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)