Introduction to the Range Camp™

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Try to imagine back in the late 1800s when fences and motels were unknowns. The sheep wagon was “home on the range” for sheep herders with their shaggy old dog lying outside watching over the band of sheep in the nearby meadow. Sheep wagons made their debut between 1890 and 1930 on the western prairie and in the mountain meadows. These humble abodes were the homes of nomadic sheep herders who followed their bands of sheep in search of green pastures. This “home on wheels” was pulled from one location to another by a team of horses. As automobiles became popular, the large wooden-spoke wheels were often replaced by rubber tires. The team of horses was retired and a pickup truck replaced them. Although meager, this wagon was a shelter for the sheep herder which contained most of the necessities of life. It was a kitchen, bedroom, and living-room, ingeniously packaged into one small space.

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The Sheep Herd

In the late 1800 to the mid 1900s, “range herds” of sheep would trail hundreds of miles between their winter ranges (in the lower elevations) and their summer ranges (in the mountain valleys). Sam Jackson tells that his father and his two uncles each had a herd of approximately 3000 head that left the summer range near the head of Huntington Creek (Utah) mid October and arrived on the winter range near the Nevada border 30 days later. Many of the sheepmen in the Sanpete County area (and nearly all of them in the Fountain Green/Mt. Pleasant/Fairview area) did the same thing. These bands of sheep, ranging anywhere from hundreds to thousands of sheep, were watched over by herders on horseback. This wooly tide has been seen since the late 1800s in many communities throughout the West traveling our country roads. They moved slowly between fields (amid alfalfa and grain stubble) with their ever vigilant sheep dogs trotting around the periphery. Also noticeable was the ubiquitous Sheep Wagon, looking like a miniature covered wagon. An old sheep man would have recognized it. He’d remember his own with the built-in bunk and table, the cast iron stove, kerosene or gas lamp to read by, and a .30-30 for the coyotes. Everything was tied down securely while on the move.

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The Camp Wagon

Often referred to as a ‘sheep camp’, ‘sheep wagon’, or ‘sheep herder wagon’, however “camp wagon” would more accurately describe the vehicle because some “camp wagons’ were used by ‘cowboys’, ‘loggers’ and others who needed a home-away-from-home. But whatever name you prefer, they can still claim the distinction of being ‘America’s first Travel Trailer’.

Camp wagons were said to have first been designed and built in Wyoming just before the turn of the century. With several Wyoming residents claiming that honor, we leave the controversy to others. Suffice it to say, if being copied means success, these mobile canvas cottages were certainly the epitome of success because little was changed from the first to the last. Thousands were manufactured throughout the western states over a fifty year period. Most were built by the sheep ranchers or ordered from local lumber companies.

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The only ‘factory built’ vehicles I’m aware of were manufactured by Studebaker from 1902 until 1913. Selling for the implausible cost of $115 for the camp with a double canvas cover, then an additional $100 would get you a new running gear on which to carry it. Studebaker must have been quite proud of this product as they branded each camp with a serial number. (The serial number on Studebaker camp wagons is carved into the bench backrest just to the left, as you enter the front door.) I have been in touch with the Studebaker museum in South Bend Indiana (which, by the way, does not have a camp wagon in their inventory) and, though they manufactured far more horse drawn vehicles for many more years than automobiles and trucks, “All of the wagon records were thrown away in 1950″. I have as yet been unable to find out how many camp wagons they built, although it must have been at least 1046, as I have that particular one in my possession, plus four others with smaller numbers. Keep in mind as I offer the following description: camp wagons are somewhat like people; basically the same, but each one slightly different.

Camp Wagons were of two basic designs: the Mushroom type built between 1885 and 1920; and, the Loaf type built after 1920. The first camp wagons were of the mushroom design. They had a frontal silhouette resembling their namesake. The ‘Loaf’ type (designed to be pulled with automobiles) have a frontal shape of an inverted loaf of bread. Their average outside dimensions are approximately 10’ high (from ground to top) x 6’ wide, x 11’ 6″ long. They sport a 40″ x 60″ living area into which was fitted an 18″ x 22″ wood burning stove. The bed was 6’ long x 52″ wide and located above a storage area accessible from both inside and out. A grub box was fashioned under one bench, accessible from inside. (Some of the ‘Deluxe’ models had the bed raised eight inches and two drawers and a pull-out table were placed underneath). Under the opposite bench, accessible from outside, a compartment was located to store the lantern and coal oil can (Kerosene to you younger folks). On the rear of the wagon was attached a hinged extension gate on which a variety of items such as hay, grain, or hides could be carried.

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The front door was of a ‘Dutch’ design. The bottom half locking with a heavy wrought iron device that held the front end of the wagon together while moving, and the top half sliding open, allowing the ‘camp tender’ to drive the team from just inside the camp wagon without having to contend with a swinging door. A brake lever extended up through the bench within easy reach of the driver.

These canvas-covered-cottages were built as light-weight as possible, as a single span of animals was usually asked to pull them and a commissary wagon (loaded with hay, grain, water troughs and other equipment). To keep them as light as possible, the camp was constructed of pine (other than using hardwood for bows). Canvas then covered the top, front and rear panels. (A note concerning the canvas cover: if you have ever spent a 20 below zero night in a blizzard with you and your partner taking turns setting up to keep the fire going, then you have some idea of what the insulating qualities of sixteen ounce cotton canvas is, and would agree that it compares favorably to “nothing” (while not denying that it’s a pretty good wind break and keeps the rain out).

It was a common practice, when the canvas top needed replacing, it was not taken off but just covered over with the new one. I found evidence of seven layers on one unit. The wheels were narrow (fitted with 2″ iron tires) and high (52″ diameter rear, and 48″ front) for additional clearance.

Life in a Camp Wagon

As meager as these camp wagons might seem, the old sheep herder would consider the conditions “cushy” compared to the days he’d follow the herd year ’round using a pack string and a tent. I’ve heard some folks refer to camp wagons as “America’s first RV’s.” But as much as they improved the sheep herder’s lot in life, ‘Recreational Vehicles’ they were not!

Consider the following comments made to me by a friend now pushing ninety, who took his first job as a camp tender when he was nineteen years old.

“In the Arco desert, roads were nearly non existent. With the help of a pick, shovel, ax and a lot of sweat, I hoped the terrain would allow me to stay within sight of the herd which might travel as much as four to five miles in a day if the feed was sparse.

“It wasn’t unusual having to unhitch the team from the wagon, put them in front of a one bottom hand plow to dig a furrow around a hillside for the upper wheels to track in. That was mighty hard work, but didn’t compare to the task of cleaning up the mess after a camp has tipped over. There’s many a time I would have to signal the herders to come in and help the team pull the wagon and commissary over a grade, using lariats from saddle horns as tow ropes.”

With all of the harrowing experiences (by today’s standards), it’s a shame more wasn’t written by the nomads who called the camp wagon ‘home’. But then as now, a day had but twenty four hours; and, ninety years ago, in what we today would call ‘an unbelievably harsh environment’, most of it was used for assuring the survival of themselves and their woolly wards. Documenting their everyday experiences would have seemed as ridiculous as writing today’s thrill of a traffic jam. That, coupled with the fact that few had any formal education, caused the loss of a significant bit of interesting western history. Each generation has its everyday experiences branded by those who follow as ‘hardships’ and viewed with wonder and awe.

A number of well meaning romantics have written articles about camp wagons, usually inspired by some nostalgic force such as; “I once slept in Grandpa’s” or “Daddy showed me one on our vacation in Utah”. Still other authors will fill page after page discussing non-provable controversies, such as: “Who built the first one?” and other equally insignificant subjects adding little but questions to the already inadequate history.

Restorations and Discoveries

There is also a cottage industry of folks working on old camp wagons who decorate them with copper roofs, add on porches, install electric lights and refrigerators then advertise them as ‘restored’. They may have ‘rebuilt’ them, but ‘restore’ they did not!

The first part of the process is dismantling the interior, and in doing so (if you are careful, part detective, part romantic, and an ex-sheep herder who lived in one) you will gain some insight as to the humble existence of the residents. For instance; underneath a layer of cloth I was removing from one front panel was a pencil written note reading; “June 27th, 1940, Stopped for breakfast, 9 O’clock”. The significance of that comment, to anyone but the author, is lost forever (it is now displayed on the wall of my shop). Other things speaking volumes for the inhabitants and their everyday existence are items found behind cupboards and in other places, to be lost — until some old codger decides to tear things apart and notes a supply lists meant for the boss. One list I came across asked for a “chore boy”. I’ve often wondered what was actually delivered (a scrubbing pad, or a two legged helper?).

The old magazines and newspapers used for insulation told something of their interests; and, letters lost behind the cupboard and never mailed tell of personal cares and worries not too different from ours today.

Mice were a big problem — ‘A hole is gnawed through a wooden grub box’. In answer, a coffee can lid is nailed over the hole — beside the lid, another hole.

‘The north wind belts your backside as you’re trying to sleep.’ Next morning, using material at hand, every crack is stuffed with raw wool.

‘The camp rocks violently in the middle of the night’ — there is no wind! You get out of bed, open the door, and in a kindly voice ask the horses to please go away and scratch their backs on something else. You secretly accept part of the blame for the rude awakening as it was you who parked the camp in an area devoid of trees.

One interesting thing I find in about one out of every three camps: they show some signs of having been on fire, usually near the stove. Although the builders installed some insulation faced with tin between the back and sides of the stove, only a couple of inches separate it from dry pine lumber; and, inattention to the stove’s temperature for only a short time can scorch and/or ignite wood. I’m surprised more of them did not burn completely.

Camp Wagons Today

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The old ‘mushroom’ camp wagons we see still in use today long ago had their tops canvas replaced with sheet metal and insulation added. Though all originally rolled on wooden wheels powered by a span of horses or mules, everything began to change in the early 1920s as someone came up with the bright idea that pick-up trucks could be used for other things (besides hauling the ‘boss’ around) and said; “lets pull the camp wagons with one of them new fangled gadgets.” And so, another new era was born. That decision made the weight of the camp no longer a major factor so — wheels were removed, wooden axles were sawed off and the camp set on some type of an automotive chassis or farm wagon. (Some tried to pull them with their pick-up trucks while the wagons were still on wooden wheels but quickly found out that any speed over ten mph on hard surface roads caused the iron tires to heat, expand and then fly off.) I have a picture on my office wall of three camp outfits parked near the shearing corral at Jericho, Utah. Each had a team of horses tied, eating hay, and a model “T” pick-up parked nearby, but not hooked to the camp wagons. The photo would have been taken just before the transition period, probably around 1922.

Today, Camp Wagons are still built in Utah for the industry (apparently, only 10% go to sheep outfits and 90% to construction contractors, ranchers and sportsmen). They are the ‘loaf’ type and have received a few modifications over the years. Re-design of the under carriage allows them to be towed as fast as you care to drive. Also, their furnishings include such things as: solar panels to furnish electricity; electric water heaters; electric stoves; TVs; and of course, a micro-wave oven. Can you imagine the standard sheep herders dinner of ‘sourdough and mutton’ being cooked in a micro wave? To quote a famous poet–

“Majestic is the image in my mind,
but sorrow waxes heavy, for I know,
that n’er again will any see this kind—
for progress has erased a glorious show!” Sajac

Another interesting era slips from our grasp, with future generations experiencing the comfort and safety of a ‘camp wagon’ only from the very thin volumes of historical records; or in some cases, that old standby ‘family photo album’.

(Quoted by permission from the intriguing writings of Mr. Sam A. Jackson)

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