For me, chasing America’s western,wheeled history never gets old. Thesubject is too deep with too many unanswered questions and even more‘treasures’ still to be uncovered. Everyday is an opportunity to rescue a lost part of our past.
As I’ve shared before, there are anumber of legendary wagon brands that, for all practical purposes, have justdisappeared. I’m talkin’ gone… history…vanished… vamoosed. Making things evenmore incredible is the fact that none of these companies were fly-by-nightshort-timers. These were brands thatexisted for decades. Some built vehiclesfor as much as three-quarters of a century! In a way, it’s a little like the lost colony of Roanoke in NorthCarolina. It’s somewhat of a mystery asto why no actual vehicles from these brands have ever come to light.
Undaunted, I (and others I know) stilllook daily for any signs of early 19th century wagon brands... major names likeEspenschied, Murphy, Jackson, Kansas, Caldwell, Whitewater, Star, LaBelle, andCoquillard deserve more of a visual legacy than a few rough illustrations fromthe time. Why? Because each of these brands (and others)were the real pioneers in America’s first transportation industry. Similarly, each shares an amazing history ofquality and was repeatedly listed by early voices as being among the very Best in the West.
Fortunately, vigilance has a way ofpaying off. Over the years, we’ve beenable to uncover a host of materials, as well as a few of these period vehicles,just by paying attention to details and connecting the dots. As an example, not long ago, I came across anold photo of a business in Topeka, Kansas. From the people and vehicles in the frozen frame to the buildings andsignage, there was a lot going on in the image. As I studied the original sepia-toned details, I noticed a largepromotional sign for Jackson Wagons in the background. Looking closer, one of the wagons had thename ‘Jackson Common Sense’ painted on it. It was a revelation for me in that I’d never heard of Jackson wagonsreferred to in that way. Was this thesame company out of Jackson, Michigan? After doing a little detective work, it turns out that, “Yep,” itwas. A little more research helped menarrow down the date of the photo to a timeframe between 1876 and 1881.
Why is this important to anyone otherthan myself? There are several reasonsthat any western buff, wagon collector, or vehicle historian should takenote. First, during America’s massmigrations west, Jackson is one of the more legendary brands and is oftenlisted among the favorites – even among freighters. Second, as broad as the world-wide-web is,try to find an actual photo of an early Jackson wagon. Go ahead. I’ll wait…
|This store window sign promoting Jackson Wagons is a rare survivor. It’s colored with reflective dots for added visibility at night.
Okay. You back? Pretty slim pickens,huh? Yes, you likely ran across someliterature from the late 1800’s but did any of it carry the 1870’s and earlierlook of the brand? Even rarer will bethe discovery of almost any photos of this brand. The same phenomenon exists with wagons builtby Joseph Murphy, Louis Espenschied, Alexander Caldwell, Augustine Cooper, and manymore – in fact, finding any photo showing a wagon still emblazoned with itsclearly-labeled brand taken at or before the year 1880 is a tall order.
So, back to why this is important… I think I was at the third point – How canwe, as stewards of America’s western history, not know more about the vehiclesthat made the trek west possible? By thesame token, how can any story of the West be fully told (at least correctly)without including these amazing wheels of commerce and competition? Fourth – How many of these legendary westernwheels are still out there and, fifth, how can we recognize them withoutprimary source documentation like these photos?
Ultimately, that’s what keeps me focusedand intrigued by this subject. It’simpossible to always know what’s around the next corner – but, when those lostgems of history do show up, it can be pretty exciting as each one provides evenmore understanding of not just how the west was won but who did it. So, keep your eyes peeled and if you shouldhappen to run across a heavily weathered, beaten down Jackson, don’t be afraidto gather it up and take it home. Nomatter the condition, any of these relics confirmed to be from the 1870’s and‘80’s are extremely rare parts from an internationally renowned past. As the folks building wagons in Jackson,Michigan might have said, “It’s just good Common Sense!”
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