The Conestoga wagon, the prairie schooner and the farm wagon have all helped to make United States history as our adventurous ancestors traveled west to new homes, bringing their supplies and family possessions aboard wagons of many styles.
According to information provided by the Conestoga Area Historical Society near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the first historical record of the Conestoga wagon was written in 1717. the heavy, sturdy wagon was built slowly in local shops, a smaller version of the large freight wagons that were used later on the western trails. The smaller size made it simpler to travel in the heavily wooded part of Pennsylvania. A trip to the city of Philadelphia took several days with a large load of furs and supplies.
To keep the load from shifting on rough terrain and hills, the box of the Conestoga was bowed, very different than the flat bottom of the farm wagon. Many versions of the covered wagon were later called "Prairie Schooners" because the white "bonnets" resembled a sailing ship as the wagon traveled the high grass of the prairie.
The larger version of the Conestoga, built to hold 5,000 pounds, was towed by several teams, or yokes, of horses, mules or oxen, the extreme weight being very hard on the animals. Oxen were found to be the slowest, but the strongest, and were favored by many of the pioneers. A few pioneers who could afford the price, and who traveled on improved trails, owned the larger Conestoga-style wagon.
From the histories and journals written by south Lake County pioneers, we find that the majority of our ancestors traveled from the east with a covered farm wagon, the box only three feet by ten feet, with little room for supplies or members of the family, who were forced to walk most of the way. The cover, or bonnet, was made of either a home-spun fabric or canvas, stretched over five or six bows made of available hard wood such as hickory, soaked and bent to shape. Unlike the ends of the Conestoga wagon, the ends of the farm wagon were straight.
The pioneers on the trail often slept in, or under, their wagons or under a canvas lean-to nearby.
When the colonies began their western expansion in the 1700's, wagons were being made in small shops in the east, one wagon per week. For iron work, wagons were taken nearby to a blacksmith to install the iron "tires." In later years, the wagons were constructed in one place, and when sales and production increased, companies claimed to give speedier delivery.
A western inventor attempted for several years to build a successful "wind wagon," a special wagon fitted with sails. He finally succeeded in getting his "ship" to sail across the prairie, but only for a few minutes until it crashed amid the rocks.
The wagons of the Mormons traveling to Salt Lake City, Utah, were really two-wheeled handcarts, covered and pulled by the travelers themselves. Thousands of handcarts made it to the final destination near the Great Salt Lake in 1847-48.
The Studebaker Brothers Wagon Company of South Bend, which sold their first wagon in 1852 for $175, in later years claimed to make a wagon every seven minutes, with their largest contract signed in 1875.
At the time of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the company was awarded large contracts to make artillery caissons and freight wagons by the United States government. For one order, 500 vehicles were built and delivered in three days.
After the railroads were extended as far as St. Louis, many of the larger companies were shipping hundreds of wagons to St. Louis, where they were purchased by those traveling the long trails to seek their fortunes in the far west.
In 1904 the Fort Smith Wagon Company of Arkansas built 10,000 wagons.
Some of the early wagon builders and the years they were founded: J. Murphy Wagon Co.--1826; Mitchell Co.--1834; Newton Co.--1838; Swartweut and Hoffman--1839; Bain Co.--1840; Luedinghaus & Espenschied--1843; Peter Schuttler--1843; Jonah Case--1845; J.G. Blythe--1846; Studebaker Bros.--1852; John Deere--1854; Rock Island Plow and Wagon Co.--1855; Charter Oak-Joel Tourney Co.--1856; Weber-Damme--1861; Fish Brothers-- 1862; Springfield Co.--1873; Flint Co.--1882; Owensboro Co.--1883; Fort Smith--1903; and Northwestern Co.--1908. A few of the companies built wagons under the labels of well-known implement firms.
The Jerry Kenney Implement Company of Lowell was one of the earliest dealers for the Weber wagon, advertising with the Weber name painted on a huge sign on the frame building that once stood across the creek from Lowell's new Legion Park.
On the west side of town blacksmith William Tramm also had a large sign advertising the Peter Schuttler wagon. Tramm's shop was in the building now occupied by the Belei Woodworking Company.
Across the street, at the site of the present Zuni's Restaurant, blacksmith John Miller was selling Studebaker wagons. He went on to sell Studebaker automobiles, and in later years sold Fords and Fordson tractors. Clark Leary also advertised the Studebaker wagon in an early 1900 edition of The Lowell Tribune.
Emil Harding, founder of Hardings, Inc. of Lowell, sold John Deere products in his old Mill Street building during the 1920's.
Charles Bisig built and repaired wagons in his shop, located years ago over the creek east of the present Sidetrack Saloon and west of Bernie Beckman's blacksmith shop, where the iron rims were applied to the wagon wheels.
Many farmers ordered their wagons from catalogs, including that of Sears, Roebuck & Co., who advertised the "Famous Sears Farm Wagon" in their 1902 catalog, featured at the low price of $39.70, with brakes extra at $2.50. Like most of the early farm wagons, the box of that Sears model measured 10 feet by 3 feet, 6 inches. Their grocery wagon was priced at $59.85, a rural mail delivery wagon at $56.90, a milk wagon for less than $60.00, and buggies of all kinds from $22.35 to $34.95. White duck canvas bonnets were available in several sizes to make a covered wagon for $8.00 or less.
Highly prized, as a modern pick-up truck might be, farm wagons were proud possessions of the settlers and were integral to the country's history when the prairie was without fences as far as the eye could see. They were on the trails with the tears and laughter, the hardships and successes, and the sunrises and sunsets by the campfire. They were with our pioneer ancestors when they left their homes in the East to seek a new adventure in south Lake County and westward.
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