Wooden Wagon Construction

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Revisiting the nomenclature of the wooden wagon and its parts.

| July 2007

While reading a discussion of wagon reach plates in a recent issue of Farm Collector, it occurred to me that most readers probably aren't familiar with the nomenclature of the wooden wagons found on nearly every American farm until the mid-1950s.

Early man acquired knowledge of friction when he tried to move a large rock from here to there: The rock just wouldn't slide. Rolling the thing worked, if it was round, but what if it was flat? Eventually some ingenious soul got the flat rock up onto a log, allowing the weight to be moved more easily.

However, the rock traveled at twice the speed of the rolling log and soon ran off the roller. A number of rollers in a line could be used, but a better answer was to mount the roller on an axle attached to the load, or to a platform that carried the load. That allowed the roller to keep up with the load. Sliding friction between the axle and the roller could be reduced by a liberal application of animal fat.

The next step was to use two narrow rollers (or wheels), one at each end of the axle. That reduced friction by making the bearing surface between the axle and wheels much smaller, and lowered the load by allowing it to sit between the wheels. Now our hairy ancestors were really "smokin'": They had invented the wheel! Two-wheel carts were soon used all over the world and, before long, an additional set of wheels and an axle were used to make a wagon out of the cart.

Before 1860, most farm wagons were hand-built by blacksmiths, wheelwrights and carpenters. To meet the huge demand for military vehicles during the Civil War, wagon factories were established. The postwar westward movement increased the need for wagons. Most manufacturers switched production from military to civilian vehicles, making wagons for every purpose from city milk delivery to carrying a pioneer family across the Rocky Mountains.

A wagon consists of the running gear and one or more styles of interchangeable beds. The running gear (or undercarriage) consists of the wheels and axles coupled by an extendable reach. A tongue is attached to the front axle assembly. The front wheels can be steered and rear wheel brakes are available on some models. Parallel to and above each axle is a cross beam called a bolster, which provides support for the bed. A vertical bolster stake at each end of the bolster keeps the wagon bed from sliding sideways on the bolster.