Building Collections – Never Stop Looking

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Looking for remnants of America’s transportationpast may be disheartening on occasion. For those pursuing the most elusive wooden wheels, it can sometimes feellike all of the important pieces have disappeared.  In truth, there are a number of amazingcollections as well as individual vehicles scattered all over this greatcountry.  Some are highlypublicized.  Some are lesser known.  Others – and elements related to those – arestill waiting to be discovered.  Onething that’s become increasingly essential to 21st century collectors is the needfor careful discernment and understanding of a particular set of wheels.  That ability to look at every detail of avehicle and clearly understand what it has to say is of immense value. 

At the risk of sounding like I’m overstatingthe obvious, some of these pieces are more valuable than others.  Pushing that point a little farther down the road, ifyou’re buying a set of wheels and expecting it to grow in value at the samerate as extreme examples you’ve heard, seen, or read about, it’s important tounderstand what drives those better sale prices.  Otherwise, we run the risk of consistentlyending up with buyer’s remorse.  Ultimately,not every good-looking set of wheels will have the best return on a giveninvestment. (Oh, and for the record, proper appraisal values are not based onlist prices seen on the internet – no two pieces are ever the same and whatsomeone asks isn’t necessarily what something is worth).    

As the antique vehicle landscape becomesmore picked over and attrition wreaks havoc with other wagons and western vehicles, it’s helpful to know what’s more desirable and why. It’s also increasingly significant to realize what defines constructionfeatures from a particular timeframe of manufacture.  This is an area that sometimes makes me anunpopular fella.  In truth, I understandthe disappointment.  If a person feelsthey have an 1880’s brand X and they find out it’s an amalgamation of several1920’s W, X, Y, and Z brands, it’s not necessarily good news.  Nonetheless, we work hard to deliver objectiveand period supportable evaluations without speculation or hearsay.  Likewise, the all-important assessment ofwhat’s original and what isn’t continues to create problems for some.  Why? Well, with prices on the best pieces continuing to escalate, it’s easierthan ever for buyers to be tempted with doctored or less-than-honestpieces.  The old Latin phrase, Caveat Emptor, is as pertinent as it’sever been. 

But, even if a particular group of vehicles does contain quality and desirable pieces, is that enough of an investmentplan?  In other words, how do we help ensure we’re investing in the long-term growth potential of vehicles without purchasing pieces that continually duplicate the collection?  One way is todiversify the types of vehicles in the group. Like any investment portfolio, the right mix can help look after thevalue of the whole.  The added varietyalso has potential to reinforce the intrigue of an entire collection to abroader audience, especially if all the quality pieces are connected by a central themeor purpose. 

Small stage wagons built on Mountainwagon gears were a prominent feature throughout the Old West.  Regrettably, most have disappeared which isone of the reasons we felt this piece was an important addition to ourcollection.
As our own collecting continues toevolve, I find myself more and more interested in helping tell the whole western vehicle story.  After all, thesewheels were tied to a massive industry and there are a host of supportingelements that help fill in some important storylines.  To that point, there’s a wide array of uniqueor patented parts as well as early signage, tools, advertising, accessories,and design distinctions that can add to the fascination and fullness of acollection.  It’s just one of the reasonswe focus on the pieces related to a vehicle’s background as much as we do thevehicle itself. 

 We purchased this rare stage wagon (mailjerky) in 2015 and commissioned Doug Hansen and his team to help with some light conservation and restoration efforts. It had served in the rugged country around Angels Camp, California.  Our desire was to retain as much of the original patina and hard-earned character as possible.  
Special thanks to the entire crew at Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop in Letcher,South Dakota for the museum-grade work done on this 19th centurystage wagon.  It's a special connection to the Old West.
Another reason to consider acquiringbackground elements relates to the need for authentication at every level of avehicle.  For instance, just because thebox, body, or running gear has a quality maker name attached to it is noguarantee that all of the other parts are of the same make and timeframe.  Correctly-tied period imagery, literature,and promotional materials can go a long way in answering questions while eliminatingdoubts about originality.  Reinforcingthat point, in all my years of collecting, I’ve seen very few originalbrochures highlighting the full-line of Winona brand wagons.  Just as hard to locate are period images ofthe vehicles they built.  Why are theseimportant?  Because they offerirrefutable evidence as to how these pieces were designed and used during aparticular period of time.  Recently, Istumbled upon an original photo of a Winona Sheep Bed wagon.  It was one more needle-in-a-haystack find wewere able to add to the rare history we’ve uncovered over the past two-plusdecades.

In a nod to the significance of the sheep industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Winona was justone of a number of major brands offering these designs.  Most surviving Sheep wagon or Sheep Campwagon photos don’t show enough detail or logos to conclusively identify a maker.  Finding this image not onlycorroborates the brochure promotions from the same timeframe but gives us aclear example of the vehicle in use. That can be a valued point of historical reference for those wanting toauthenticate a Winona Sheepherder wagon.

Likewise, within the past year, we cameacross another century-plus-old photo showing an ultra-rare, dual-labeledMoline John Deere chuck wagon.  With thehelp of some extensive research we did a few years ago, this wagon can be immediatelypinpointed to the 1910 to early 1912-era. It’s a seldom-seen look at the beginnings of John Deere-brandedwagons. 

Elsewhere, we’ve been fortunate touncover more original factory images – including one showing employees of the Stoughton Wagon Works with recently finished products.  Others we’ve come across include the employees and early wagons built by Carver, Ft. Smith, Moline, Piqua, Kentucky, andmore.  Our series of original chuck wagonphotos have also continued to grow with several hundred now in thearchives.  We’re also still in theprocess of tracking down the maker of a Concord-style coach that may be from adifferent builder than either Abbot or Downing. At this point, we know the coach was publicly shown in the West justafter WW1 but, like a lot of pieces, it's left very few clues as to its whereabouts today. These are just a few of thevehicle-related acquisitions and research projects that make up our regularsearches.  It’s our hope that what weuncover not only helps us in our efforts but also adds value to the finds ofcountless collectors all over the U.S. After all, it’s the stories behind these pieces that will often boost interest while preserving some of America’s most misunderstood history.  Ultimately, no matter the vehicle brands orarea of focus, one of the greatest secrets to building a quality collection isto never stop looking.  Good luck in yourpursuits!

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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