Wagons, buggies, surreys & buckboards: Those are the pride and joy of the Higgins family of Meeker, Ohio. Theirs is a fascination with modes of transportation common in the days before Henry Ford put the automobile within the grasp of nearly every family in America. They find and restore vintage horse-drawn conveyances. Rarely will you find a finer collection of such pieces.
Roger Higgins Sr. has always been interested in agricultural items. However, he decided early on that he would not become a collector and restorer of antique farm tractors. Instead, he went further back in time. Long interested in horses and horse-drawn equipment, he focused on that, with one qualifier: He wanted to be able to use any piece of equipment he bought. And that led to restoring early farm wagons.
Creating a chuck wagon
One of his first acquisitions after starting a collection in 1971 was a World War I supply wagon. Put on an auction by the Defense Supply Center, Columbus, Ohio, the wagon was purchased by Ohio farmer Delbert Rush, who stored it high and dry in his haymow. More than 30 years ago, Roger learned of the wagon and began a campaign to persuade Rush to sell. Eventually, he did.
The wagon was in “quite decent” condition, Roger recalls, but needed a lot of tender loving care. He put new running gear under the wagon box and made other modifications. Later, he converted it to a chuck wagon and used it on the Ohio Wagon Train Club’s annual drive through northeast Ohio. He mounted a water barrel on one side and a pantry on the other. Then he and his wife, Darlene, and son, Roger Jr., loaded up their team of Belgians and their wagon joined the train.
Roger and his son are members of the Ohio Wagon Train Club of Holmes County. They also belong to the Black Swamp Driving Club and have traveled extensively through Ohio and to the Horse Park near Lexington, Ky. (See Don Voelker’s article in Farm Collector, May 2008.) Father and son have joined the groups during displays at county fairs, festivals and other events, and regularly use their Arabians to pull vintage wagons and surreys.
Collection offers variety
The Higgins collection currently numbers about 30 pieces, including wagons, buggies, surreys and buckboards. Roger’s latest endeavor is restoration of a Rockaway carriage. The occupant’s compartment is completely enclosed, and features doors with beveled glass windows, a beveled glass windscreen and rear window. When the carriage was driven in inclement weather, snow, slush or other debris could land on the carriage’s step. A clever feature counteracted that: When the door swings open, a cover makes contact with the step, sweeping it clear before passengers emerged. The driver, meanwhile, is perched in the open. A speaker tube allowed communication between passengers inside and the driver.
Roger’s collection includes several heavy wagons. One is a heavy hitch wagon capable of carrying loads of up to 12 tons. “That is the type of wagon replaced by heavy-duty trucks,” he says. “It’s about all my team of big Belgians could do, just to pull the wagon empty.” The wagon has a fifth wheel plate that allows for a short turn without tipping. Two heavy leaf springs are placed parallel to the load at each wheel and another is placed horizontal to the wagon at each axle.
Another heavy box wagon was used for general purpose hauling for hay, sheaves of grain, bundles of corn and, with sideboards, small grain and ear corn. Farmers used a running gear similar to the one on this wagon, except they mounted a flat bed on it.
Roger’s buggies include one made by the Columbus (Ohio) Buggy Co., with an unusual “cut under” arrangement. The body is made in such a way as to allow the front wheels to move under the frame when turning, allowing a shorter turning radius. The wheel spokes are set in staggered post line (rather than the more familiar straight-line arrangement), providing added support for the wheel.
An unusual buckboard manufactured by the Shane-Unfler Co., North Baltimore, Ohio, features an open-slat bed rather than the customary solid floor. Normally, this buckboard has one permanently fixed front seat for the driver and passengers, and a removable middle seat for passengers. Steps on each side serve both seats.
Looking for the best
Roger’s preference, when adding pieces to his collection, is complete units. Replacement parts are hard to find. “Most parts are made of wood and they have simply disappeared,” he says. If an original part can be located and measured, it is possible to have a replacement made. Iron parts are a bit more difficult to re-create; many must be made from scratch. Lights are very difficult to replace as well. “Unless you can find a complete frame,” Roger says, “you have to replace the light with one that may or may not have been used on the original wagon.” Roger is a stickler for detail: If it’s not correct, he’d rather not have the part on his wagon or buggy.
When it comes to restoration work, Roger has no trouble finding just the right person for the job. Nearby Amish communities are good sources for replacement wood parts, new finishes, tires and wheels. “All it costs is time and money,” he says. FC