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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Axle Grease - Maintaining the Chuckwagon

 Joe Jones of Western Range Catering takes time to perform routine maintenance on his Peter Shuttler Chuckwagon. Wagon wheels require to be lubricated in order to roll with less friction and longer wear of axle wheel spindles.  Since Joe normally trailers his wagon to catering events and chuckwagon cooking competitions, greasing the wheels is not as frequent as those who use horse drawn vehicles often.  
The wagon wheel,  consider one of the six simpleless machines every created, spins on an axle allowing heavy loads to be easily moved or transported.  Evidenced of early wagons was found during an excavation near southern Poland finding a Bronocise Pot with art work of a four wheel wagon dating near 3500 BC.   The first wheels date to 4000 BC,  found simultaneously in what is central Europe and the Mesopotamia area which is the land between the Euphrates and Syria,  the first known spoke wheels came about during the second millennium.  The wheeled Chariot would spread the development of wheels at an increased rate reaching both Scandinavia and China by 1200 BC.  By 500 BC during the Iron Age, the classic spoke wheel with hub and iron rims would become the standard into the 20th century.  
Through the years, the wagon would take on many shapes with as many different usages.  Each, requiring maintenance ensuring the smooth spin of the wheel on the axles which they were mounted too.  Lubricates  were applied to reduce friction transferring heat. Greasing kept parts separated while protecting against wear and corrosion.
On a covered wagon, early pioneers carried the Grease bucket hung off the rear axle but since the chuckwagons often have a boot box, easy access to the grease required hanging either off the front axle or the side braces of the wagon bed.    
Early axle grease was Tallow, made from animal fat rendered from Beef or Mutton.  At room temperature, Tallow remains as a solid substance that could be stored for long periods of time.  Due to not having refrigeration to prevent decomposing, tallow was stored in various air tight containers to prevent oxidation.  
The wheel-grease containers were among the tools most wagons needed for simple maintenance.  Before axle grease came in a tin can,  it was often kept in ox-horn containers or a carved out log with a lid as shown left.  Looped together with a chain or rope the grease container could then be carried over the rear axle during transit.  Carved logs and wooden buckets would be made with an lid having a small hole which allowed to carry a mop like brush used to apply the grease.  Later containers would be iron or steel, eventually being supplied in sealed tins.
For early pioneers, grease lubrication was kept at a minimum because of its short supply, but history also records that in emergencies, fatback - today's bacon - was sliced and wrapped around wheel spindles as a lubricant.  A true grease consist of an oil along with a thickening agent that during the 1800's was typically soap.   Grease was first used during ancient Egypt mixing lime with olive oils.  Europe later would use black slugs to make axle grease on wagons and carts.  Pine Tar sometimes added for it's preservative properties, although until refining petroleum in the 20th century, Tallow remain the prime lubricate for axles. 
Early cattle drives of the American Cowboy learned that Longhorn cattle could be easily move long distance without much lost of weight. To provide demand for needed hides, lubrication and meat, millions of Texas Longhorns were moved to northern markets.  While the Longhorn cattle were once numerous, they nearly became extinct towards the end of the 19th century.  Immune to Cattle Tick Fever, many markets in fear of infecting other cattle breeds would outlaw or quarantine the Longhorn. Additionally, the demand for fatty beef both for consumption along with making needed tallow plunge the leaner Longhorn which was poor for production Tallow.  
In 1927, J. Frank Dobie with help of other conservationist and historians would convince Congress to assist saving this true American Breed.  Two U.S. Forrest Rangers would inspect and find only 20 cows and two bulls of pure bloodline that would be moved to Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Cache, Oklahoma.  Today, again, the Longhorn thieves for it's quality lean beef, though remains poor for the manufacturing of tallow. 
Some manufactures of horse drawn carriages and wagons found it profitable to sell their own brand of axle grease. This was true of Mitchell Wagon Company which contracted to have their label on a tin container's filled with tallow.  
In 1839, Nicholas Schaeffer founded Schaeffer Manufacturing Company, which has manufactured lubricants in America longer than any other company.  Lubricants were not Schaeffer's primary line of business at first. Production of axle grease grew out of soap and candle making. But by the mid-1800s, the wagons wheels of many travelers to the California gold fields were greased with Schaeffer's product. Eventually, the company became a full-fledged lubricant manufacturer and marketer. 
Grease Bucket Rafter TS Chuckwagon
Today, owners seek antique grease buckets for restored wagons.  Sandra Julian of Rafter TS  caters and competes with her chuckwagon. She located the mid 1850's grease bucket which she is proud to tell you about the history of the aged wooden container that stills shows signs of early use with tar and tallow.  
Those who perhaps do not locate old grease buckets through auctions or antique shops turn to either building one carving a log out as did early farmers and ranchers, or to reproductions.   Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop  manufactures to authentic detail an early design grease bucket along with providing actual grease for additional cost.  
Grease Bucket by Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop
American Civil War Iron Grease Bucket for Cannon Axles
Our Grease Bucket at Cowboys and Chuckwagon Cooking


  1. Not sure how accurate the stories are but there are stories of wagons along the trail making grease from a mixture of flour and oil from one of several oil seeps along the trail in Wyoming. No oil available on most of the trail but possible in Wyoming. Coal to burn could also be found along the trail in several Wyoming places. -Great post, very interesting-

    1. Since grease is an oil of animal or vegetable mixed with an emulsifier, often soap or wax, I can understand home made lubricants during the age of early pioneers...Innovation. Nothing was wasted. I've read where bacon fats were often use and while the earliest forms of grease was olive oil, black slugs (Arion ater) were used as axle-grease to lubricate wooden axle-trees or carts in Sweden. Pine tar was another and very dirty which sounds like a coal grease would be as well using coal or flour as a form of emulsifier thickening the oils.

  2. How was the grease applied? Was a wheel removed by lifting the wagon with a jack so grease could be applied? How often did this occur in the pioneering days?

    1. JW, that is a great question with multiple answers. Since many wagon trains of early pioneers or the chuckwagons during the cattle drive used animal fats, bacon grease and such, it required greasing the axle more often than with tallow or black-jack Grease of the time. Today, block grease which is enriched with wax and grease combine last longer than regular axle grease for auto's or trailers and last longer. If you're using your wagon regularly, every three months is a good ideal to check on each wheel but it your rarely using the wagon, once a year, it should be part of your maintenance plan when oiling down the spokes and felloes.

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