Early Wagon Tools: Jacks and Oils for Wheel Maintenance

Wagons helped conquer the western frontier, but innovative wagon tools kept the wooden wheels moving

| June 2002

The significance of the wagon wheel during the early days of the United States cannot be overstated. Whenever the pioneer traveled westward, wagons followed, carrying first supplies and later families and possessions to the western frontier, and returning with discoveries of many sorts. 

Large industries soon emerged to build wagons. Smaller manufacturers designed wagon tools and accessories needed to repair the wheels on all these carriers. The "wheelwright" trade became a respected occupation because such knowledge and the finished product were in great demand. A broken wheel on the frontier left travelers subject to all kinds of dangers.

The local blacksmith took charge of wheel repair and part replacements in the absence of a wheelwright. Most blacksmiths did not build wagon wheels from scratch because they lacked the special equipment needed, but they could replace spokes, fellows and worn-out skeins, and shrink iron tires to fit wooden wheel bases.

Once wagons headed west, repairs and maintenance were the owner's or driver's responsibility. The dry western climate was not kind to the wooden wagon wheel parts. Low humidity and the hot sun removed moisture from the wood, shrinking it in size, and a wheel with loose parts spelled trouble for a loaded wagon traveling over the rough trails of the unsettled land.

Most wagons traveling west contained few wagon tools due to the weight and cost of such items. Larger wagon trains carried not only tools and spare parts, but often a blacksmith with wheel-repair experience. The best-prepared travelers were drivers of the huge freight wagons. They drove day after day and their existence depended on wheels. They knew well how to fix them and keep their wagon trains moving.

Wheel-grease containers were among the tools most wagons needed for simple maintenance. At first only leftover meat greases and tallow were used on axles. They were often carried in ox-horn containers, looped together with a chain and mounted over the rear axle during transit. Meat grease lubrication was kept at a minimum because of its short supply, but history also records that in emergencies, fatback - today's bacon - was sliced and wrapped around wheel spindles as a lubricant.