For some, the sight of an old wooden farm wagon is nothing special. Like many things misunderstood, these antique workhorses are often viewed with disinterest and filed away as insignificant relics from an antiquated past. But for those who study these vintage works of art, there’s an appreciation for a sophisticated industry that was not only privy to some of the most historic events and happenings in our country but was also absolutely essential to the growth, development and birth of America as a world power.
Like any business segment, early wagon brands differed in many respects from design and uses to history and age. The industry was massive with tens of thousands of makers and just as many different ways of doing things. When it comes to timeframes of manufacture, most collectors, historians and western vehicle enthusiasts will concur that it’s become increasingly difficult to locate true, nineteenth century factory-built wagons outside of a museum.
It’s an amazing truth especially in light of the fact that hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of wagons were built during the nineteenth century in America. So, when a previously unknown set of wheels from the 1800s comes to light, it not only presents an opportunity to immerse oneself in the can-do spirit of our nation’s roots but also glean scarce information about the early transportation industry in the U.S.
The look of leadership
When I first saw the “White Wagon,” as it’s often called, a number of things intrigued me. First and most obvious, the original coloring and paint patterns on the vehicle are quite different from traditional color schemes. Second, it’s dominated by nineteenth century construction features. Third, the solid, usable condition of the wagon is amazing, considering that it’s almost certainly well in excess of a century in age. Rarely, do we have the opportunity to discover truly unique pieces, but this is clearly an exception to the rule.
The wagon brand is a Gestring (pronounced guess-string). With the factory located on the block between Mound, Broadway and Brooklyn streets in St. Louis, the company’s beginnings date to the mid to late 1850s. Outlasting virtually all of its largest competitors, Gestring’s operations ceased during the mid-1930s. The company is particularly significant since it competed head-to-head with legendary St. Louis wagon makers Joseph Murphy, Louis Espenschied, Henry Luedinghaus, and Weber & Damme, while simultaneously outfitting businesses, ranches, military expeditions and emigrants moving west.
For those familiar with traditional farm wagon designs, the color of this particular Gestring is radically different. Typical wagon boxes from the late 1800s and early 1900s were green with red, orange or yellow gears (undercarriages). The rich paint hues were reinforced with a durable lead base to help withstand the rigors of use and nature’s elements. Close examination of this “white wagon” reveals that it was originally a bone or light cream color. Over time, the lighter pigments have faded and chalked from the pressures of the elements. It’s just one of the reasons wagons were not generally painted in such a way.
So, with lighter pigments often translating to less protection and durability, why would a well-known manufacturer of the day paint a vehicle in such a way? It’s a question that leaves few options as answers and, when combined with other features, it’s obvious the piece was built for a special purpose. The most plausible explanation lies with promotion of the brand itself.
Show wagons, whether built for fairs, expositions, commercial displays or some other promotional event, were generally one-of-a-kind pieces designed to grab the consumer’s eye and interest. Most were sold after the event and very few are known to have survived. While photographs and written descriptions from the late 1800s and early 1900s have preserved a record of some of these special vehicles, getting an up-close glimpse of one is a rare occurrence today.
Fortunately, the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Ind., has two original Studebaker exhibition wagons. One was shown at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia and the other at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Both were used to reinforce the exceptional craftsmanship and leadership touted by the company.
While it’s not known exactly where the white Gestring was first unveiled to the public, the design includes multiple characteristics that would have helped showcase the Gestring brand. Beyond the eye-catching bone-color background, hand-painted florals and agrarian patterns share the box sides with striking chartreuse greens and vivid blue tones. Bright yellow flower centers further tie into the complementary striping to help set this piece well apart from any other heavy farm style wagon. The blue color shades are even carried over into the brake blocks on the gear, yet another variation from traditional techniques.
Elsewhere, the wagon is equipped with St. Louis seat risers. The set of risers are matched in both paint and construction but clearly display an option with reference to how the rear sections could be finished. While one riser shows a sharply angled design outlined by black pinstriping, the other riser is more fluidly curved with the same striping.
Rings on the bolster stakes are also slightly different from front to back. The rearmost rings are forged while the forward stakes are shown with a heavier, cast design. Again, these distinctions are original to the piece and help convey construction options available from the factory. Similar tactics were employed on promotional vehicles by other wagon makers in numerous national expositions, state fairs, and other local events.
Built for another time
A wealth of nineteenth century construction details on this Gestring help set the piece apart from most wagons built in the twentieth century. Detail by detail, period evidence adds up, including square-headed, square-shank nails with almost all hardware hand-forged and hand-cut. A few parts were cast, but the majority were fashioned by hand. Other original features – square-edged tires measuring the same width as the felloes, taller 54-inch rear wheels, greater ground clearance, a wider (62-inch wheel track) a banded reach, through-bolted stay chain hooks and lack of a spreader chain for the box – all collectively point to earlier production styles.
While the boxes of most surviving wagons utilize tongue-and-groove floor boards in the 3-inch category, this Gestring is built with just three square-cut, ultra-wide boards comprising the entire flooring of the box. The boards making up the 43-inch overall width measure 12 inches, 15 inches and 16 inches respectively. Logos and art designs on both the gear and box are hand-painted versus the stenciled patterns of later manufacturing styles. Just below the box, the axles, bolster and sandboard are through-bolted versus the clipped “u-bolt” joinery of many later pieces.
Elsewhere, hand-hewn axles are equipped with the extra strength of steel extension skeins. The skeins actually give us a great starting point in helping determine the earliest possible manufacturing date on this vehicle. While this innovative technology was available in the 1870s, more predominant use can generally be applied to the 1880s and later. The wagon is also equipped with a brake ratchet patented in April 1876, but the year has been deliberately worn down, perhaps indicating the expiration of the patent prior to installation on this wagon.
Other early traits include an overlapping reach or coupling pole banded by a single circle of iron – also a common practice during much of the 1800s. Taller wheels and the wider 62-inch wheel track are equally reminiscent of wagons used prior to the development of well maintained roads.
When dating an early piece, the most authoritative processes rely on examination of multiple features. Numerous indicators suggest this wagon was built between the late 1880s and early 1890s. During that timeframe, yearly agricultural fairs were held in St. Louis, highlighting the latest advancements in agriculture. It’s possible this wagon was shown during one of those annual Expositions.
Further research may one day help uncover more secrets of this Gestring Ghost – a white wagon clearly built to help market the brand while generating word of mouth intrigue and interest in the firm. Incredibly, it’s a promotional tool that was so creatively devised, it’s still hard at work promoting the brand more than a century after it was conceived and built. FC
For more information on the Gestring Wagon Co., its factory and this white promotional wagon, see Mound City Maker in the September 2010 issue of Farm Collector.
David Sneed is a freelance writer, collector, historian, speaker and founder of the Wheels That Won The West® western vehicle archives. Check out his website at wheelsthatwonthewest.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing P.O. Box 1081, Flippin, AR 72634.