Curve Balls

Published by: David E. Sneed
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Unless Otherwise Noted, All Text & Images Copyright © David E. Sneed, All Rights Reserved
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In 2012, Clint Eastwood starred in another great film called “Trouble With The Curve.” It’s a baseball movie that highlights a player’s hitting weakness and the challenges that trained scouts had in recognizing that issue.   

As I watched, I found some interesting parallels to the study of wood-wheeled transportation in the U.S. In particular, some early vehicles may not always be what they seem and, as a result, these old wheels have the potential to throw us a hard-to-hit curve. So, what might look like an easy brand to identify could be a setup for failure. After all, not everything is a soft pitch right over the plate. I’ve actually seen this kind of identification curve happen more times than I can count. Boxes and running gears get switched around. Tongues are misplaced and substituted. Seats from one brand end up on boxes from another. End gates with a particular brand name get mismatched with an otherwise generic box and the stories just keep going! Ultimately, there are plenty of traps allowing knee-jerk identification to fail. After all, just because one part has a maker name doesn’t mean every portion of the whole is connected to the same maker. And, of course, oftentimes there’s no name on anything!

But, what if the brand name on both sides of the box, back of the seat, and also the rear axle of the running gear is the same? And,what if all of that paint and branding goes back a hundred years to the same selling dealer and wagon shop? Well, we can then guarantee the maker of all the parts to be the same, right? Well, hold up a minute. Because the next pitch could be the final strike in your turn at bat.

Looking back to the days when horse flesh ruled the road, there were plenty of makers building every part of a vehicle from scratch.Others might buy a few parts and do some contracting of labor but, overall, they made and marketed the majority of a piece. Still, there were some who would purchase a vehicle in-the-white and finish it out; afterward, putting their name on it as the maker. In-the-white was an industry term that referred to a wholesale-built vehicle that could be purchased and finish-painted and striped later. 

Yet another variation in mixed maker pieces are the transitional vehicles. For instance, when John Deere finally purchased the Moline Wagon Company in 1910, there was a period of time when the wagons were a hybrid with John Deere boxes essentially topping a Moline gear. Knowing these details can help make sense of what might otherwise be a confusing combination.

Even with all of the above mix and match scenarios, there’s at least one more option to how a maker might finish and label a wagon ‘back in the day.’ Whether a builder was behind on orders, having problems with their facilities or equipment, or maybe they contracted with another manufacturer to ‘rebrand’ some of their production with their own name, there were times when a finished vehicle might appear without the original maker info and have another brand name painted on it. How do I know this? I’ve seen it a number of times. Some of these instances occurred with mail order houses like Sears or Montgomery Ward contracting with known builders to custom create a private label brand for them. In other instances, some wagon builders – particularly specialty makers like sheep camp manufacturers and box-only builders would craft the box and a running gear would be purchased to go with it.

As I travel across the country, I like to visit museums, collections, and even roadside finds. Invariably, I seem to always notice and learn something new. In this particular case, I was recently privileged to go through the Fort Smith Museum of History. Wow! There are some remarkable pieces of our past in that museum and if you’re partial to ‘Hanging Judge’ Isaac Parker, the museum and the surrounding areas are ‘must sees’.

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The Fort Smith Museum of History is a great stop for enthusiasts of early western and transportation history.

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Early hand tools at the Ft. Smith Museum of History

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A glimpse of what folks saw in 'Hanging Judge' Isaac Parker's courtroom.

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An early hanging scene. Image Courtesy of the Ft. Smith History Museum.


As I walked through this museum, I came across a vehicle identified as a Lorenz & Vaughn brand wagon. According to the museum signage, Louis Lorenz and W.T. Vaughn had both worked at the legendary Fort Smith Wagon Company prior to John Deere closing the doors and moving everything to their main wagon works in Moline, Illinois. After the Fort Smith works shut down, Mr. Lorenz and Mr. Vaughn decided to set up their own wagon shop.  This, apparently, took place in the mid-1920s and this wagon was from near that time period.

As I looked at the wheeled relic, I could tell it was covered with original paint, striping, and logos. Nothing had been disturbed by modern hands. From the worn and faded trade dress right down to the continued presence of mud dauber nests on the box and gear, it looked like it had just been rolled out of its last resting place in an old barn. Other than the well-used appearance, a few rotted felloes, and a cut-down tongue for use with a tractor, the old wagon was largely as it was when it rolled out of the Lorenz & Vaughn shop. Even so, as I looked at the running gear, I noticed unique features that looked very familiar. The bolster standards, rotating reach coupling, brake shoes, fifth wheel, and other construction features were all highly distinctive.

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A front angle view of the Lorentz & Vaughn wagon in Ft. Smith.

Image titleThis bolster standard is just one of the elements on the wagon that point to IHC as the manufacturer of the running gear.

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Additional patent hardware reinforcing the IHC design of the gear. 

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This particular rotating reach includes the IHC logo and info about the patent.

Closer examination showed both patented and exclusive design traits associated with the International Harvester Corporation. A little more investigation uncovered the IHC circular logo in multiple places throughout the running gear. Clearly, this is an IHC wagon gear and was most-likely a Weber brand prior to being repainted with the Lorenz and Vaughn insignia on the rear axle. The wagon also has original Lorenz & Vaughn logos on both sides of the box and the seat.

Why was this done? We may never know as there are so few Lorenz & Vaughn wagons remaining. It could have been a one-off, hurry-up order or perhaps some other reason. Ultimately, it’s another reminder that not everything is always as it appears.

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The rear axle of the Lorentz & Vaughn wagon in Ft. Smith.

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Logo signage centering the box matches both the seat back and rear axle.

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The outside seat back on the Lorentz & Vaughn wagon.


A few specifications for the wagon gear and box are...

Wheels –       44x50

Tire width –    2”

Track width – 62”

Box width –   42”

Box length – 10’ 6”


Additional features include a tire bolt in every other felloe of each wheel; chamfered and riveted ends on the box bottom cross sills; and round steel footrest supports. After examining the box, I’m tempted to believe it was likely made by Lorenz & Vaughn. Nonetheless, the gear was clearly manufactured in the International Harvester shops. IHC wagon labels included Weber, Columbus, Steel King, International Harvester, Buckeye, and others.

Ultimately, this wagon is a very unique and valuable survivor. It tells us a lot about the operations of smaller makers and the industry as a whole. Again and again we’re reminded of the sales, marketing, and manufacturing complexities within America’s early transportation and farming trade. Nothing about these wood-wheeled vehicles is simple and assessing them requires patience and awareness of countless brands and practices. Every time I see one, it’s a little like wondering what pitch is coming my way. Inside, outside, right down the middle, high, or in the dirt, it takes focus to make the right choice and connect with these rolling archives!  


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Another view of the Lorentz & Vaughn wagon.

Image titleFt. Smith's First Fire Engine. 

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Early promotional signage with original gold leaf artwork adorns the interior of the museum.

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Electric vehicles are nothing new. This is an 1898 Woods brand electric car.




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