Recognizing Originality in Early Wagons

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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In last week’s blog, I featured a numberof visual highlights from Tom and Betty Watt’s antique vehicle auction in Colorado. It was a great experience to be surrounded by such a strong collectionand good folks from all parts of the country. What I didn’t have time to mention last week were the numerous wagon questionsposed to me while at the sale.  It’s ascenario that’s always a welcome exchange. I enjoy seeing strong interest in these wheels as well as theopportunity to pass along early vehicle insights.  In truth, the questions also have a way ofmaking me stronger in the subject.  Theyhelp keep me on task and more studied. That said, if I don’t know something, I’ll say so.  After all, even after intensely researchingthis subject for the better part of a quarter century, there’s one thing Idefinitely do know – I don’t know it all. The subject is so large that there will always be more waiting to bediscovered and understood.  That said, ifI’m stumped on a point, the curiosity factor tends to bug me until I’ve dugdeep enough to learn more. 

One of the most commonly-asked questionsI receive goes along the lines of, “How do you know what’s original on an oldwagon?”  It’s a great inquiry that can beanswered quickly or with a much more detailed reply – depending on the level ofinterest.  Simply put, we recognizeoriginality by continually and meticulously studying originality.  While that may sound like a frivolous play onwords, the reality is that it’s dead-on accurate.  Consider this – how do U.S. Treasuryofficials come to understand whether a piece of currency is counterfeit or thegenuine article?  A significant part ofthe answer is that the agents become so close to and familiar with the originalthat anything less is immediately recognized as suspect.  That’s the exact focus I’ve had for decades.  It’s also the reason I’ve backed away fromsome purchases for our collection.  Therewere just too many elements in the vehicle’s fit, finish, and features thatweren’t right.  

From the start, this subject has proddedme to always want to know more.  In fact,it can still absorb the vast majority of my extracurricular time.  It was the same story in those early days asI concentrated on soaking up as much knowledge as possible.  Simultaneously, the collecting efforts grewwith first one, then two, then dozens, then hundreds, and now literally thousandsof period artifacts.  Along the way,something began to happen.  All those originalcatalogs, flyers, ledgers, photos, and other promotional pieces were gettingstored in my recall.  It became easier torecognize more and more of the distinctive design features promoted by earlybuilders.  The old makers were tutoringme and the seeds of brand identification were taking root.  As the historic images and literature beganto accumulate, I started noticing industry trends as well as the implementationof patents and the evolutionary changes in brands.  Likewise, these revelations were pointing to whodid what and when – all of it being vital to the process of determining timeframesof manufacture and additional provenance. Ultimately, it’s important to remember that every wooden wagon andwestern vehicle is unique.  Even if two vehiclesof the same brand are side by side, there will be differences.  Some of those variations will be reflected indifferent ages and use patterns while others may be indicative of a regionalstyle of vehicle, a different set of features and accessories, or some other attribute.

Most of these points will be of minimalimportance if all someone is only looking for is a good, solid set of wheelsfor driving or, perhaps, a static display. That said, if you’re looking for something that has the best chance of trulystanding out in a crowd and growing in value over the years, you will have toconsider the subject of originality.  Thebest way to learn is to dive in.  Askquestions.  Be discerning.  Be thorough. Be patient and learn to recognize what distinguishes the scarcest pieces– those high quality, brand-central survivors that seldom come along.  A word of caution... this is not a subjectthat can be mastered overnight.  So,settle in and start the learning process. Dissect every piece you see, observing differences and noting anythingthat appears to be a modern addition.  Atthe end of the day, it’s hard for buyer’s remorse to creep into our thoughts ifwe’ve done our homework, avoid getting in a hurry, and understand exactly whatwe want to acquire. 

As for me, when I look at these oldtransports in an auction or private setting, I automatically go into evaluationmode; looking for anything that doesn’t measure up.  It might be a missing part, amalgamation ofparts, contemporary adaptation, veiled weakness, or some other flaw.  Finding rolling works of art with the fewest imperfectionsand strongest documented provenance is a priority in my quest.  Oh, and by the way, you’ll never find atotally perfect piece.  Most of thesevehicles are either near or over a century in age.  Things happen over the decades that make ithard to remain pristine.  Every time Ilook in the mirror at my thinning head of hair, I recognize that truth.  Reinforcing that point... one of the prizedpieces in our collection is a nineteenth century Cooper brand wagon.  It’s farfrom being perfect, has a lot of wear issues, and even a few sad-looking felloes.  All in all, though, those details are prettycommon among many survivors.  What’sattractive to me is not only the legendary brand but the age of the piece andthe design features shown.  This Cooperis a significant find from a time when the West was still wild.  As such, it’s a scarce set of wheels to findin any condition.      

While most folks will tend to look at avehicle as a whole and ignore the individual parts, my tendency is to go forthe jugular.  In other words, I’velearned to hone in on specific details as well as any inconsistent elements.  Here’s a couple points of reference – do allof the bolster standards match?  Whatabout the end gates?  Are they all thereand matching?  How about the front andrear portions of the running gear?  Arethey consistent with the brand? Sometimes a sizeable number of different sections from differentvehicles wind up together, creating a jumbled hodgepodge of parts.  Evaluation tips like these and many more areamong the details I’m happy to help with. On other points, I’m less transparent with what becomes publicknowledge.  Why?  Well, over the years, I’ve seen a number ofattempts to place perception ahead of reality. In fact, as many of these old wheels have become even more scarce (andvaluable), the temptation to misrepresent something is hard for someunscrupulous souls to resist.  How do Iknow this?  Believe it or not, some ofthem have been bold enough to tell me they’re confident that they can put oneover on anyone.  For some, this game ofcat and mouse is just that – a game.  Forme, it’s as serious as any effort dedicated to preserving the integrity ofauthentic history while maintaining trustworthy investments.  Fortunately, most people are honest but, it’sa reminder of the importance of working with quality, well-establishedfolks.    

Sometimes it can be difficult to confirmoriginality without sufficient primary source materials or extensive experience.  Again, it’s why we’ve assembled so muchbackground on these vintage vehicles.   Even so, there are some important general guidelinesthat can help all of us avoid purchase pitfalls when reviewing a set of wheels... 

Non-SupportedWord-of-Mouth Provenance – Like many readers of this blog, Iregularly hear stories about how a particular vehicle was used by such and suchperson or traveled West during a certain time frame.  While the statements might be true, in orderfor it to have pertinence to collectors, there must be primary sourcedocumentation such as a photo, news article, signed affidavit from the period, orsome other document bringing clear corroboration and certification to astatement.  This sort of recordedverification is valuable as it helps highlight the distinctive personality andstory behind a set of wheels.  To thatpoint, I once told a collector that I possessed the full ownership records of awagon in his collection.  I had onceowned the piece and would have been happy to have given him thatinformation.  Regrettably, he had nointerest in where the wagon had been, how it had been used, how much it hadsold for at different times in its life, who had owned it, and their associatedcontact information.  It’s like sayingI’m not interested in the personality that separates this vehicle fromanother.  Truthfully, that kind of detailis hard to come by and important to have – if you can get it.

Non-SupportedStatements of Absolutes – We have to be very careful when usingwords like ‘always’ and ‘never’ to describe what a particular maker did ordidn’t do.  When a statement can’t beobjectively supported, it can create confusion. I once heard someone say that the well-known Peter Schuttler farm wagondesign was never changed throughout its history.  It’s not a true statement.  There were a number of changes and it’s onemore reason to explore every era of a maker’s history.

Brand IdentificationBased on Minimal Points of Reference – We live in a society thattends to want everything quick.  We don’twant to wait for anything.  When it comesto early vehicle identification, the desire for hasty results is an impetuoustemptation that can easily land you in a pool of regret.  Nonetheless, as a researcher, historian, andconsultant, I regularly run into folks wanting me to identify a piece based onone or two features.  It’s not somethingI do because there are too many opportunities to jump to conclusions with aninaccurate assessment.  The individualparts and the resulting sum of the whole will always be the most accurate wayto conclusively identify a maker. 

UnsupportableTimeframes of Manufacture – Over the years, I’ve heard countlessclaims related to dates; an 1870 this, 1880 that, or even a pre-Civil Warcreation claim.  One of the moreprevalent manufacturing date assertions I’ve heard is that of a purportedly 1880’s-eraJohn Deere wagon.  Before getting intothe details of why this type of statement is suspect, I have often asked folkshow such a date was determined.  In everyinstance, the date was a ‘best guess’ with no objective use of primary sources inthe conclusion.  Many times, thesesuppositions are innocently made.  Nonetheless,they are far from the truth.  As for JohnDeere-branded wagons (including John Deere Triumph), they were not marketeduntil after the purchase of the Moline Wagon Company in 1910.  These types of claims can often be debunkedwith just a little research to determine when a company started buildingwagons.  For the record, there were anumber of wagon companies with ‘establishment dates’ that do not coincide withthe time when their first wagons were built. Birdsell is a good example.  Thecompany traced its beginnings to 1855 but they didn’t build their first farmwagon until 1887.

Mixed elementswithin a running gear or box – Not long ago, I was reviewing somewagons in a museum.  One, in particular,caught my eye.  Not because it was anoutstanding survivor but, rather, because it was a poor reflection of what itwas set up to represent.  It was supposedto be an early emigrant wagon.  Instead,it was a mixture of multiple wagon brands woven into a wide array of modern (non-period)adaptations.  My heart sank as these arethe places where genuine history is supposed to be of foremost concern.  It’s our opportunity to reach the masses withreality.  After all, we owe it toourselves and future generations to do our best to get the story right.  If not, what’s the reason for ourefforts?    

If I could only emphasize one point in this week’s blog, I’d try to relay how important it is to really getto know a piece before you buy it.  Notonly is it good business sense but it can add lasting appreciation for you aswell as subsequent owners.   

America’s first transportation industry andthe vehicles built during that time are not only the historical backbone ofthis country’s amazing growth but they also represent tremendous personalstruggle, achievement, freedom, and opportunity.  The old master craftsmen were inextricablyconnected to immigration into this land as well as exportation intoothers.  Likewise, the subject highlightsthe study of math, science, geography, forestry, construction, manufacturingefficiencies, free enterprise, marketing, mining, the military, and well, justabout any part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries you can imagine.  Talk about a subject with near endlessstories!  And they’re all wrapped up in aframe of wood, metal, and paint – just waiting for you to take a closerlook.  The American story and the West,in particular, are about as original as you can get.  If originality is not among your prioritieswhen collecting, it will be tough to experience the most that these investmentscan provide.  So, build your knowledgebase, get help when you need it, and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing exactlywhat surrounds you. 

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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