BEDFORD COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA
PART OF THE PAGENWEB
"Conestoga wagon days and ways"
have several distinct periods: first, that of adaptation of the European
wagons to our conditions of loads and roads, a period which changed with the
advent of macadamized roads about the end of the century; second, a period of
prosperity until the canals and railroads brought it disastrous competition.
There was still plenty of hauling but the competitors took away the cream of the
business and better roads encouraged the use of smaller wagons. The farm
wagons or "militia" continued to haul when farm work permitted, but
through-freighting dwindled and during the time of the Civil War gave its last
gasp. The farmers had the wagons and used the, but the life was out of the
business. The teams were usually driven by one of the farmer's sons and
the most frequent loads were barrels of flour. The production of distilleries
was decreasing, frame houses began to be built, railroads extended their
facilities and the wagon itself shrank into a two-horse farm wagon. The
rise and fall of the Conestoga wagon parallels the rise and recession of general
prosperity and the change in the people from frugality to indulgence.
Their beliefs and traditional customs sagged. We no longer saw tulips and
hearts, fish and serpents, dates and names upon new wagons. Modern notions
discarded the signs once thought important, gave the devil a laugh, and the
Bible a vacant corner in the attic. Thus it becomes desirable to preserve
what we know of these old things against the carelessness and lack of thought of
a light-minded generation. the decorations on the old Conestogas tell a
story and teach a lesson that is worth preserving, the lesson of doing things
just a little better, not a little more, but a little better."
Before Lancaster County was organized it was included in Chester county and the
southern portion was known as Conestoga Township, since Conestoga Creek was the
principal stream and the Conestoga tribe of Indians had a village there.
When the freighting wagons were developed in this section and a horse was bred
to go with the wagon, they became quite naturally known as the Conestoga Wagon
and the Conestoga horse.
The farm wagon and the plains wagon of today retain many of the early
characteristics but not enough to retain the name Conestoga wagon. The
typical wagon was in general use about the end of the seventeen hundreds and
this is the period when details of construction received great attention and
pride was taken in workmanship and craftsmanship-like design.
The distinctive marks of a typical Conestoga wagon are a downward curved bed or
body, high rear wheels, maximum lightness and strength, long after-hounds,
ironed toolbox on left center side of bed with ornamental hasp and hinges,
ornate axe sockets on forward hounds, hammer-headed double-tree pin, heavy
harness, typical saddle and whip, team bells and so forth. The ironwork on
the good wagons is of charcoal iron, hand forged and of pleasing design.
The running gear was always painted with red lead, the bed with Prussian blue
and the lazyboard and side boards were also red. The inside of the bed and
bows were not painted. The cover was originally of tightly sewn grommets.
The slender stretcher running along the tops of the bows is of unpainted wood.
Accessories: 6th chain with its carrier and spreader, bridle ornaments,
mattress for the wagoner, tar box, water bucket, feed box, hold-back chain,
rough locks, ice cutter drag, axe, wagon jack and bed spreader-chains.
Inside dimensions of the bed were made to fit hogsheads or two flour barrels
side by side. Usually grain was shipped in three-bushel hempen bags but
the more concentrated form was barreled flour or barrels of whiskey. Flax
was shipped as linen thread and the hemp was ready for the rope walk. To
carry ore or iron the bed of the wagon was low, half the height adopted for farm
products. Charcoal beds were about twice the usual height and wider.
The nature of the load influenced the dimensions of the wagon. Commonly,
if a load of grain was taken to say, Philadelphia, and there was no store order
to fill, the wagon was loaded with bricks which had been brought from abroad,
for the return trip home. If the trip was westward, it may be assumed that
the return trip included raw materials such as salt, skins or furs.
Western 'roads' in Pennsylvania were hard, and the tires of the wheels were
narrow, being about 2-1/4" wide. Four inch tires were preferred for
soft roads. The route from Philadelphia to what is now known as Pittsburgh
was carried on in what was called "Pitt wagons", the broad tires were
called "militia", also "toad smashers".
Conestoga wagons did not do well in crossing the plains, which led to the
development of the "prairie schooner"; oxen replacing the horses.
The Conestoga horse had short hair on its lower legs, which mud did not cling
to. These horses had the strength of a cart horse and the endurance of the
stage horse. Teams consisted of six matching horses, usually black, sorrel
or dapple bays; they were paired by size. The heavier horses were the
"wheel horses"-- they were responsible for the backing and turning.
Next came the middle team, and the lighter leaders, one or two. Leader
horses showed more style, had lighter weight bells and harness' and were trained
to respond to the jerk line and the 'gee haw' language. The saddle horse
was the left one of the rear pair, the one on the right hand side being the
"off-horse", usually held in check by the saddle horse. Hitching
straps and jockey sticks kept the horses in line.
HOUNDS BANDS: The hounds are the diagonal braces forward of the front and
back carriages. The forward hounds are clamped to the sides of the tongue
by an iron band with a broad top. Here were placed the initials of the
owner and the date when made. Not all hounds bands were marked this
particular way. The stamp of the blacksmith may also have been placed
here. These bands were hammered thin on the broad top but were narrow and
thicker on the under side. The other bands were seldom decorated in any way.
On top the broad portion of the band extends backward and on this the decoration
is stamped or cut usually when the iron is hot. A straight chisel and a
curved gouge and center punch are the usual tools but sometimes a star punch,
sawtooth chisel or ring punch were used.
TOOL BOX IRONS: The tool box was kept on the left side of the Conestoga wagon
bed. It probably contained such items as: split links, pieces of
wire, nails, gloves, and other things. Some of the design motifs
used on the boxes were: tulips, pomegranate, hearts, leaf, fish, crook
& crescent. It is thought that there was no particular significance
attached to the use of these motifs, though, in some cases there may have been.
DECORATIVE PLATES: The forward end of the tongue is reinforced against
breaking and wear by thin iron plates with edges cut into moulding curves.
The plates were long and were fastened with wrought iron nail that had flat
heads, which was the preferable way, rather than having a thick and heavy tongue
of wood alone. Nail studded plates were common place whenever strength and
endurance were needed. The doubletree was ironed attractively, sometimes
its entire length, by such ornate plates; also the end of the after hounds,
holding the coupling pin. The latter plates rarely had any type of surface
ORNAMENTAL HANGERS: An axe was carried on the outside of the left forward
hounds. The handle passed through a hanging ring near the doubletree and
the blade was kept in an iron socket further back, the side face of which was
sometimes decorated. In order to prevent the axe from jumping out of the
socket, a latch was sometimes used.
THE HAMMER PIN: The king pin is a long and heavy pin that runs down from
the bed through the bed-bolster, grease-bed, coupling-pole and forward axle.
The coupling pin is a smaller short pin that runs through the after hounds and
coupling pole somewhere between the king-pin and the sway bar. It's these
pins that hold the wagon together. The little doubletree pin with its
hammerhead is also essential. The wheel horses pull on the doubletree
against this hammerpin running through the wagon-tonque. The end of the in
is chisel-shaped and is used to pull out the linchpin when removing any of the
wheels. The head of the pin is hammer-shaped and was sometimes the only
hammer on the farm. If the wagon was run, there would be a hammer
available. The doubletree hasp, which was of strong iron, lay under the
hammerhead, the pin passing through a hole in the hasp and the hasp extended to
the rear end of the tongue. Sometimes it had ornaments upon it and
perhaps, the name of the owner.
REAR HOUNDS IRONING: The couplingpin ironing was specially designed although not
so much for ornamental effect. A guide about the middle of the rear hounds
had a sort of flat S-shape; the direction of the hounds was diagonal to the fore
and aft movement of the brake beam and the curve in the middle of the S-guide
was thus almost straight fore and aft, enabling the ends of the guide to be
bolted through the middle of the hounds. The pin through the hounds on the
rear side of the after-bolster was usually ornamented with a large flat head or
one heart-shaped, nailed to the bolster.
DATED WAGON JACKS: These are used to lift the axle with load until the
wheel is off the road so that it may be removed to grease the axle; this was a
frequent operation, the jack was in use each day and could be found hung on the
inside of the forward hounds which carried the axe. The upper end of the
jack may have the initial or name of the owner, as well as the date.
IRON CHAINS: The making of these chains required experience and skill.
Links were welded together. Their sizes ranked from the massive rough lock
to the end-gate-pin chains; the links could be long, oval, twisted, and round;
long chains like the sixth chain; hard twisted breast chains, tapered
twisted-link chains, hold back chains for the forward end of the tongue.
The stay chain ran from the stay chain hook in the forward axletree to the
doubletree; the lagchain with its sliding ring latch from the mid-bed
bracket post to the felloe of the rear wheel to act as a brake in going down
steep hills; the very heavy short chain to wrap around the felloe when lagchain
holds the wheel so that the wear comes on the chain and not on the tire; and the
massive watch chain of the wagoner. The bed-chain to keep the sides from
spreading has a slipring latch.
STAY-CHAIN HOOKS. Possibly more ornate than necessary. Snakehead
ends were common, many resembling a coiled snake when striking, others have
various devices and shapes designed to prevent the ring on the stay-chain from
coming off the hook. There is a long hook on the forward end of this stay
chain which usually has a knob upon it. Mill walls held hitch-hooks to
which the team was hitched while the wagoner loaded his barrels.
TRADITIONAL COLORING: The running gear was painted red, usually with red
lead which was ground just before use, since it settled into a solid mass if it
was left to stand even for a short time. Prussian blue was chosen for the
body. The bows and stretcher were not painted at all, nor was the interior
and the bottom of the bed.