When I was a young boy, my parents ran asmall grocery store and gas station out in the country. Back then, the location was somewhat remoteand the patrons were made up of locals as well as a steady stream of touristsand travelers. Being friendly and service-minded,my folks had a sign on the exterior of the little shotgun style building thatread, “Lost? Inquire Inside.” It brought them more traffic while helpingothers gain clearer direction to their destination. Built in the 1930’s, the old store is stillthere but today it’s used as a storage building. I’m fortunate to have some of the old signsfrom the store and, yes, the “Lost” sign is among my treasures. Ironically, in my studies of America’s earlytransportation industry, I’m still hanging out a shingle for the lost. In this case, it’s lost wagons and westernvehicles.
|This sign helped countless people find their destinations. Today, ultra-rare materials in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives are doing the same thing for collectors of early wood-wheeled vehicles.
Over the years, I’ve shared a lot ofdetails related to old wagons in this blog. It’s hard, though, to write about yesterday’s most significant wheelswithout giving due credit to a number of brands that are noticeably absenttoday. These are the ghost wheels of theWest. They were prominent brands onceseen regularly on western trails but are almost non-existent today.
Legendary names like Wilson, Childs& Company… Espenschied… LaBelle… Fish Brothers… Murphy…Luedinghaus… Jackson… Coquillard… Kansas or Caldwell… and Cooperplied the frontier throughout the 1800’s. They hauled freight, ore, emigrants, farmers,ranchers, miners, businessmen, and the military as well as the hopes, dreams,and future of a young nation. Hundredsof thousands of vehicles were produced by these ten brands during theiroperating years. So where are they today? To be sure, there are a few examples of somestill resting quietly in public and private collections – but very few. They are as scarce as water in a desert. So scarce that, in two decades of diligentsearching, the closest I’ve come to some early brands like LaBelle,Espenschied, or Coquillard is a handful of old photos and promotionalliterature. The Kansas ManufacturingCompany which also produced the Caldwell brand wagon is another goodexample. Established in 1874, the firmbuilt countless wagons including military escort wagons, six horse army wagons,ambulances, Dougherty wagons, farm, freight, and other spring wagons. Yet, other than a few mentions in periodliterature and a bit more in contemporary publications like Mark Gardner’s,“Wagons for the Santa Fe Trade,” the reminders of this company’s legendaryheritage are in short supply. There is asurviving Dougherty wagon made by the company. It’s housed in the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum in Cheyenne,Wyoming.
Overall, the subject of lost wagonbrands continues to harbor a number of unknowns; mysteries largely responsiblefor the opening of the American West. For a few more years, perhaps, there may still be a chance to save thefew 19th century reminders not yet found. These are the historic connections firmly tied to yesterday that weconstantly search for today. They rolledalongside other well-known makes such as Studebaker, Bain, Mitchell, andSchuttler but, unlike these four iconic brands, many fewer of the other tenlabels appear to have survived. Much ofthe reason lies with the timeframe each company was in existence. Financially healthy firms extending into the20th century tend to have many more surviving examples of their work. As I’ve posted before, though, we’ve seenenough instances of 19th century wagons still being found that it’s verypossible some of these ten brands could yet be uncovered.
|This original pamphlet from the Kansas Manufacturing Company dates to 1877 and may be the earliest surviving material from the company.
So in your travels, stay vigilant. What looks like a rotted old relic mightactually be a legend on wheels just waiting to be discovered. And just like the old “Inquire Inside” sign,we need to look deep inside the designs to recognize the tell-tale signs of themanufacturer’s handiwork. It’s arough, scarcely-traveled road but somewhere the next find is waiting for us tohelp place it back within its rightful part of history.