"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 decorations.

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.  


Copyright 2008; Cathy Wentz & Contributors
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