From stagecoaches to schoolhouses

By: Leon Smith - Contributing columnist

In 1867, Abbot and Downing’s carriage shop began building “the finest stage coaches ever built,” for Wells-Fargo & Company. Their Concord coaches were crafted in the New Hampshire city of the same name.

There, wheelwrights fashioned wooden rims from two semicircular pieces of hickory, mortised and tenoned the edges where the halves joined. The rims were joined to their hubs by wooden spokes. The two rim-pieces were held in place by a metal “tire,” fashioned by a blacksmith from iron, perhaps 3/8ths of an inch thick, in a circle no larger than the wooden wheel’s circumference. By heating the metal in his forge, the blacksmith expanded the metal band so that he could easily tap it into place over the wooden wheel.

The wainwright built the carriage frame from wood and attached the fixed rear axle. He made the front axle rotate around a large screw driven into the frame. Then he attached the wheels, ones of smaller diameter in front, so they could rotate past the carriage itself.

The carriage was attached to the frame, not by leaf springs as were European coaches, but by multiple layers of bull-leather, cut in strips about a hands-breadth wide to make a belt about 150 feet long. After stitching the strips together, the leather worker coiled the finished belt into a circle with a diameter a little longer than the length of the coach. Two workers attached brackets to opposite ends of the leather ring, then pulled the multi-ply circle flat. Finally, they attached one bracket of this “thoroughbrace” to a spring steel hanger at the front of the stagecoach frame, and to a second spring steel hanger in the rear.

This first thoroughbrace, swagging between supports like a clothesline, formed a curve to match that of the bottom of the stagecoach. After completing the process with a second thoroughbrace, the coach was lowered onto the two leather straps. In place, the coach fit its leather cradle like a hand in a soft leather glove. Finally, the coach builder secured each leather thoroughbrace to the cabin with six metal fixtures.

Looking at a moving coach from the side, you can observe the action of this unique suspension. As the wheels pass over a bump, the spring steel hangers flex, the leather throroughbraces stretch, and the circular bottom of the cabin rolls back and forth, to cushion the passengers’ ride.

In his book, “Roughing It,” Mark Twain described his 1861 trip from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Carson City, Nevada. He paid $150 — $2,660 today — for his first-class trip that took about two weeks, to ride in the finest coach in the land, one costing $1,500 to build then — $26,600 today. He sat on hand-tooled leather seats in a cabin upholstered in damask, his luggage stored in the “boot:” a leather covered trunk built onto the rear of the stage. His valuables may have been stored in the front “boot,” a leather-covered compartment beneath the driver’s seat. There were only three passengers — himself, his brother, and one other — in a carriage built to carry nine passengers on three seats. The other spaces were covered with bags of mail.

Wanting their guests to enjoy each other’s company, Wells-Fargo published suggestions of proper behavior for them. The selections below are taken from a reprint in “Deadwood Magazine:”

1. Abstinence from liquor is requested, but if you must drink, share the bottle. To do otherwise makes you appear selfish and unneighborly.

4. Buffalo robes are provided for your comfort during the cold weather. Hogging the robes will not be tolerated and the offender will be made to ride with the driver.

6. Firearms may be kept on your person for use in emergencies. Do not fire them for pleasure or shoot at wild animals as the sound riles the horses.

7. In the event of runaway horses, remain calm. Leaping from the coach in panic will leave you injured, at the mercy of the elements, hostile Indians and hungry coyotes.

The driver was the single Wells-Fargo representative present, when no “treasure box” was on board. Then, an “’express messenger,” rode beside the driver to protect the treasure box, which often held gold jewelry and important documents. The “express messenger” cradled his message on his lap: a 12-gauge, sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun loaded with double-aught buckshot, whose presence led to his being popularly called a “shotgun messenger.” Although his gun and load were designed to stop big game, its mere appearance was intended to ward off timid robbers, and its use to wound determined ones who came to steal Wells-Fargo treasure.

The king of those determined men was called ”Black Bart,” a pedestrian bandit, who robbed stages with a shotgun of his own. Along the Northern California stage route, Bart took 28 Wells-Fargo treasure boxes between 1875 and 1883, without once firing his gun. But during heist No. 28, he got shot in the hand — presumably by the shotgun messenger — and in his haste to escape, left enough evidence for Wells-Fargo detectives to capture him. He served four years in prison, then was freed on “good behavior.”

Like the Concord stagecoach, our school buildings provide the finest crafted and furnished spaces for our children. Unlike the stagecoach, our school houses stand on tree-lined streets, in what were once peaceful villages and towns.

Wells-Fargo’s injunctions for passengers — don’t be selfish, unneighborly, stingy, careless with weapons, or panicky — were often followed by passengers, but eagerly ignored by criminals. The company added the shotgun messenger because rampant wild-west behavior gave them no other choice. Although our teachers encourage their charges toward socially desirable behavior, awareness of standards is not enough, for the spirit of our times has changed and the lifestyle of the Wild West has come east. Then, an anti-social rowdy looked the part; now, the ones who would do us harm do not stand out from the crowd in any way. So, our school buildings are filled with defenseless human beings, most of the time with no one there trained to protect them. The need for such protection became grievously apparent in 2012, when 20 elementary school children and six of their leaders were gunned down at peaceful Sandy Hook Elementary School.

At that point, our North Carolina General Assembly did something: it passed General Statute 162-26, which states “Sheriff may establish volunteer school safety resource officer program[s].” In March, 2018, the Stanly County Board of Education did something: it voted to implement Sherriff George Burgess’ GS 162-26 -based plan, which places armed law enforcement officers in the Stanly County schools.

I salute Stanly County for their actions. Successful volunteers, experienced as sworn law enforcement or military officers, will have gone through legally mandated and detailed background checks and completed extensive training in order to be chosen to bring armed law enforcement to Stanly County schools. On the job, these “messengers” will oppose any who enter school property with the intent of crime or mischief, bearing the authority of the sherriff’s department: armed defense, and power of arrest.

A most appropriate means of protection: these ex-military and ex-police officers, volunteering to become protectors of our schoolhouses — to deter and arrest any malcontent who would shoot children or their teachers, or in any way destroy the peace of the school.

By simply being present, the armed resource officers will also cow any student bullies — ones who threaten not only the well-being of their classmates and teachers, but also who create and maintain an atmosphere which makes peaceful learning impossible.

When Stanly’s new express messengers have set the example, and even before volunteer protection has brought peace and tranquility to every school in our nation, I hope such volunteers will be called upon to ride shotgun with bus drivers too, for school buses could attract malefactors, who would make them targets like the old Concord stage coaches and our modern schoolhouses.

The General Assembly and Stanly County have sent out a word to the wise. May it be sufficient.

Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.

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Leon Smith

Contributing columnist