An Overview Of The Star Wagon Company

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
Published on:
All imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved. The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
Share This Blog:
Living in an age where visual arts haveenjoyed so much progress can make it tempting to take the work of graphicdesign for granted.  Modern advances indigital photography, clip art, computerized image manipulation, and stock photoavailabilities make it significantly easier to produce eye-catching advertisingin the 21st century. 

Looking back to the late 1800’s,promotional expressions were not so simple. Businesses desiring a tailored polish to their marketing materials wereat the mercy of the tedious, costly, and highly skilled craft of engraving aswell as the burgeoning lithographic processes. As such, quick turnarounds on elaborate, custom printings weren’t commonplaceduring the 1870’s and ‘80’s. 

From business and promotional literature to the vehicle, itself, early wagon makers recognized the value of first impressions and often produced elaborate visuals to reinforce a reputable brand image. 
Nevertheless, many agriculturalcompanies of the day took great pains to set themselves apart inadvertising.  Prominent wagon makers wereno exception.  From dynamic depictions offrontier scenes to the use of vibrant colors and exquisite line work, countlessdesigns were meticulously fashioned and widely distributed by savvy westernvehicle marketers like Peter Schuttler, Mitchell, Bain, Moline, Jackson, andStudebaker.  Among the early pieces inthe Wheels That Won The West® archives are several produced by a wagon companylaunched on the edge of the American frontier just after the Civil War.  Today, the manufacturer is best known as theStar Wagon Company from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 

As shown in this early 1880’s letterhead and receipt, the Star Wagon Company produced impressive graphics to accompany their acclaimed vehicles. 
According to the 1878 book, “The Historyof Linn County Iowa,” the organization began its life in 1866 as Upton,Chambers, and Company.  Even so, it seemsthe firm’s brand may have always been aligned with the five-pointed celestialname.  A very early local advertisementfrom 1867 refers to the vehicles as ‘Star Wagons.’

In 1871, the business was officiallyincorporated and the name was changed from Upton, Chambers, and Company to the“Star Wagon Company.”  Almost before theink on the incorporation papers was dry, the firm suffered a devastatingfire.  In the aftermath, the charredwooden remains were replaced with brick structures.  The rebuilding process was completed in 1872.  By 1877, the company was producing 3,000vehicles per year and, within another couple years, the enterprise had becomerecognized as one of the leading wagon builders for the western trade. (See our December 10, 2014 blog for more details).  
One of the greater complications for anumber of larger-scale wagon makers during the late 1800’s was the use ofprison labor by a few private sector vehicle builders.  On the surface, it sounds like a pretty goodidea; put felons to work, teach ‘em a trade, and keep ‘em out of more trouble –all the while helping reduce costs in the penal system.  Like any good idea, though, there’s likelysomebody somewhere waiting to exploit it. The problem?  Convicts were paid amere fraction of the day rates required by those hiring from the generalpopulace.  It was a situation thatallowed some large-scale builders to drastically undercut prices to the publicas well as in government bids.  At theend of the day, it put most all wagon makers at a huge disadvantage in themarketplace.

So serious was the issue that in 1886,officials from the Star Wagon Company met with numerous other wagon and farmimplement manufacturers such as Studebaker, Schuttler, Bain, Mandt, Coquillard,Winona, John Deere, and others.  Within afew years, these meetings and the ensuing political pressures finally resultedin changes to prison labor practices across a whole spectrum of industries.

This section of an original illustration shows a portion of the Star Wagon Works as it appeared in 1875.
While Star was never the powerhouse ofmanufacturing that Studebaker and others were, they were clearly far from beinga marginal bystander.  During theirstartup in 1866, vehicle offerings were limited to lumber and farm wagons.  However, by the 1880’s their product line hadgreatly expanded to also include drays, ice wagons, heavy trucks, butcher’swagons, milk wagons, express wagons, ranch wagons, oil wagons, grain wagons,furniture wagons, road wagons, road carts, surreys, phaetons, bob sleds, andnumerous styles of carriages. It’s quite an array of vehicles for so many tohave not survived.  (To date, we’ve onlylocated one confirmed Star Wagon – see below.) Then again, we could say similar things for about any manufacturerduring this timeframe.  Most 19th century-builtwagons have disappeared through neglect, abuse, and the passage of time.

The story of the Star Wagon Companybegins to rapidly wind down during the 1890’s. Like so many other firms, the devastating economic depression created bythe Panic of 1893 likely added to the swift downfall of the organization.  By the turn of the 20th century,the Star Wagon Company is no longer listed, even for repairs, within industrydirectories.

Below are a number of images graciouslyshared with us by Dale Stutzman of Iowa. Several years ago, he found this Star Wagon.  As you can see in the ‘before’ images, it wasin tough shape.  The primary brandidentifier left on the wagon was the cast ‘Star Wagon Co.’ name molded into eachof the axle skeins.  In an effort topreserve the legacy of the vehicle and company, Mr. Stutzman rebuilt the boxusing the surviving wood for patterns while also salvaging all the originalmetal for placement on the new box.  Apparently,most of the running gear was solid but the felloes and spokes werereplaced.  The hubs are original.  Our thanks again to Mr. Stutzman for hisgenerosity in providing these images for the story.

Where there is one, there is always thepossibility of more.  Perhaps throughthis brief blog, enough information can be passed along that other Star vehiclescan be accurately preserved for future generations as well.

Go Top