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Iconic Wagon Wheels of the Old West

Collecting the West — Wagon Wheels Still Tie Us to the Spirit of the West

By Rusty LaGrange, president of Lucerne Valley Museum Assoc.

A wagon wheel is notably an icon of the Old West. You can still find them in antique shops and salvage yards across America. It ties us to the heritage of our early years as the United States opened its doors to go westward. Wagon wheels took us on our journey. The best ones are strong with thick spokes and an iron tire. Even these are getting harder to find today.

Wagon wheels

Hansen Wagon Wheels

 

 

 

 

Nearly every museum with a theme of natural history is bound to have several of these on display — on a vehicle or leaning up against a fence. Out in Lucerne Valley many ranches have several Old West wagons in their yards as honorable piece of history worthy of a glance as friends drive in through the gate.

Museums and Ranches Preserve the Past

Museum logo

Lucerne Valley Museum logo

Our Lucerne Valley Museum logo utilizes two icons – the wagon wheel signifying mine ore hauling and the plow to signify the agricultural roots of our valley – and defines our basic heritage. Without wagons to haul ore, alfalfa, and logs down from Big Bear, most industrial ranches would have had to rely on railroad for commerce.

 

Wagon wheels were designed for every conceivable rolling convenience. Each had specific need and sizes. Hundreds of companies built wagon wheels for hauling heavy loads and spindly ones for fast moving surreys.

The stagecoach set the standard for many travelers because they were built for long distances, larger cargo, and places for the public to sit. It wasn’t the easiest ride but for its time, it was good enough. Some bench seats were padded, some not. Some stages had open sides to allow more air flow during hot rides through even hotter territories. Often times, riders would opt to ride on top to get a breeze and take advantage of the vistas.

Catching a Breeze

The open air for passengers

Riding atop of a stagecoach provided a longer swinging action to the rough ride. Like getting in the back of a bus, the farther you sat from the axles the more energy was disbursed. The ride was cushioned by the leather straps or sling system that held the body to the framework.

Looking at the Details

Next time you look at a stagecoach up close, at a museum or special event, notice the difference in size of the front wheels at 39” tall and 43” for the rear. The differences allowed the tracking of the wheels to run smoother around corners.

Old work wagon

Very old utility wagon in Daggett CA

Farm wagons and drays were the working equipment for a busy ranch. They had to be durable. Most were painted a typical dark blue-green, similar to the hunter green we are familiar with today. The paint on the box, using an oil-base consisting of pigments ground in linseed oil, provided protection and style. Most all farm wagons were painted with bright-colored gears, red, orange, or yellow. The bright colors of the gear and wheels hid dirt better than a dark color, and the style of the day was for work vehicles to be brightly colored. The brilliantly striped gears and bodies of the farm wagon seemed to be on the verge of gaudy or a competition among the many makers to produce the most marketable look. This fact helps collectors today identify the companies that made them. Very few makers marked their names on axles and boxes.

Stagecoaches in films

Our love with the Old West and wagon wheels began long ago

Hollywood film industry continues to be as authentic as possible with historic Westerns, even down to the type and construction of stagecoaches as in the Lonesome Dove series and others like the movie Hidalgo, and the Wells, Fargo Company who regularly takes replicas out to the public for historical events nationally.

Whether the wheels are found on wagons, stagecoaches, buckboard, spring buggy, or Black Moriah funeral coach, they all hold a long and deserving place in our Old West history.

Rusty

Thanx goes to Hansen Wheel and Wagon for keeping these horse-drawn transports still on the ground

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3 Comments

  1. April 4, 2016    

    How interesting! So they had sort of a seat belt system in place back then with the leather strap and sling system?

  2. April 8, 2016    

    I wouldn’t want to have to go up and down to Big Bear in a wagon like they did back then.

  3. April 24, 2016    

    Wagon rides are very rough. I used to wonder why people would choose to walk alongside the wagon rather than ride until the first time I rode in a wagon. I agree with Angie’s comment.

    Aside from the complaints of 21st century residents about 19th century transportation, wagon wheels definitely symbolize a period of time that we often romanticize. One thing I always wondered about was the difference in the size of the wheels. Thanks for explaining it so well.

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