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The Farm Wagon
The Anatomy of the Brake System

Once I told a friend that I intended to put brakes on my farm wagon, he said, “Why? They’ll only slow you down.” In his attempt at humor, he said more than he knew.

When I think back on all my favorite western movies and TV shows where wagons are being used, I recall scenes like Pa Ingalls setting high on a wagon seat looking down at Laura, curly dark hair under a broad brimmed hat. He’d smile and release the brake, slap the horses with the lines and drive off. For years I thought that in the old days setting the brake was all that you needed to keep one’s horses and wagon in the same place you put them. I mean, do you remember seeing anyone tying up their wagon and team? Setting the brake and wrapping the lines around the brake arm is all it takes to keep the horses from running off with the wagon . . . right? Wrong!! Contrary to popular movie belief, wagon brakes will only slow a wagon down. Any team worth it’s salt can easily walk away with a rig with the brakes fully engaged.

Historically, wagons were sold with brakes as an extra or special ordered, like extra side boards, heavier wheels and running gear, or a CD player. In some regions of the country that were hilly, like the south, local manufacturers would put brakes on every wagon. But if you were to order a new wagon from the Sears or Wards catalogue, the brakes were a special order.

When large and heavy loads were being transported to towns, ranches, homes and mining camps, etc., the steep, winding grades were scary to even the most hardened of teamsters. Costly and deadly would not be overstating the situation. In these circumstances, the standard brakes were woefully inadequate to keep from pushing the team out of control and wrecking the whole shooting match. There were three basic methods to ease the loaded wagon safely down to the bottom.

The first was to use the “pole brake”. This is done by placing a long pole about 4’ to 6’ long into the two steel bands on the roller bar at the rear of the wagon. The roller bar is the heavy steel arm that is suspended slightly ahead of the rear axle. The bar is bent at a right angle that rises up between the wheel and the box on the right side of the wagon. The ‘arm’ has two steel bands attached. The stout pole is placed into the bands and extends up into the air. A rope is then securely tied to the upper end and is run down to the front of the wagon where the teamster can pull it with his hand or push with his foot by way of a loop in the rope. This pulls the pole forward thus adding greater leverage to the brake shoes against the rear wheels and applying the braking pressure.

Another way to create drag to control the load was by using ‘skid shoes.’ These are small steel sleds of a sort, that the teamster would place, one in front of each rear wheel. The wagon was then rolled into the skid shoe and by way of a chain or heavy leather straps and the shoes secured to the bottom of the wheels. A chain at the nose of the shoe was fastened forward to the body of the wagon. As the wagon was drawn forward, the rear wheel s were kept from turning and the wagon drug down the hill.

The last method was very similar to the skid shoe method in that a long pole was run between the spokes of the real wheels. As the wagon was moved forward, the rear wheels were blocked from moving. This way of skidding the loaded wagon was quick to implement but hard on the wheel spokes and the wagon itself. It was called “rough locking the wheels”.

This article is to be a guide to help you understand the anatomy of the brake system. The application is very self explanatory. Once I understood all the parts, I simply found a wagon with brakes and copied it.

If you look at 10 different wagons you’ll find 10 different designs of the hardware, but the application is virtually the same. By looking around you’ll hopefully get lucky enough to find a wagon wreck in a field or yard like I did, and salvage the parts for your wagon. But if you can’t find all the hardware, they are not at all tough to construct.

The following is a description of the diagram with a brief explanation of the components.

A. Brake Arm Lever. When moved forward, it actuates all brake system components to engage the braking actions.
B. Ratchet. The steel framework that bolts to the side of the wagon that holds the brake arm in it’s engaged position by way of a series of notches. Note the backing plate.
C. Lever Mounting Bracket. The steel frame that is the pivot point for the brake arm. Note the backing plate.
D. Connecting Rod. A long steel rod that connects the lever to the roller bar.
E. Roller Bar. The heavy steel bar with a right angle bend and two steel pole loops. This bar coverts the forward movement of the lever into the backwards movement of the brake beam and shoes.
F. Roller bar mounting brackets with ‘U’ clamps to attach to the rear axle.
G. Brake Bar. A heavy steel bar with a ¼ twist that connects the roller bar extension piece to the brake beam.
H. Brake Beam. A wooden beam of oak or other solid wood that carries the brake blocks and shoes.
I. Brake Shoes. Wood blocks that rub the tire to cause the stopping action.
J. Brake Block. Steel brackets that hold the shoes to the brake beam.
K. Brake Beam Carrier. A wood beam that bolts or ‘U’ bolts to the rear hawns. This beam suspends the brake beam by way of eye bolts and elongated chain links that allow the brake beam to swing forward to engage the brake shoes.
L. Eye bolt and link connection. The linkage that allows the beam to swing forward.

Since I have added brakes to my wagon, I find that when I’m loading or unloading hay or passengers, the team stand better and it’s safer because the wagon can’t roll forward or back as the horses fidget and inclines don’t push or pull the team when parked on a hill.

I hope that this article helps you as you work on the wagon and remember this, when you work on your horse drawn equipment, no matter what it is, always error to the safe side! That is to say, use heavier wood, bigger bolts with lock washers, or, whatever, so you can eliminate risk and injury. So until next time, . . . hook up the team and I’ll see you on the road.

Paul L. Muller


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