Wagons helped conquer the western frontier, but innovative wagon tools kept the wooden wheels moving
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.
After the discovery of natural oil seeps, a slick substance called "pine tar" also was utilized as a lubricant. Pine tar, however, was dirty, sticky and stained everything it touched. Experienced pioneers made sure to keep the tar buckets closed, and stashed away from clothes and goods.
Linseed oil, developed for use as a wood preservative, eventually became the wagon wheel's best friend. Periodic soakings in the new oil ensured a wheel with tight-fitting parts. Owners began carrying cans of linseed oil and bath troughs, used to soak the wheels. Hot oil soaked in faster than cold oil, so most oiling troughs could be preheated in a camp-fire. Hot ashes underneath the troughs also were used to keep the oil at the proper temperature.
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.