Rural Ramblings – Winter 1978 (part 2)
Ralph C. Miller
Another book I want to call to your attention turns our path to the farms of England. At first glance one may question how James Arnold’s “Farm Waggons and Carts” can fit into our survival trip. Perhaps a side excursion will help to illustrate.
A large ranch in Eastern Oregon had several thousand scattered acres of which much less than half were owned by deed. The balance was leased Bureau of Land Management land in a National Forest. There were gates, lanes, paths, steep hills, dense woods and other natural obstacles between the homestead in the bottoms and the mountain meadows; still every summer, the herd found its way up to water holes and good grazing, returning in late fall.
The ranch changed hands and the new owners decided they didn’t want the old herd; too scrubby and crossbred, besides they intended to raise some of the more fashionable exotics. Limousin or Simmental, I believe. The next summer the cattle would not (or could not) find their way to the upper pastures. They stayed down in the bottoms and ate up what should have been the hay crop. When winter came the ranchers had to buy hay. (They also bought back a few of those scrubby old mossbacks to lead the exotics up to pasture.)
If we learn one lesson from history it is that we seem to learn nothing from history. We are constantly burning bridges before we know where the road ahead leads. I’m not saying that we’ll ever go back to Wagons and Carts to the extent of Arnold’s book but there is so much more here to be learned about farms, farmers, artisans and people in general, and all of it pertinent to survival.
Aside from that, if you are interested in antiquities in wagons, in craftsmanship or are simply a nostalgia buff, this book may be for you. If you thought all wagons looked alike, that the Conestoga (or perhaps a circus wagon) was the most beautiful and romantic, let me assure you that some of the hundreds recorded in this volume will change your mind.
I grew up in the country and a wagon was a wagon. (With apologies to Mr. Arnold and the English I will continue to spell wagon without the second “g”.) If I had seen some of these beauties on our country roads I am sure I would have left home to follow them.
Arnold’s magnificent sketches showing the wagons and carts in such detail are not only educational and eyecatching but are almost complete enough to constitute working drawings. Along with that his detailed descriptions of how, when, where and why the vehicles were made, as well as by and for whom, leads us down every vale, up every mountain track and into most of the village wagon shops in England.
This was the England of 40 to more than 140 years ago and none of the wagons shown here were mass produced. The individuality, the practical side of imaginative design, the overall excellence and pride of workmanship is a joy and a lesson. That something so mundane as a farm cart or wagon could be at once so utilitarian and yet so pleasing to the eye was a revelation to me.
Beyond that I lost myself in such nuances as whether some farmers might have had their wagons painted either yellow or blue to express their political view on continuance or repeal of England’s Corn Laws of that day. And in the curious differences in “track,” the span of the wheel track that had of necessity to conform to the local width of the deep and permanent ruts. “The Oxfords had a track varying from 62in to 66in over the vast region in which these waggons were used. In Somerset the track varied from 65in to 70in. The remarkably wide Surrey and Hampshire waggons varied from 74in to 77in and in neighbouring Dorset they were generally of 71in. Sussex, however was nearer the average at 65in. Yorkshire waggons varied from 60in on the Wolds down to no more than 50in in the Dales. The Herefords, with broad wheels set to 12?degrees dish on a track of 63-66in looked more mobile and less four-square than the largest of the Suffolk waggons on a slightly wider track. A waggon built to a 63in track could not be used on a track of 77in for danger of oversetting, nor could a vehicle with 36in wheels be used in ruts made by 50in wheels.”
Among the many items that I learned about animal powered vehicles, was that in England, at least, teams were not hitched with the tongue or pole until comparatively recent times. I’m speaking now of horses; if they were not hitched in tandem there was a double set of shafts. The tongue was developed and used mostly with oxen because of the yoke ring, hence the American use of the “neck yoke.” Many of Mr. Arnold’s drawings are of wagons with those double shafts.
On one full page he lists 37 different parts of the wagon and what they were called in 11 different shires or counties. Most often they had as many as 8 or 10 different titles, the more remarkable in that often these areas were but a few miles apart. If it was a Lade in your area, but somewhere else a Top Body Lade, a Top Rave, a Long Rath, a Rave Rail, a Rave, a Bed Rave, a Main Rave, a Top Rail, or a Top Runner, it might get confusing, especially with like differences in 36 other parts.
I was fascinated, too, with the names for the wagons and carts themselves. Trolleys, Hermaphrodites, Boat wagons, Tip carts, Harvest carts, Gambos, Long carts and Wheel Cars. About that last, anyone working the steep slopes today might surely be interested in the Wheel cars. It was a vehicle half a sled in front and wheeled behind. The obvious advantage being that, while the wheels made the load easier to pull, the sled end would tend to anchor it on tilted ground making it easier to manage than either the stone boat sled or the true cart. Farm Waggons and Carts is not inexpensive but if your interest lies along these lines I recommend it. As an English Ramble of any age it is an important work.
to be continued
Farm Waggons and Carts, by James Arnold, published by David & Charles, Inc. (out of print, but can be found online)