In trying to imagine the history of this wagon I’m borrowing, I have to think back to a time before cars and trucks and decent roads existed and what it would take to haul anything for any distance. In the 1840’s, when American pioneers began their massive westward migration from St. Louis across the plains and mountains to the west coast, long before the first individual motorized vehicle, the wagon was the main transport for goods and possessions.
In 1834, Henry Mitchell, a 24 year old wheelwright, immigrated from Scottland to Chicago and began a wagon building business. Over the next 80 years, Mitchell became widely known as one of the finest craftsmen of wagons available commercially. They were also the first to be constructed factory-style rather than pieced together by your friendly local carpenter, wheelwright and blacksmith. (And, by the way, imagine all of this happened before the invention of power tools – Black and Decker didn’t make the first electric power tool in the U.S. until 1916.)
At the height of Mitchell’s wagon production, the factory covered 20 acres in Racine, Wisconsin, had it’s own railway, and shipped 25,000 wagons a year through shipyards, rivers and railways to every major city in the U.S. and a few cities internationally. Racine was the birthplace of the factory-built wagon as much as Detroit was the birthplace of the automotive industry.
So, in 1917, when this particular wagon was purchased in Portland, Oregon*, it wasn’t a unique wagon, and buying a new Mitchell wagon was about as simple as going to your friendly local Ford dealership today for a new F-150. That’s probably how this wagon came to be located in Oregon. Since there’s no Carfax report, no odometer, no title, no VIN #, and someone painted over the original paint and pinstriping, I can only guess about it’s age and origins.
The last year Mitchell made wagons before the brand was sold to John Deere was 1917, the same year the United States entered World War I and the automobile replaced the wagon as main transport for goods and possessions. Over the next 100 years, through today, the wagon has become a symbol more than a necessity, and the craft of wagon-making has returned to the hands of a few rare craftsmen. Even with the modern power tools available to today’s carpenter, wheelwright and blacksmith, wagon-making is almost a lost art and repairing and restoring a 100 year old wagon is a labor of love and nostalgia.
Enter Rob Lewis, and The Anvil Academy.
As soon as the discussion started concerning repairs to the wagon, Rob volunteered to become involved and make the wagon repair project part of his curriculum for The Anvil Academy students.
Rob is the principal and dreamer behind The Anvil Academy in Newberg, Oregon, a school so unique it almost defies a description. Physically, it’s a wagon shop, and Rob is jolly serious about the craft of wagon building. Academically, it teaches woodworking and blacksmithing, and Rob not only teaches and mentors, he brings in other respected craftsmen to teach these trades. Philosophically, it fosters an appreciation for the history of these trades as a way to better understand process, design and application toward a goal. Whether the goal is building a wheelbarrow or a stagecoach, students make a plan, learn the tools, and use their minds, hands and hearts to build character, self-confidence and life skills.
When I visited The Anvil Academy this week to talk with Rob about the wagon, I watched middle-school aged students pick up a hand-saw, hammer and chisel for the first time and spend an hour trying to master a concept, building nothing more than a skill for the sake of itself. Zero screen time, no keyboards, no electricity, just good ol’ fashioned trial and error. I met high school students who spoke passionately and articulately about their projects in the works at the school and the skills they are learning. So, you see, it’s more than a school and it’s not just about wagons.
No doubt, Rob is a craftsman and a visionary, but a humble one. He learned woodworking in his father’s cabinet making shop, but he is basically a self-taught wheelwright and possibly the only one remaining in Oregon. Over the past three decades he admits failures more than successes in trying to start his school, but he beams about his opportunities to teach wood craftsmanship to at-risk kids. His heart seems to be as big as his whole body, and he is full of stories and experiences that inform and entertain. These stories also tell me that Rob is obviously one of those people who dream up projects at a much faster rate than his plans can be executed, and his list is perpetually getting longer. Luckily for me, he reordered his priorities to accomodate the need for repairs to the wagon.
Also, luckily for me, Rob is committed to the wagon project, because the list of repairs grew longer in the past week as careful inspections were made. Last week the wagon needed a new seat and new bows for the cover. When I visited with Rob this week, he gave me a tour of all of the rotted wood (the wagon had lived outdoors for many of the last 30 years) and declared that the wagon was in need of a whole new front end (front panel, foot rest, tool box, etc.). I am beyond grateful that this was discovered, as the wagon would’ve been unlikely to hold up to the rigors of the trip. Instead, because of Rob, I have faith that the wagon will be sound.
This was the second installment of a blog telling the weekly story of what I learn and do to prepare for an 8-day journey with the 4-H Wagon Train and the stories of the people who help make it possible.
Next week: “Wagon Train, Past and Present & How Did I Get Myself Into This?”
*NOTE: The wagon was purchased from Mitchell, Lewis and Staver* in Portland, Oregon, a manufacturer and seller of agricultural equipment. Mitchell, Lewis and Staver is still in the business today, in Wilsonville, Oregon. The origin of the name “Mitchell” in this company was through mergers and partnerships throughout the years, beginning William Mitchell, son of Henry Mitchell, who opened a Mitchell wagon dealership in Portland, Oregon in 1882.
December 30, 2105 Newberg Graphic Article: The Anvil Academy Setting Up Shop in Newberg by Seth Gordon
December 21, 2016 Newberg Graphic Article: C.S. Lewis Partners With The Anvil Academy by Seth Gordon
The Pacific Overland Expo Horse Drawn Vehicle and Equipment Auction, April 21-22, at The Yamhill County Fairgrounds, benefits The Anvil Academy scholarship fund. It’s a very cool event where horsemen, muleskinners, wagon enthusiasts, historians and aficionados of farm equipment for work and fun are gathered. It will expand your horizons – I highly recommend it! Click HERE for more details.