The Versatility of Early Farm Wagons

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Early wooden wagons were a versatile tool on the farm, with wagon boxes and hayracks allowing multiple functions.

| August 2007

Last issue, we looked at a little wagon history, as well as the way wooden wagon wheels and the front and rear gears were made. Today's focus is on the rest of the wagon, includign the wooden wagon box and other attachments.

A pole, called a reach, connected the front gear to the rear. The reach was usually a 2-by-4-inch piece of white oak with a hole at the front for the king bolt, and a series of holes about two-thirds of the way back for the reach bolt. Steel plates reinforced the reach at wear points, such as at the king and reach bolts and the surfaces that rub on the sway bar as the front gear is steered. By removing the reach bolt and sliding the rear gear forward or backward on the reach, the length of the wagon gear could be adjusted to accommodate beds of different lengths.

Farm wagons usually had a drop tongue that was hinged between the front hounds on a long bolt (the queen bolt) so the tongue point could move vertically. An optional stiff or slip tongue could be furnished that mounted in fixed sockets without a hinge. A drop tongue required the use of a neck yoke to support the point, while chains from the hames to the point were generally used with a stiff tongue.

Brakes were desirable on wagons used on roads or in hilly country. Wagon brakes consisted of a horizontal brake bar suspended from the gear just ahead of the rear wheels. A large, wooden, concave-shaped block at each end of the brake bar was forced against the tire of each rear wheel by a lever, creating enough friction to slow and stop the wagon. When a standard wagon box was mounted, a brake lever mounted on the side of the box near the front was connected to the brake gear lever by a long rod.

Most wagon gears were painted bright red, although orange and yellow were also used. Wheel rims, spokes, axles, reaches and just about every other part were enhanced by blue, black and white striping, usually applied by hand.

That pretty much takes care of the wagon's running gear, so we'll talk a little about beds. Although there were many different beds for many different hauling tasks, we'll look at the two most commonly found on farms: grain boxes and hayracks. They were built so one could be easily lifted off the running gear and the other put on, allowing a single wagon gear to be used with a hayrack during haying season and a grain box during the rest of the year.