I'd Like To Get To Know You

Published by: David E. Sneed
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All Text & Images Copyright © David E. Sneed, All Rights Reserved
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In 1968, the singing group, “Spanky & Our Gang,” came out with a song called, “Like To Get To Know You.” I was pretty young when the song was released but I remember the chorus and it’s a great lead-in for this week’s blog. When it comes to collecting antique, western vehicles, many folks are justifiably proud of the history in their collection. However, quite a few are unfamiliar with even the most basic details affiliated with a particular set of wheels. 

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Wagons from every era were used for farming, hauling, and travel.


Like the song I mentioned, I’m always curious as to what a vehicle will tell me. I get pretty focused as I truly want to ‘get to know them.’ To that point, have you ever asked yourself how much you really know about your antique wagon or stage? If you’re like some, you may know very little of the total history of the vehicle. Worse yet, you may feel there’s nothing more that can be uncovered. The good news is that there is almost always more that can be learned about any antique transport. Ultimately, the provenance of your period wagon or stage is directly connected to all the parts and pieces of its history and make-up. Those details are what build the stories you share with others and those stories can literally ignite interest, intrigue,opportunity, and resale value. If you’re lucky enough to have a vehicle that hasn’t been tampered with by modern hands, there may be some especially surprising finds waiting.


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Original vehicles have a tremendous amount to say.

As you look at your pride and joy, believe it or not, some of the ‘extra’ information about it may be resting right under your nose and be fairly easily accessed. An area that’s always good to document centers around the measurements and specifications of the piece. Many of these particulars can help highlight the maker, purpose, and designed abilities of the vehicle. Below are a handful of stats from original condition wagons that provide additional personality to these pieces from the past...


1.     Wheel Track – Measuring the track of the wheels is relatively easy but can be challenging if the skeins and hub boxings are heavily worn or if the wheel, itself, has begun to lose its shape. As a result, I usually measure the track on both the front and rear wheels to confirm I have the dimension correct. So how do you do that? Track is generally measured from the center of one wheel to the center of the opposite wheel. One of the easiest ways to gather this info is to stretch your tape measure from the outside of of one wheel (at the ground) to the inside of the opposite wheel. This will give you the track width. Because early automobiles had a 56-inch track, many wagons from the teens and twenties will also have this wheel width. However, a 56-inch track does not guarantee that the vehicle was built in that time period. There are a wealth of things to consider when determining age. As a general rule, wider tracks, especially 60-inches and more were created for added stability as well as use in uneven and unimproved terrain.

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Wheel track and ground clearance were important considerations in the 1800s.

2.     Wooden axle skein type – Period ‘dead-axle’ wagons typically employed either iron, steel, or wooden axles and there are multiple variations of each type. When looking at wooden axles, the types of skeins on the ends were generally either cast skeins, steel extension skeins, or iron clouts. It’s possible to gather different info from each type of skein. While it can take some study, there are details about age, use, maker, and patent backgrounds that can sometimes be gathered as well. 


 3.    Skein size – Generally, a skein (cast or steel) will have several measurements that define it. One of the most important is the opening/bell of the skein that receives the wood from the axle. As a basic rule, the larger the opening of the skein, the more weight the wagon is designed to carry.  Sometimes the reach plate on a wagon can give you clues to these details, but may not call it out specifically. There may not be any numeric markings on the skein, or the markings may be a general classification. For instance, it’s fairly common for many makers to use a single digit, let’s say ‘3’, to refer to all skeins in a 3-inch range. That would include 3, 3 ¼, 3 ½, and 3 ¾-inch skeins. Each of these sizes is engineered for different load capacities. Additionally, many makers painted or stamped these numbers into other parts of the wagon as well. As a result, it’s not unusual to find this info on the inner felloes, axles, bolsters, wheels, sandboard, or other areas.


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This period illustration shows a steel extension skein.


4.     Skein length – Similar to the opening of the skein, the running surface length can also be an indicator of the type of loads the wagon was built to haul. Smaller lengths, such as 9-inches or less, would be considered a lighter weight wagon and not generally have been used for the heavier weight classes of freighters and larger farm wagons.



 5.    Ground clearance/Wheel heights – Measuring this statistic is primarily helpful when looking at older pieces. It’s common for lower wheeled twentieth-century farm wagons to carry 16 to 20-inches of ground clearance while some from the 1800’s (especially earlier 19th century) have taller wheels and can stand on a platform with well over two feet of clearance between the axle and ground. A primary reason for the greater height in many older pieces is that most terrain was unimproved and many trails could be a near-bottomless-pit at times. As time progressed, wagons became more of a utility vehicle, often being limited to farm trailer uses. 



6.     Unique features – Many antique pieces include accessories, patented features, custom additions, and other traits that are easily overlooked and undervalued. Knowing what and where to look as well as how to interpret different and distinctive elements can open up a world of insight into a particular set of wheels.


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This period Bain wagon contains clues to its date of manufacture but it takes some serious detective work to figure it out.


Ultimately, there are dozens of seemingly hidden details that can help with brand identification, time frame of manufacture, purposed design, historic intrigue, and the enhancement of value. In addition to helping flesh out the history of a set of wheels, the characteristics above, as well as others, maybe helpful for insurance, security, and display interpretations as well.

If you’d like to learn more about the unknown history in your vehicle, drop us an email. As curators of America’s largest private collection of western vehicle history, we’d enjoy helping you uncover all that your antique wagon or stage is saying.

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