Viewing History Through Early Wheels

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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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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Every day we come across history and,often, those encounters are taken for granted or missed altogether.  When that happens, we all lose.  We lose a richness and depth of culture aswell as pieces of history that can never be replaced.  So prevalent is transportation history inAmerican society that we continue to see remnants of it in the words andphrases we use as well as in interstate commerce. 

To that point, our Wheels That Won The West® Archives aren’t just devoted tocollecting and storing history but to uncovering and sharing it.  (And congrats to all of you reading this thatdo the same.  From school visits andhistorical presentations to published works and special events, your work is avaluable and essential part of preserving our past)  Likewise, we’re committed to digging for anddiscovering new details that help us better appreciate our first transportationindustry.  Understanding thoseall-but-lost inner workings of the old trade have a way of growing our respectfor the period vehicles while allowing us to pass along a more vivid heritageto future generations.  It’s a point thatwas recently reinforced to me through some of our research. 

Many are likely aware of a wagon brandby the name of Buerkens.  The company waslocated in Pella, Iowa and dates its beginnings to the mid-1860’s.  Not long after moving to Pella fromBurlington, Iowa, it seems the firm’s founder, Barney Buerkens, struck up adeal with James Sexton.  At the time,Sexton was a blacksmith and Buerkens needed someone to help fabricate themetalwork for his wagons.  As time wenton, Mr. Sexton became something of an inventor with at least six patentsawarded to him between 1869 and 1880.  Hewas even purported to have built the first bicycle in Iowa during the 1860’s.

This Sexton brake ratchet image was part of an improved patent application filed in 1879.  The original concept was submitted by J.B. Sexton in 1876.
Two of the patents awarded to J.B.Sexton dealt with a wagon brake lever that was commonly referred to as theSexton or Pella brake ratchet.  Thedesign dates to as early as the mid 1870’s and was sold by the thousands uponthousands.  The unique part of theconfiguration was that, instead of a ratchet and pawl being located on top ofthe brake bracket, it was on the bottom, below the pivot point.  This adjustable, self-locking design was easyto operate, allowing the brake to maintain consistent pressure without constantoversight and correction.  The design wasso prevalent that it’s still fairly common to run across them on antique wagonstoday.

So, other than locating the information,how does all of this tie into our files? As many know, just over a decade ago, we introduced a limited editionprint entitled, “Making Tracks.”  While preparing materials for the creation ofthe print, we reviewed a considerable number of early sales pieces for wagonsand decided to include a few of the more popular brake ratchet designs as partof the artwork.  Among the brake conceptsshown in the print is the Sexton.  At thetime, I didn’t know that the inventor of the ratchet was once a partner ofsorts in the production of Buerkens wagons. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see how so much history continues tooverlap.  As we might say today – ‘It’s asmall world.’

This exclusive, limited edition print features wagon-making gear and heavy vehicle accessories common in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
For the record, identifying a particularbrake style on a wagon does not necessarily tell us anything about the wagon –brand identity or otherwise.  Why?  Because these parts were (and still are)often re-purposed and moved to vehicles they did not originate with.  Additionally, most of the brakes used onearly wagons were not proprietary designs. In other words, the configurations were not necessarily exclusive to aparticular brand.  That said, “sometimes”a brake can be helpful in pinpointing details associated with a specificvehicle.  Even so, it often requires agood bit of knowledge about the vehicle’s timeframe of manufacture as well asother considerations to know what any element on these works is actuallysaying. 
One thing's for sure, when you see aproper noun added as a descriptive to an early vehicle feature, it’s time totake note as there is more rich history just waiting to be shared.  Just like the "Sexton" brake, whether you’re talking about Sandage skeins,Concord coaches, Oregon brakes, or Sarven, Warner, or Archibald hubs, there area number of early vehicle features named after their inventors or locations oforigin.  Understanding that truth canhelp lead to the discovery of even more history while reinforcing the rich pastcarried by an old set of wheels.  

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.
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