Early Wagon Tools: Jacks and Oils for Wheel Maintenance
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Wagon drivers coated their wheels by raising them off the ground, inserting the oil-filled trough beneath, and slowly lowering the wheel. A diligent driver used a paintbrush to coat the higher parts as the wheel rotated. Often, the wagon train kept rolling though only a "wheel per night" could be oiled.
Wagon manufacturers provided handy tools to new owners. The large, steel pin holding the double-tree to the wagon tongue that had a C-shaped iron attached to its top acted as a wrench. It loosened the retaining nuts from the axle prior to removing a wheel for lubrication, and at times, it also was used as a hammer. Wagon brakes were notoriously poor, especially on a loaded wagon headed downhill. Wheel drag-shoes made by local blacksmiths often were attached by chains to the wagon box just in front of the rear wheels. At the crest of a steep hill, the shoes were placed on the ground in front of the wheels and the wagon was pulled forward on top of the shoes, which locked the wheels. A safer descent was attained with both wheels acting as skids.
The jack was the most important of all wagon tools. Empty wagons and buggies were easy to lift, but a heavily loaded wagon was another matter. Thousands of patents for jack designs were issued through the years, and many present-day jack models descended from these early patents.
Actually, the axle only has to rise an inch in order to remove the wagon wheel. Many homemade devices were built from scrap lumber for this purpose. Heavier jacks with greater lifting capacities were needed as wagons and their loads grew in size, but the weight of the jack also had to be considered, especially on long hauls.
Dependability was important, too. A broken jack on the prairie was hard to repair, so jack design was kept simple with no detachable parts.
Once a working model proved satisfactory, manufacturers produced several models in varied sizes with different lifting capacities. Most jacks were safe but also were well known as "finger-mashers." Occasionally, a company made an unsafe jack, such as the friction model.
Many pioneer-era wheel jacks have survived and remain in good working condition due to their heavy construction and simple design. FC
Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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