Friday, 1 August 2014

Conestoga Wagon

Conestoga wagon (1883), painting by Newbold Hough Trotter
Pennsylvania State Museum (photograph Ad Meskens)
After I had bought the so-called "Conestoga Wagon" from Perry Miniatures (AW 192) I started to investigate in the Internet about this vehicle.
Historical photo of a Conestoga wagon with team of six horses and the wagoner (1910).
First of all I learned that a Conestoga Wagon was not just a "covered wagon" and not at all identical with the "prairie schooner" of the 19th century - it was, indeed, a heavy overland cargo vehicle that originated around 1754, and was probably introduced by Mennonite German settlers in the Conestoga Valley in Pennsylvania. The wagon was conceived for transporting heavy loads in hilly or even mountanious regions. For this purpose the vehicle was cleverly built: Its floor curved boat-like upwards at the front and rear ends to prevent the load from shifting when travelling up or down hill. It had a tailgate for loading. The construction was stout to withstand the stony and bad roads, actually it was a heavy vehicle with lots of iron reinforcements, normally pulled by two to three pairs of horses. The wheels were large so the wagon could pass over streams without getting the products inside wet. Furthermore the wagon could pass over stumps in the roads or large rocks, because roads were poor in those days.
The traditional colouring was a light but brillant blue verging on peacock blue for the body, vermillion red for the wheels and undercarriage, and white for the top made of canvas, sailcloth, or homespun hemp . All iron work was painted black.

Historical Conestoga Wagon at a museum display (with brake lever pointing forward).
The Conestoga Horses were a special breed of originally black draft horses, perhaps the offspring of the black cart horses common in England. They were massively built, weighed about 1800 pounds and stood between sixteen and seventeen hands at the withers (about 170 centimetres). They had no long hair beneath the fetlocks (the roads were often muddy!), and no long tails (to avoid matting).
Earliest drawing of a Connestoga horse.
The wagoner drove the team with a sigle rein, the "jerk line", running to the lead horse (the first on the left). A right turn would be signalled to the horses by giving several short jerks of the line and shouting "Gee!", a left turn by a steady pull on the line and calling "Haw!". The teamster either walked along-side the wagon, or he rode on the wheel-horse (the horse on the left side directly in front of the wagon), or he could pull out the "lazy board" which was fastened beneath the wagon bed beweeen the wheels on the left side, and sit on it. But then he was in danger of being regarded a lazy wagoner!
A historical photo, the wagoner riding the wheel horse, and his assistant sitting on the lazy board.
From this position he or his assistant could also work the brakes on the rear wheels by pulling the brake lever you can recognize at the left side of the wagon. At this period the Conestoga wagon was the only vehicle with brakes! On long slopes a brake chain could be applied which then barred the rear wheels.
One problem seems to be that in some pictures the brake lever points forward, in others backward. But if you have a look at the construction of the brake this is no real problem: The wagoner could fix the lever to the brake rocker bar either way, and operate the brake either from the lazy board or from the rear of the wagon (if he had an assistant).
Brake mechanism seen from above.
Brake lever worked from the rear of the wagon.

Brake lever worked from the side of the wagon.
Each horse wore an arch on its hame to which a number of bells were fastened. The lead team had five bells, the middle team four, and the rear team three bells. These bells annonced that the heavy transport was coming, and that people and lifestock had better get out of the way. However, bells were not always used on long distance travel, e.g. on the National Road connecting Baltimore and Frederic Maryland with Wheeling West Virginia.
The wagon carried some equipment: a feed box to feed the horses (fastened to the rear), a bucket to water the animals, an axe to clear the road in case any newly fallen trees blocked it, a grease bucket to grease the wheels, a jack for removing the wheels, and a tool box for small repairs.
Conestoga wagon in the Smithonian National Museum of American History (with brake lever pointing backward).
Having a look at my Perry model, I realized that it actually has some flaws, only some of which I could repair. It must be said, however, that re-measuring prompted that the wagon had the right size  - the average original wagon measuring 18 ft. long, 11 ft. high, and 4 ft. wide. However the bottom of the wagon body is not curved (see the exhibit at the Smithonian National Museum). So the general impression of the vehicle is not quite correct. This can't be remedied.
And then I realized that the brake on the right side was broken off, and the part not contained in the parcel. It took me some filing and scratching to produce a new brake from a bit of plastic sprew I had fortunately kept in my material box.
Adding the lazy board cut of balsa wood didn't prove too difficult. The brake lever took some more pains. I constructed it from brass wire by adding some material by welding.
Wagon model with the added parts.

The brake lever under construction.
Both parts could easily have been included in the original box, I think (I must admit that I prefer real models to play-things).
The horses of the model are not equipped with bells. Couldn't the producer have added these parts as well? Thast would have saved me some pains. However, being the perfectionist that I am, I made four sets of 3 and 4 bells on arches from grey stuff and thin wire and glued them to the hames. They are a bit out of proportion, but the idea is there.
Draft-horse with bells added (not yet completely painted).
The finished model does not look too bad, after all. And who knows all the details (I didn't myself before I started researching).
The missing buckets I bought from a ship-building model shop. They turned out to be a bit small, at least the water bucket. Perhaps I will change it later for a bigger specimen. The axe will be added later when I have been able to procure one. But that isn't absolutely necessary, as it was fastened to the the hounds and is hardly visible.
"I'll be there with bells on!"


Simmy said...

beautiful creation, congratulations on the job!

Anonymous said...

this is one more time a excellent job. I wish I had a bit of your talent and inspiration ;-).