recognizewithout doing extensive research.   
With that as the backdrop to this blog,I can say it was a day like any other when I received an email from Doug Hansen of Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop.  He knowshow to get my attention.  The email wasshort… only one photo with a single word question – “Interested?”  The photo showed a close-up of a wagon logoon a sideboard.  The brand name shown was‘Cooper’.  Now, I had been looking for aCooper wagon for years and I’d shared that with Doug quite some time ago.  While I’ve spent a fair amount of timestudying early Cooper literature and have stumbled across a few 20th-century-builtspring seats, I had never been this close to an original Cooper vehicle.
This set of wheels had a number of earlydistinctions and was just one day from selling at an estate auction.  High narrow wheels, wide original floorboards,a through-bolted gear, and a period box brake were among its notable attributes.  Best of all, the wagon was relativelyuntouched by modern restoration attempts. The first thing I needed to do was confirm the originality of the gearto the box.  The design clearly pre-datedthose shown in a commonly reproduced 1915 P & O catalog.  Based on comparisons with additional periodimagery from our Wheels That Won The West® archives, the piece appeared consistentwith what was produced during the 1880’s and 1890’s.  Only with sufficient high resolution photos ora first-hand inspection would I be able to narrow down the manufacturing dateand also confirm whether the box and gear were mates.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get that kindof access before it sold.  Nonetheless, Itook a chance and bought the piece. 
Once I had it home, it was easy to seethat the wheels and gear were covered in an extremely old repaint job; notuncommon as many early farmers took care of their vehicles (especially thegears) by repainting when the original colors started to wear.  Over the years, I’ve discovered a method thatallows the removal of the different paint layers.  Combined with a little elbow grease, the old supplementsof barn paint on this wagon are coming off nicely.  Beneath the surplus red coating, I’m finding asignificant amount of original orange paint along with the correct black stripesand white pinstripes.  Not only do all ofthe design elements on the gear match up with early Cooper imagery but theskeins, themselves, are cast with the initials AAC.  That lettering represents the name of thecompany president and founder, A.A. Cooper – which is the way most early literaturereferred to the company.  The final pieceof evidence confirming the originality of the gear and box to each other happenedwhen I uncovered the stenciled A.A. Cooper name on the rear axle. 
After reviewing the piece further andcomparing multiple features with Cooper’s design and construction variations fromthe 19th century, it’s clear the wagon will date sometime shortly after1885.  A supportable timeframe ofmanufacture would be the late 1880’s to near 1890.  The taller 54” rear wheels, original paint, pinstriping, and logos on the box and gear as well as a patented cold-rolled steelbrake ratchet and also a factory serial number further reinforce the uniquenessof the piece.  Combined with periodgovernment records listing Cooper as among the very best makes (only PeterSchuttler and Bain were ranked higher in this 1880 record of competitors forgovernment contracts*), it was a relatively easy decision to add the vehicle tothe Wheels That Won The West® collection. 
How many more 19th century Cooper wagonswith original paint and serial numbers still exist?  It’s hard to say.  I’ve heard rumors of others but it’s taken menearly two decades to actually locate one. The real reward is the knowledge that another relevant piece of earlyAmerican transportation can now be preserved for generations to come.  Well-known on the American frontier, AugustineA. Cooper made a complete line of carriages, wagons, and sleighs.  It’s appropriate, then, that this Cooperwagon should join a number of other extremely rare vehicles in our collection, each helping interpret the way it was… whenopportunity ruled and wagons rolled throughout the American West.
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*1880 Government deposition.  For additional information within anothercontemporary publication, see “Wagons For The Santa Fe Trade” by Mark L.Gardner.
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