Consider the belly dump wagon of, say, a century ago. In the world of early wagons, it was worked hard and put away wet. The belly dump wagon hauled the load and dumped the load – heavy loads, at that – and that’s it. Like the linebacker on the football team, like the flagman on the road project, like comedian Rodney Dangerfield, it gets no respect at all.
At least, not until Dick Drew eyed remnants of one at the Central Washington Ag Museum
in Union Gap, just outside Yakima. “It was different in that it’s made of wood and had wood wheels,” Dick says. “And the concept – it would haul a load and put it where you wanted it. It was made to do a lot of work.”
Currently treasurer of the museum, Dick is a longtime Ag Museum volunteer who enjoys tackling projects that hold little appeal for others. “A lot of guys like to work on tractors and engines,” he says. “I like to rebuild wood pieces.” Working with a crew of volunteers, he spearheaded the project, which got underway in 2013.
Built like a tank
The wagon was donated to the museum in the early 1980s and that is the entirety of its known history today. Several wagon builders constructed belly dump wagons. This one had no tag, original paint or decals. Dick’s best guess is that the wagon was built about 1910.
Belly dump wagons were designed to haul dirt, gravel, rock and construction materials. Metal-lined doors on the wagon bed were opened and closed by a chain mechanism, allowing the easy release of the contents. Such wagons are typically found in poor condition, the result of heavy and difficult work. This one, for instance, might have been used in the construction of a nearby Tieton Dam, built in 1925 on Rimrock Lake in Yakima County.
With a capacity of 1-1/2 yards, the wagon was exceptionally heavy. Built of lumber 1-1/2 inches thick, it could shoulder heavy loads. “And that wood was clear grain,” Dick says. “There were no knots in lumber in those days.” The front wheels measured 3 feet in diameter; the rear wheels measured 4 feet.
Although the remaining wood on the wagon was useful in creating patterns, all of it needed to be replaced. The extra heavy 1-1/2-inch-thick boards were not available commercially in the dimensions needed, so Dick and his crew cut and planed their own, using the museum’s 1930s-vintage sawmill.
The art and science of wheel construction
Rebuilding the wagon’s wooden wheels was by far the most complex and time-intensive part of the project. Gary Cole, a volunteer wheelwright at the Eastern Washington Agricultural Museum in Pomeroy, donated a full day to the project, coaching members of the Union Gap team in the process of wheel repair and construction.
Once trained, the volunteers rolled up their sleeves. The wagon’s hubs and spokes could be reused, but the felloes (the wooden outer area under the metal rim) and the rims needed to be replaced. Repairing wooden wheels is a uniquely difficult proposition, one involving precise angles in the hub and spokes, and very specialized tools, tools that are difficult to find today.
Fortunately, the Central Washington museum’s collection includes the Magness Room, where more than 3,000 antique tools are displayed. “The tools we needed are pretty hard to come by,” Dick says, “but we found a lot of them in the museum.”
Another specialized tool was needed to calculate the diameter of the hubs in order to trim the circumference of their bands by up to 3/4 inch. After being welded, each band was put into a fire (built to match the size of the band) to heat and expand it. When it reached the correct temperature, the heated metal band was slid over the hub and the whole thing was drenched with cold water to shrink the band and prevent the wood from burning.
The same process was used to put rims on new felloes. “It’s fascinating to watch,” Dick says. “You can see it shrink, and then it’s really, really solid. People say those wheels would bounce when you dropped them.” The wagon was originally horse-drawn, so the crew fitted it with two tongues – one for horses, and one for a tractor.
After five years of renovation work, the belly dump wagon was completed in 2018. Dick remains fascinated by the level of sophistication of early craftsmen.
“The ingenuity that it took to put some of the concepts into that equipment is unbelievable,” he says.
The finished wagon will be on display at the museum, but it won’t be put out to pasture. Members of a Horse ‘n Harness group at the Ag Museum plan to use the wagon in occasional demonstrations.
Meanwhile, Dick has moved on to other projects. “We’re working on a horse-drawn hearse now,” he says. “The next project is a milk wagon dating to the early 1900s. It’s just great fun. You never know what’s hidden in the 15 acres of the museum that might be the next project!” FC
In preparing this article, Farm Collector is grateful for assistance provided by Jeanene Sutton at Union Gap Tourism/Central Washington Ag Museum. For more information: Central Washington Ag Museum, 4508 Main St., Union Gap, WA 98903; phone (509) 457-8735.