Poem: ‘Ode to Our Wagon Wheels’

by E. E. Lewis    


A pair of wheels adorn our Door County drive.

Hewn from wood more than a century past,

four feet tall, they’re a wheelwright’s pride.

Power and grace in our pair reside

to greet our guests as they arrive.


Strength and beauty they combine into one.

How were these merged, how was it done?

Who was their maker, from where did he come?

How did he build them rugged and strong

to serve the farmers to whom they’d belong?


Strength and power our wheels exude,

for that’s what their maker had pursued:

from axle to tire a sturdy structure they display,

spokes – slender but strong – power convey

from the hub’s central hole to the outermost rim.


Cutting, planing and shaving,

weight was saved and wood not wasted.

To hub, spoke and rim strength was allotted,

so no weakest link would be imparted;

equated strength and grace are related.


Beauty imbues their circular shape,

perfectly round but not a flat plate,

they’re subtly dished much like fine china.

Form follows function in the wheels’ details,

and graceful dishing their strength avails.


The wheelwright would inherently know

what engineers’ math can now plainly show:

Dishing gave strength to support large loads,

and resisted the wagon’s to and fro wobbles

as its horse plodded down rough rutted roads.


No knowledge the wheelwright had of fine art,

and too young was science to play any part.

His practical art from father to son was passed,

in tradition traced back to the medieval past

when craft guilds set standards destined to last.


Each wood the wheelwright took care in selecting:

a hub of tough elm resists cracking and splitting.

spokes of strong oak to support great weight.

To form the rim, flexible felloes of beech he’d bend.

No knots he’d allow, for failures they’d bring.


No nails, screws or glue in our wheels are found.

Such fasteners he knew were too crude to be sound.

The wheelwright worked only with wood.

With tenon and mortise, with dowel and hole,

he chiseled and drilled to join parts to the whole.


A blacksmith heated an iron tire in a circle of fire.

Then around the rim he’d quench it to shrink,

compressing the wheel to bolster its strength.

Then into the hub an iron sleeve he’d slide

to house the axle on which the wagon would ride.


Each time our wheels come into view,

of the wheelwright’s craft I think anew.

To science no credit can we assign,

for the wheel evolved over centuries of time

to our ancestors’ needs to closely align.


Though progress transformed the wheel

from wood and iron to rubber and steel,

our wheels stand tall to us remind,

how utility and beauty were once combined,

in objects of lasting aesthetic appeal.


Elmer and Ann Lewis divide their time between Gills Rock and Evanston, Ill. where he is Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering at Northwestern University. Among his books is Masterworks of Technology: The Story of Creative Engineering, Architecture, and Design, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2004 328 pp.

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