Conestoga wagon construction and gear, Landis Valley Museum, Dutton family

Illustrating this column in last week’s issue of “The Suburban” was a picture of a typical Conestoga wagon with its six-horse bell team. Wagon and team were the property of Jacob Eby, of Chambersburg, great-grandfather of Mrs. Norman H. Dutton, of North Wayne avenue, who kindly leant your columnist the picture for use in this series on Conestoga wagons. The original of the picture was one taken of Mr. Eby in 1843, as he made one of his many trips between Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Among the appurtenances of such a wagon were the tool box and “lazy Board” which show plainly in the picture. These were described in last week’s column, as were the tar box and wagon jack. Swinging from the back of the wagon was the large feed box for the horses, a very necessary adjunct to a lengthy trip.

These boxes were usually longer than the wagons were wide and had their special place at the rear end. Here one would hang “like a bustle, sheltered by a projecting cover”, to quote John Omwake’s description in his book, “Conestoga Six-Horse Bell Teams.” A travelling farmer usually carried his own feed, while the professional wagoner bought his wherever he stopped.

The water bucket hung at the rear axletree on the pole, or on the side of wagon bed. At night the horses slept outdoors on their bedding of straw, while in the meantime, as Mr. Omwake writes, “their drivers boasted of them in the barroom of the inn.” The wagoners themselves usually slept around the stove in the barroom of the inn, using their own blankets and mattresses.

Of the general construction of these Conestoga wagons, H.K. Landis, of the Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster, who collaborated with Mr. Omwake in the latter’s book, says that “long before the wagon was ordered the wheelwright had gone into the forest and selected trees that would serve his purpose; white oak for the framing, gum for the hubs, hickory for the axletrees and singletrees, and poplar for the boards.

“Since the wooden parts of the wagon were made as light as practicable, the wood had to be strong as possible, and no knots, checks, soft spots or unseasoned wood was permitted. The material and design of the wagon made it unbreakable under the trying conditions met on road full of rocks and ruts, and sometimes stumps and roots; on corduroy and log road, through swamps, and on side hill roads that put a severe strain on the wheels on one side.”

And because “with the wheels, the wagon stands or falls”, these wheels were made even stronger than would appear necessary. Spokes were split from straight white oak and worked down with a hand axe, placed in a vise and further shaped with a draw knife and finished with a spoke shave, according to Mr. Landis. The hub, which was fashioned from black or sour gum, was “turned on a lathe and cored to receive the axle… the mortices were exactly placed and made so that the spokes had to be driven into them with powerful blows of the maul or sledge… wagon tires were made of iron by a hand process that was both tedious and difficult. Axle and axle tree were of white oak or hickory, the strongest wood available.”

When the long and difficult construction of the wagon was completed, it was painted in such a way as to be both picturesque and impressive. Wheels and removable side boards were a bright red, while the running gear was a soft blue with the white of the hempen wagon cover setting both colors. The uniformity of this painting for all Conestoga wagons was perhaps due to the fact that in those days few colors were available.

For their red, the wagon makers dug up the firm red lead, placed it on the rubbing stone with good linseed oil and rubbed it until it was smooth. Prussian blue also came in solid form and had to be ground in oil. “But when put on, these paints stuck”, as Mr. Landis tersely expresses it.

Covers for the wagons were about 24 feet long and made of white homespun. A picture of the inside of one shows the “turn-in” at either end, to allow the draw string to give the right shape to the openings. This cover “fitted over board hickory hoops, fastened into iron sockets or staples on the outside of the body. The lowest bows were midway between the ends, and the others rose gradually in a deep curve to front and rear, so that the ends were of nearly equal height. The cover was corded on the sides and drawn together by draw ropes at the ends, so that the wagon was almost closed in.

Harness or “gears” as it was called by the wagoners, was made of leather that had been bark tanned, the work done by hand, and the process requiring from eight to ten months. Leather cured in this way never lost its life and softness. Bridles were entirely of flat leather, and blinders were made of single pieces of leather and unstiffened. The drivers used only one line to control the lead horse, which in turn controlled the whole team by means of a “jockey” stick, a thin piece of seasoned hickory wood fastened to the hames of the lead horse and to the bit of his mate, the off horse.

In the research for today’s column the writer has made the interesting discovery that Mr. Omwake knew David Eby and consulted him in regard to the trips the latter had made by Conestoga wagon. Mr Omwake writes that “by far the greatest number of stories of the old wagon deal with the later days on the road to the West. Of all of these, none is more vivid and delightful than that written by David Eby.” And it was Mr. Eby’s granddaughter, Mrs. Dutton of Wayne, – until this time a stranger to the writer – who telephoned and offered her the picture of the wagon used by her great-grandfather as well as her grandfather.

Another interesting keepsake in the possession of the Dutton family is a small, hand-bound booklet, containing the specifications for the making of Dearborns. The booklet belonged to Joseph F. Hill, Mr. Dutton’s geat uncle, who was a carriage maker more than 100 years ago, the date in the front of the booklet being June 29, 1841.

Conestoga wagoning and gear, Eby family, Pa. Railroad, author John Omwake

Many times during the past few weeks, as your columnist has turned the pages of John Omwake’s book “Conestoga Six-Horse Bell Teams”, which she has used as a reference in this present series of articles, she has wished that she might share its beautiful illustrations with all of her readers, especially the frontispiece, which shows an outstanding example of a large Conestoga wagon, with its six-horse bell team.

10_image01From one of the column’s interested Wayne readers has come a picture so like this frontispiece that only a close inspection of the two shows the slight difference between them. The picture has been lent by Mrs. Norman H. Dutton, of North Wayne avenue, for use in this column. The original was one made in 1843 of her great-grandfather, Jacob Eby, as he made one of his many trips between Pittsburgh and Baltimore in his covered wagon.

In 1849, Jacob Eby put his son, Dabid Eby, “on the road to wagon”, which employment he “continued at intervals until the Pennsylvania Railroad was completed in 1853, and then for five years more at ‘piece’ wagoning to intermediate points between Chambersburg and Bedford.”

“Looking back to the years thus employed”, David Eby writes in his booklet, “Retracing of the Famous Old Turnpike”, “I consider them as the palmy days of my life.” And so intense did his longing become in later life to go over the famous old turnpike once more that in 1908, when he was “on the shady side of 77”, he undertook the trip between Chambersburg and Pittsburgh on foot.

This, he decided, was the best way to “relocate old tavern stands, and secure such other information as would help to make a narrative of the days of wagoning.” Not counting the Sunday on which he rested, Mr. Eby made the trip of 150 miles in seven and one-half days, an average of 20 miles per day.

In the 1840’s and early 1850’s when the younger wagoner, David Eby was making regular trips between Chambersburg and Pittsburgh, there was an average of a tavern for each mile. When he retraced his way by foot in 1908, he found that “most of the old taverns not as such, but as dwellings, are to be seen… the old signs are down, the wagon yards are enclosed, and the barrooms where the wagoners congregated are converted to a better use.

“These wagoners were a noisy, jolly set who loved the frolic and dance. To the music of a violin the performer suited its action to whatever was called for, ‘The Virginia Reel’, the ‘French Reel’, ‘Four Square’, ‘Jim Crow’,  or ‘Hoe Down’ being the popular rage. The fun was fast and jolly, especially when they imbibed too much of ‘Monongahela’ at three cents a drink.”

Of the contrast between past and present as he saw it, Mr Eby comments, “In my mind the automobile drivers are not regarded with the same distinction as were the stage drivers whose lordly swing and handling of the ribbons made them – at least in their estimation – the aristocrats of the times. In the barroom they were the center for the admiring crowd, who were always ready when ‘asked up’ with the condescending reply, ‘yes, with a little sugar, please’!”

The picture of the Eby Conestoga wagon, as it looked on the road in the middle 1800’s, illustrates in a striking manner the descriptions Mr. Omwake has given of the vehicles that were sometimes called “Ships of Inland Commerce” as they “cruised with their great white tops between the green Pennsylvania hills.” The long deep wagon beds with the sag in the middle and the white top are indeed somewhat reminiscent of boats with their sails. The six-horse team of dappled grays – always a favorite color with Pennsylvania wagoners – shows the bell hoops on each of the six horses, including that on which the driver rode. In many cases this was not used, since it interfered with the driving of the horses. The lead horses wear hoops of five bells, the middle pair have four and the last pair three. The six horses are obviously of the strong, sleek, heavy-set type, described in last week’s column as typical of the Conestoga horse. Their handmade harness is strong and heavy.

The box on the side contains tools, which were necessary for emergencies along the road. Among the tools were pincers, tongs, wrench, bolts, nails, open links and straps. Much of the “ironing” of the lids of these tool boxes was most ornate, being fashioned by smiths who had learned this trade. Protruding from the wagon, just below the tool box, is seen the “lazy board” on which the driver stood when he was not guiding his team from the back of the saddle horse, or walking beside the wagon.

Not clearly shown in the picture is the “tar pot”, which was as essential to the successful progress of a trip as was the tool box. A tar pot contained the pine tar for lubricating the axles and the green beds. When it became necessary to do this, a heavy wagon jack, made especially for Conestoga wagons, was used.

“A load of three or four tons required that the jack be sturdy and readily handled,” Mr. Omwake writes. Pictures of a number of these jacks are shown in his book, among them one particularly heavy, sturdy one dating back to 1766. “Generally these wagon jacks had two spurs in the base to prevent slipping, a wooden body, a riveted or keyed gear case, a ratchet wheel on the crank, a strong geared pillar with turntable two-spar top,” Mr. Omwake writes, then adds, “as they were very necessary to a team on the road, the owner’s name or initials were put on the top of the pilion, with the date.”

With a description of further details of the picture shown in this week’s column, this series on Conestoga wagons will close next week.

Conestoga horses: wagon gears and bells

No less interesting than lhe Conestoga wagons of which John Omwake had made such a detalled study in hls book, “Conestoga Six-Horse Teams ot Pennsylvania” are the Conestoga horses which were as distinctive as the wagons themselves.

As these great, heavy vehicles became more common as a means of transportntlon, at first between Lancaster and Philadelphia, and later between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, this particular breed of horse was developed to meet the special demands made upon them,
for strength, enddurance and intelligence. “It was indeed“, to quote Mr. Omwake, “an animating sight to see five or six well-fed horses, half covered with heavy bear skins, or decorated with gaudily fringed housings, surmounted with a set of finely-toned bells, thelr bridles adorned with loops of red trimming, as they moved over the ground. Wlth a brisk, elastic step they snorted disdainfully at surrounding objects, as if half-conscious of their superior appearance.”

Before the days of Conestoga wagons, early Pennsylvania settlers had used small, sure-footed riding horses which had great endurance and could go anywhere. Then as the land was cleared and roads and settlements were made, a large type of horse, capable of farm work and hauling heavy loads, was needed. The exact ancestry of these Conestoga horses, as they came to be called, is not easy to trace. Undoubtedly, the first settlers who arrived in Pennsylvania with William Penn brought with them farm horses from their English homes. Those emigrants who settled in the Conestoga Valley probably obtained their first stock of horses from their neighbors in Chester County and the vicinity of Philadelphia, who had settled there earlier.

Their horses were fed well, stabled comfortably and never overworked or abused, and… as the years went by, their descendants obtained powers seldom found in the horses of any other country and much surpassing the original stock.

Spans that pulled the heavily loaded wagons of merchandise over the Alleghany mountains varied from four to elght horses in length, wlth sometimes a ninth in slngle harness as a leader. They ranged from 16 1/2 to 17 1/2 hands high, with their bodies solid and bulky in proportlon. With the driver seated on the near wheel horse they made a picturesque sight, indeed. Their usual rate of travel was about 12 lo 14 miles a day.

The saddle on the rear left horse is described by Mr. Omwak as ”low, but ample, after the English type, having a rounded pommel and brass-bound cantle with rings to fasten packages. The skirt was quite long and square cornered, while the stirrups were of brass or iron, although later they sometimes had wooden ones with leather guards… The team was guided by a jerk line to the forward, or lead, horse.” The wagoner held his line, giving short jerks to turn the lead horse to the right, and a long pull to turn him to the left.

Of the friendly, almost human relationship between drivers and the horses of whom they were so proud, Mr. Omwake writes, “the wagoner also talked to his horses, and ‘haw’ and ‘gee’ meant ‘left’ and ‘right’ to Conestoga horses, as they have to horses all over the country since those old days.

“One old teamster would stand before his lead horse, ‘Bill’, and tell him what was expected of him, and ‘Bill’ would hang his head, and point his ears, and plainly promise to do his best. But when they stopped for breath at the top of a long hill, and the wagoners told them what good horses they were, they arched their necks and champed their bits proudly.”

A wagoner’s whip was a long, handsome affair which, although it could be cracked fiercely, was seldom, if ever, used to strike a horse. Made of leather, sewed to form a cylinder-like handle, which was filled solidly, the end was tapered and finished with a plaited leather cracker, tipped with a plaited, waxed thread. So perfect was the understanding between a wagoner and his team that he had no use for his showy whip. On the contrary, he could nod in his saddle at the end of a long day, and still find himself at his destination come nightfall.

No story of Conestoga wagons and their horses would be complete without a description of the bells which were suspended from arches above the shoulders of the horses. Usually these bells were of the open type and suspended from flat iron hoops, the round end of which pointed downwards and passed through eyes in the hames. The number and size of these bells varied, just as did the material from which they were made. Some were of welded or brazed iron, while others were of brazed bronze or brass, cast brass and turned brass. There are also many interesting variations in the shape, size and arrangement of these bells. One set, in particular, Mr. Omwake described as “ a chime of bells which consisted of eight bells mounted on a broad double strap or thiong, the bells spherical, varying from three inches in diameter to two inches, and giving a pleasant composite sound together. They are quite loud, and could, I think, have been heard a quarter of a mile away through the woods.”

Originally the purpose of these bells seems to have been to sound a warning to teams coming in opposite directions along the narrow roads. Often one wagoner helped a fellow traveler in distress, for which service the latter had to pay by the gift of his hame bells. It is said that often a wagoner in trouble would turn his teams sharply to the side and break off the tongue rather than to be pulled out of the ditch and thus loose the bells to his rescuer.

Wagoning was at its zenith around 1830, some 36 years after the completion of the Philadelphia-Lancaster turnpike. Then came the railroad, and with it the end of long distance freighting by wagon. For a time these wagoins were still used for shorter hauling, especially that between the farm and thge town. Finally, they were brought out only for election days and other special occasions in the life of the smaller towns. And now they are to be found only in the sheds of a few Lancaster County barns or in an occasional museum. But in their heyday there was no mre thrilling sight than a big white-topped Conestoga wagon, with its team of handsome horses.

(To be continued)

Conestoga wagons: Six-Horse Bell Teams

In September and October, 1951, a series of three articles on the old Conestoga wagons appeared in this column. They had been inspired by a study of old roads and taverns along the “Philadelphia – Lancaster turnpike.

The slow moving procession of vehicles along the turnpike is, in retrospect, a most picturesque one to those of us of the present day who envision it. Dominating this procession between 1750 and 1850 was the Conestoga wagon and its six-horse team, with a long history of usefulness before the days of the canal, and later, of the railroad.

“The Suburban” finds its way far beyond the confines of Wayne, and this series came to the attention of Mrs. E. P. Bosworth, of Clnclnnatl, whose father, John Omwake, was the author of “Conestoga Six-Horse Bell Teams, 1750-1850.”

Since his early boyhood, Mr. Omwake had been interested in these old wagons. One of his lest ambitions had been to secure a Conestoga wagon such as his uncle, Wesley Koons, had owned in Franklln County, and to drive such a six-horse bell team. Mr. Koons was one of the few who, “after the Civil War… kept up their Conestoga bell teams, to be brought to town on Election Day and on other public occasions.”

As a consequence o! this youthful interest, Mr. Omwake made an intensive search into “museums, hlstorical societies, and the hidden away places of local history in Eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginla, New York, New Jersey, New England, and even England” in order to correlate into book form all that could be learned about these wagons and teams, which are “a unique bit ot Pennsylvania’s early country life.”

Mrs. Bosworth has made your columnist a gift of this book, published by her father in 1930 for private distribution. A carefully written and beautifully illustrated volume, it contains a detailed history of a type of wagon that was as indigenous to the Pennsylvania countryside as its farms and orchards, or its hills themselves.” lt is a comparatively short tlme ago that these wagons, often traveling in long trains, with their big red wheels and their white tops, were the most common sight to be seen along the Lancaster turnpike. As they went westward they usually carried textiles, hardware and other manufactured goods for settlers as far west as Pittsburgh. On the return trip they were loaded with furs, skins and farm products for the East.

In assembling the material for his book, Mr. Omwake found few contemporary records of their construction, or of their travels. “They were”, he writes, “so much a part or every day that they were simply taken for granted. Historians who wrote just after this era was past mention them only casually as they were still such a commonplace.” And so, much of the material for the writing and the pictures for his book have come from a personal search of the Lancaster countryside by one of his collaborators, Mr. H. C. Frey, of Harrisburg.

It was in the Conestoga Valley of Lancaster County that these wagons had their beginnings. Here, Mr. Frey had seen many of these sturdy old vehicles in their dimly lit sheds, and here he had talked to their owners. Another collaborator has been Mr. H. K. Landis, of the Landis Valley Museum, “to whom”, Mr. Omwake writes, “the arts and industries of his country are an unfailing delight”, adding that Mr. Landis “has reconstructed from his treasures something of the spirit of the old Conestoga wagon days, of the excellence of the craftsmanship and the sincerity of effort that went into their making.”

The very first of these Pennsylvania wagons were probably modified English covered wagons as suggested by Engllsh settlers in Chester and Delaware counties. Strong and serviceable though they were, these carters, or farm wagons of England, which were short and wide, were not what one early American farmer wanted. But they had the makings of a good wagon, upon which the local wagon makers in Lancaster County made constant improvements, untll they had “a ponderous four-wheeled vehicle that rumbled behind half a dozen strong draught horses.

In describing these Lancaster County wagons, Mr. Omwake writes that they “were designed and built by local wheelrights out of swamp oak, white oak, hickory, locust gum and poplar from the neighboring woodlands.” They were “ironed” by the village blacksmith and all
the other work was, of course, done by hand.

In describing their appearance. Mr. Omwake writes that these Conestoga wagons “differed from their English prototypes in that the Conestoga wagon bed was long and deep and was given considerable sag in the middle, both lengthwise and crosswise, so that, should the load shift, it would settle towards the center and not press agalnst the end gates. The bed of the English wagon was flat and straight at the ends, and its bows, holdlng the white cover, were vertical. The bows of the American wagon, however, followed the line of the ends of the body, slanting outward, and glving the distinctive and unmistakable silhouette of the Conestoga. Although infinite variations recur, always these characteristics remain.”

Quite aside from their striking contour, Conestoga wagons were imposing because of their sheer bulk. The top of the front hoop was 11 feet from the ground. The white homespun cover was two dozen feet long. The top ends of the wagon bed were 16 feet apart and the rear wheels five or slx feet high. When the six-horse team was pulling, the team and wagon stretched to 60 feet.

The driver of one o.f these Conestoga wagons rode on a “lazy board” when he was not walking beside his team, or astride the saddle horse. This “lazy board”, which was usually made of strong white oak, was pulled out on the left hand side of the wagon and from it the driver could operate the brake and call to his horses. The saddle horse was the wheel horse on the left hand side.

Mr. Omwake makes the interesting comment that “the wagoner was the first driver to drive from the left side. Coaches and all other vehicles of his day were driven trom the right side. But the wagoner, for whom all other trafllc had to make room, sat on the left and inaugurated the American custom of passing approaching traffic to the right instead of following the Engllsh rule.”

(To be concluded)