Farm & Freight Wagons

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Theolder I get the more complex the world seems to be.  Yes, I know, some parts of life do appear tobe simpler but consider this… when many of us were kids, something asstraightforward as a watch was, well, just a watch.  The band was either elastic, had a clip, orsmall buckle.  That was the end of thefrills.  There were no digital read-outs,just an hour, minute, and “sweep” second hand. Today, the watch many of us use is also a phone and flashlight as well asa still camera and video recorder that shows multi-year calendars, sends emailsand texts, surfs the internet, plays games, sends reminders, keeps notes,updates us on news and weather, gives directions, plays music, videos, and somuch more!

Whateverthe innovation and however superior the idea, it seems there’s always room tobe better.  Studying the world of earlywagons and western vehicles has some parallels as well.  Predominantly, the more we uncover, thedeeper this subject seems to be and the easier it is to see there is still alot to learn.  Beyond my own researchqueries, I receive quite a few questions in the course of a year related towood-wheeled transportation.  To thatpoint, some time back, a gentleman asked me to define the scope of a farmwagon’s use.  That’s almost like asking howmany stars are in the sky.  The vehicleis so versatile, it was used for a near-endless array of purposes. 

The Peter Schuttler wagon brand, based in Chicago, Illinois, was highly respected among farmers, ranchers, freighters, and business owners.
Ultimately,the individual wanted to know if a farm wagon could sometimes be engaged as afreight wagon.  The answer is threefold…“Yes, No, and It depends.”  By now I hopeI have your curiosity up because the question is one of the best I’ve everreceived.  The reason is that it forcesus to consider the entire scope of what has become an extraordinarily commonplaceterm for a surprisingly complex design… a design so ubiquitous thatcontemporary audiences often see it as ordinary.  The end result of that kind of reasoning canmean a loss of vehicle identity,contributions, and significance.  Inother words,by focusing only on the words – ‘farm wagon’ – the category can be sorestricted that misinterpretations are too easily substituted for historicreality.
Americanfarm wagons, by definition, can include a broad assortment of vehicles going bynames such as Road wagons, Virginia wagons, schooners, smaller Conestogawagons, box wagons, rack beds, and even Mountain wagons.  Each of these types can be pigeon-holed intoa specific set of farm duties but some of these wheels were also used asfreight wagons during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Of course, city trucks, drays, hitch wagons,and platform wagons as well as log wagons, dump wagons, and a variety of otherstyles were also haulers of certain types of freight.  The freight wagons I’m referring to here, though,are those strictly commercial vehicles regularly traveling long distances whilecarrying massive amounts of goods, supplies, equipment and/or raw ore betweensettled areas. 

Tall-sided freight wagons with ‘back-actions’ were a common sight during the mid to late 1800’s in the American West.
Whilemajor wagon builders in the late 1800’s regularly promoted specific freightwagon designs, end users also looked to what they already had available.  Clearly, lightly built farm wagons would nothave been up to the requirements of heavy freighting.  That said, more muscular farm wagons wereindeed documented among eastern and western freighters.  Among many of the eastern states, RoadWagons, Virginia Wagons, and smaller Conestoga wagons could be seen haulingcommercial freight as well as serving on the farm.  Numerous period records refer to temporaryfreighter/farmers as ‘sharpshooters’. These farmers took advantage of seasonal or financially favorable opportunitiesto participate in freighting alongside the ‘regulars.’

OutWest, where the tall-sided freight wagons reigned, heavier built farm-stylewagons could periodically be seen trailing behind as a second or even thirdwagon in a connected train.  Thesesecondary trailers (back-actions) were often fitted with additional sideboards,making them at or near the same height as the lead wagon.  Our Wheels That Won The West® archives not only include original photographic examplesof these configurations but some images actually show an entire train of reinforcedfarm wagons with multiple sideboards.  Ofcourse, these aren’t your average farm wagons. Equipped with steel skeins, heavily clipped gears, and reinforced axles,payload capacities for some of these brawnier farm wagons could equal as muchas 3 or 4 tons.  Maker-labeled ‘Freight Wagons’promoted in 1800’s catalogs were regularly engineered with capacities of 2.5 to7 tons. 

This image shows a pair of western rack bed wagons with additional sideboards in place.  It was not uncommon to see freighters like this in the West.  
So,while not all farm wagons could be called freight wagons, some were clearlyused in that position.  Prominent wagonmakers also sold specific lead & trail wagons for freighting. 

Asa side note, most surviving farm wagons today will vary a bit from 1800’s-era designsdue to evolutionary changes in construction features.  As with virtually every product configuration,details make the difference as to what could or could not have logically filledthe role.  From skein sizes and types to axleconfigurations, bolsters, and standards, every part and purpose of these vehicles was specificallyengineered to reinforce the whole. 
PleaseNote: As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted and maynot be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed withoutprior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West®Archives.

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