The Slaughter of the Great Wheels

August 16, 2013

 

Warning: this is not a happy story. This is a story of when wheel rescue goes very, very wrong and the result. If you love great wheels in particular, steel yourself. In fact, you may not want to know this.

I get home from work on Wednesday and my husband says there is a voice mail from another wheel collector who specializes in great wheels. The message is that there is a cache of great wheels in New Jersey and can I help, if need be?

I call back. It seems that another great wheel expert we both know was contacted by a woman who now lives in Illinois, but who has property in New Jersey where she used to live. On the property is a trailer with over 30 great wheels, all dismantled. The owner is returning to sell off some items and wants to get rid of the wheels. Apparently, she purchased them at auction years ago but needs helping sorting and figuring out what is there, so the GW expert was called in.

The GW owner is asking $400 for all the great wheels and parts. My contact notes that he and the other expert have agreed to go in halfsies on this, if the expert thinks the wheels are worth saving. I offer to kick in part, too, or pick up the whole $400 if the expert decides to pass. He notes that most, if not all, are missing their spinning head but I point out that with a whole crate of heads in my kitchen, this wouldn’t be a problem. I offer to take off work to go along, we decide to let the expert take a look at the wheels and determine what the next steps are and I am happy to go along with this, since taking off work right now is virtually impossible.

So, Thursday comes. I go to work but rush home because it is our anniversary and we are going out to dinner. Come home from dinner and decide to check my e-mail before I go to bed. We have a VOIP phone system in work that converts voice mails into .wav files and emails them. I see two messages from an unusual phone number and play them back. It is the GW expert.

She called around 6 PM; she has been at the farm with a friend since around 2:00 and they haven’t made a dent in what is there. They did count 35 benches, 31 wheel posts and 20-some spindle posts, but then found other parts, so think they had approximately correct amounts. They never counted the drive wheels, but said there were at least 35. Everything was separated. Then it came out that the woman never actually saw ANY of them put together correctly. She’d won an auction lot of all the parts and put together several herself before giving up and storing everything for years.

They find the ones the GW owner assembled, but they are incorrect. They spend time trying to match up the rest. Finally, GW expert calls me to say it will take probably two weeks to actually figure out what is there. She has pulled out one wheel that I wanted, and 3 others that they were able to assemble, but she is unsure how to proceed and it is getting late. She says she thinks they will put everything back in the trailer and figure out in the morning how to proceed.

I get this message at around 11:00 Thursday night, so wait until Friday morning and call back around 10:00 AM. GW expert tells me that by the time they left the night before around 8 PM, the GW owner and her husband were talking about going back to Illinois today. She gives me GW owner’s cell phone number and I call.

GW owner is already on the road and seems annoyed that I have called. I explain who I am, who referred me, etc. She tells me that she and her husband are already heading back in separate vehicles and he has the trailer. She has one of the complete wheels that she is keeping and he has the other wheels. But, not exactly. Just literally, the wheels.

GW owner has decided that, “since the wheels aren’t worth anything,” she and her husband have loaded up the trailer with JUST THE DRIVE WHEELS. She says that when she comes back to New Jersey, IF she comes back, she will sell the benches and wheels posts for scrap lumber.

I beg. I plead. I try to explain the concept of wheel rescue. Finally, GW owner says a little irately, “If you want the wheels, you can just get yourself in the car and drive out to Illinois and pay me $30 for each wheel. That’s what I’m going to sell them for, for decorations.” I explain, again, that the drive wheels without the benches and posts are useless, as are the benches and posts without the drive wheels. The only way the collection is potentially valuable is to put them back together and spend the two weeks seeing what matches up.

No go. The woman will not call her husband to see where he is. She claims “he is probably already to the Ohio state line,” but will not check. He may have been 5 minutes out of New Jersey for all I know. She cannot understand why anyone would possibly be interested in a load of old wheels but says, “These wheels don’t matter. They are no good to anyone. There are thousands of good wheels out there, I see more in Illinois that I ever did in New Jersey. Everyone in Illinois has one and they are all complete and in great shape. These ones are good only for decoration.”

I realized I was talking to a stone wall and had to get off the phone before I said something like, “look, you effing idiot, don’t you get it?”

I called the GW expert back and broke the news to her. She was horrified. She had not been given a clue that this would be the solution to matching up the wheels. She thought they were just going to be put back in the trailer. She kept saying “If I’d only known.” She said a few of the drive wheels were split or missing spokes, one was out of true, but they were by-and-large in decent shape. Among the benches were a marked Farnham and a marked E.S. Williams.

The rest of the day, I had a sinking feeling that can only be described as this: It felt like being at the New Holland horse auction at the end of the day when the tractor trailer full of horses pulls out, headed for the slaughter house in Canada, and you can’t do a damned thing about it except watch it go down the road.

I think the thing that bothers me the most is this: It is not just the loss of so many wheels, which may or may not have been able to be brought back to spinning condition, but the loss of the history that goes with them. The history of the Farnhams, the Williams, and all the other makers. The history of the unknown spinners and how thrilled they were to find themselves with a new wheel. The work the wheels were put to. The stories of how they eventually came to be where they all were together, trapped in a trailer in New Jersey. All the history no one knew about them, and never will, now. They will be sold off for garden trellis, for chandelier bases, for god knows what. And the benches will be sold as scrap lumber.

It was not a good day in the wheel world. I remember at my first job, one of the guys there had a favorite saying, “Some days you eat the bear, and some days, the bear eats you.” Today, the bear is somewhere between
here and Illinois, picking his teeth with a great wheel spindle …..