Put The Brakes On

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Occasionally, I receive emails asking about markings on the brake ratchet of a vehicle.  While many of these ratchets do not have identifying alpha or numeric characters cast into them, many others do and that’s where the questions begin.  Is this the vehicle maker?  Does this information help identify the age of the vehicle?  Was this brake style exclusive to a particular brand?  The quick answer to these questions is ‘no’ as well as ‘yes.’  What I mean is that every situation can be different and without a detailed evaluation, it’s not prudent to make assumptions. 
With that as our backdrop, there are a few things we can generally address in the limited space of this blog post.  From the time the first brake ratchet was bolted to a wagon sideboard, there have been many different styles created and used.  By the late 1800’s and throughout the early 1900’s, a general consolidation of side board ratchet types took place – at least with most major makers.  Our “Making Tracks” limited edition print (offered on our website) includes an overview of several primary brake ratchet styles. 
Sometimes, it’s assumed that the name on the brake is the actual brake ratchet type.  To my point in the first paragraph above – this can be true.  More often, though, a name cast into a wagon’s brake ratchet will refer to the maker of the part itself.  If all this seems confusing, consider this as well… There was a major manufacturer of brake ratchets by the name of Geisler located in Muscatine, Iowa.  This firm produced countless pieces of brake hardware for hundreds, if not thousands of wagon builders.  In the process, they often cast their “maker” name into the ratchet face.  Complicating matters more, one of the company’s brake designs was so popular it became commonly referred to as the ‘Geisler.’  So, in this case, the part name and brake maker name were both the same.
Hold on because it can get even more confusing.  Hurlbut, another prominent brake ratchet manufacturer located in Racine, Wisconsin, had a patent on an equally popular style of brake that came to be known as the “Hurlbut.”  Similar to Geisler, Hurlbut also cast their name into the brakes they made.  So, like Geisler, there were many ‘Hurlbut’ brakes with the Hurlbut Manufacturing Company name cast into them.  However, once Hurlbut’s patent had expired on the “Hurbut” design, Geisler also offered the Hurlbut design, and in the process, they cast their name - as manufacturer - into the design commonly referred to as a ‘Hurlbut.’  So, it’s not uncommon today to find a ‘Hurlbut’ brake with the Geisler maker name cast into it.  These simple acts of promotion by Geisler - while understood in their day – are sometimes sufficient to cause confusion as to the correct technical name of the brake design.  Just remember… a Hurlbut’s still a Hurlbut – even if it says it was made by ‘Geisler.’    
Hurlbut brake designs made by both Hurlbut & Geisler Manufacturing companies.
If this hasn’t muddied the waters enough, remind me to discuss the “Studebaker” ratchet sometime.  It was copied and sold to countless makers and, other than mirroring the Studebaker design, it cannot be used to conclusively identify a Studebaker wagon. 
This extremely brief overview of just one brake ratchet design clearly demonstrates the complexities involved when assessing cast markings found on vintage vehicles.  Many makers used the exact same or very similar parts as other builders.  It’s yet another reason why reliable research and authoritative identification requires us to slow down and Put The Brakes On.
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