Jefferson County History
"Peppard’s Wind Wagon"
Written and Submitted by Jan Tompkins
Oskloosa’s Old Jefferson Town features a sculpture honoring the best-known achievement of one of its favorite sons. A fellow so famous some folks think his exploit was just a tall tale. I’m talking about Samuel G. Peppard, the most famous name you’ve probably never heard of.
There’s a children’s book at the city library about him, “The Wind Wagon,” by Celia Barker Lottridge. And Walt Disney made an animated film in 1961, mostly fictitious, about Samuel, called “Wind Wagon Smith,” still available on DVD’s. Why does everybody think his name was Smith? Maybe because he was a blacksmith and wagon maker. A wagon smith. A wagon smith who (along with several other folks around the country) came up with the notion of attaching sails to a wagon to travel across the plains about the time of the Civil War. And his contraption worked.
Samuel Peppard wasn’t actually born in Jefferson County, Kansas. He was born in Wayne County, Ohio, the son of John and Martha Peppard. In the 1850 census, the family is in Prairie Township, Holmes County, Ohio, and consists of John who is either 51 or 57, and Martha, age 54, our Samuel, age 17, born in Ohio, and brothers Thomas, 14, and Newton J, 12. The occupation given for John and Samuel is “turning.” Wood turning perhaps? The men of the Peppard family always seem to be involved some way with wood. By the time of the 1859 territorial census for Kansas Territory, young Samuel Peppard and his brother Thomas had settled in Oskaloosa, the county seat of Jefferson County. Samuel’s “date of settlement” is given in the census as February 1858; Thomas’s is listed as April 1858.
The brothers were still living in Oskaloosa by the time of the federal census for 1860. They are found listed in the household of one Martha Dutton, “hotelkeeper,” whose list of 12 boarders includes Samuel Peppard, 26, carpenter, born Ohio, and Thomas Peppard, 23, carpenter, born Ohio. Kansas State Historical Society says that by 1860 Sam Peppard also owned a sawmill on the Grasshopper River near Oskaloosa.
Probably some folks in Jefferson County in those days still talked about the 1853 demonstration by entrepreneur William Thomas to the U S Army at nearby Fort Leavenworth. Thomas’s invention was a wind-powered prairie schooner, 25 feet in length with 12-foot wheels and a single sail on a 7-foot mast. Fort Leavenworth was a mere 30 or so miles away from Oskaloosa. Maybe that’s what inspired Sam Peppard to build his wind wagon. Then again, 1860 was reportedly a drought year. Perhaps there wasn’t much paying work, or perhaps the young men had too much time on their hands. Or perhaps they wanted to go west to Colorado and join the hunt for gold and silver. The Pike’s Peak gold rush was on.
At any rate, in 1860, Sam Peppard and his friend, John Hinton, built a wind wagoning contraption, described by Dakota Livesay this way:
“Built like a small boat, it was about 8 feet long and 3 feet wide,
and it had four large wagon wheels. Weighing about 350 pounds,
it was designed to hold four people.
“The first time out, the wind blew the wagon over. So Peppard
reconstructed the sails, rudder, and brakes.”
When it was done, Sam and three of his friends packed up supplies and on May 9, 1860, they hoisted their sails set out in their wind wagon for the Colorado goldfields. Total idiocy! Everybody knew that the prevailing winds blow from west to east; these guys were trying to go the wrong direction! By this time lots of folks were calling Sam’s wind wagon “Peppard’s Folly.”
According to the newspapers of the day, the wind wagon actually sailed west despite predictions to the contrary. It typically hustled along the prairie “at the breakneck pace of 15 miles an hour. Occasionally it might hit 40.” So says the Christian Science Monitor which reports, “He sailed from Kansas City all the way to Ft. Kearny on the Platte River....”
A correspondent for Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine at the time reported on Peppard’s Folly’s arrival at Ft. Kearny:
“The ship hove in sight about 8 o’clock in the morning with a
fresh breeze from east northeast. It was running down in a
westerly direction for the fort, under full sail, across the green
prairie. The guard, astonished at such a sight, reported the
matter to the officer on duty, and we all turned out to view the
phenomenon. Gallantly she sailed, and at a distance...not
unlike a ship at sea. In front is a large coach lamp to travel by night
when the wind is favorable. A crank and band wheels allow it to
be propelled by hand when wind and tide are against them.”
Some days there was no wind. On those days, says Dakota Livesay, “Peppard and his three friends just sat back, smoked a cigarette, and swapped stories.”
Peppard’s Folly seems to have worked well for the first 500 miles or so. Then, alas, the adventurers fell victim to a whirling Colorado “dust devil” which turned the wagon into splinters. Sam and his friends had to walk the remaining 50 miles to Denver. Did they ever find gold or silver? We don’t know.
Sam at last went back to Oskaloosa, then served in the Union Army, then returned to his sawmill and carpentry trades. In 1868, at the age of 33, he married an 18-year-old local girl named Alice Clark and settled down. He and Alice begot a dozen children, made a comfortable living, and lived out their days in Oskaloosa. And he happily told stories about his time sailing the prairie in a sail wagon.
When Sam died in 1916, the local historical society says, his obituary didn’t mention Peppard’s Folly or his remarkable youthful adventures. Perhaps his family thought the whole notion really was mostly a tall tale, too fabulous to be true.
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This website created Nov. 12, 2011 by Sheryl McClure.
© 2011 Kansas History and Heritage Project