Have You Seen These Wagon Brands?

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Have You Seen These Wagon Brands?
The study of America’s first transportation industry – wagons and western vehicles, in particular – continually takes me down trails that can be confusing, hard to follow, and even phantom-like as they appear and then disappear.  It’s still well worth the chase, though, as the mystery of the unknown can provide amazing insights into vehicle provenance – not the least of which is the narrowing down of manufacturing time frames. 

When I was at Tom and Betty Watt’s auction about a month ago, something else struck me. The most expensive-selling farm wagon was not only a mix of two brands (box & running gear) but, the box was from a very small maker in Anderson, Indiana.  It was built by the Rhoads Wagon Company and is the only one I’ve ever seen. Years ago, I had done research on the firm and, through a lot of digging, was able to provide some background within the pages of our Borrowed Time book.  Still, the ability of this small brand to outsell major brands with huge legacies got me to thinking.  What other industry icons with fascinating histories have I seen limited examples of? 

I began to think about all those brands with strong reputations that I’ve seen at least one example of but no more than a handful of survivors in total.  After a fair amount of consideration, I believe a number of these brands also have the opportunity to excel in resale values – especially when found in above average condition. So, with all of this as background, I thought we’d look at a half dozen more brands that are seldom seen but could be excellent additions to any wagon or western vehicle collection.  Certainly, the back-stories to the brands are filled with thought-provoking details.  What follows is a simple overview of some ofthose makers...

Beggs – Many folks may associate this brand with Circus wagons or even early automobiles as it became so well-known for in Kansas City, Missouri.  Long before these products were part of the company’s offerings, though, the firm was producing a host of other horse-drawn vehicles.  Samuel Beggs grew up learning both the farming and wagon-making trades of his father, James Beggs.  According to the Centennial History of Missouri, when Samuel turned twenty-two years old in 1881, he started his own wagon manufactory in King City, Missouri.  A half dozen years later, he moved to Carrollton, Missouri and continued to turn out quality farm, freight, and transfer wagons. In 1905, the company moved from Carrollton to Kansas City to take advantage of better shipping facilities and freight rates.  Production of farm, freight, log, and mountain wagons was maintained at least through the mid-teens. Within a few years of moving to Kansas City, though, Beggs also took up the manufacture of all types of circus wagons, including chariots.  As another decade began to pass, the firm shifted its transportation focus once more.  This time, the only horses involved were under a sheet metal hood.  By 1917, it had become clear to the folks at Beggs that the future of ground transportation would not be focused on horse-drawn vehicles. The auto industry was already well-entrenched and was gaining ground on virtually every front – from commercial and farm uses to mining, military, and personal use.  So, in that same year, the Beggs Wagon Company began manufacturing motor cars and expanding their distribution from coast to coast.  In spite of that vision, the company ceased operations before the mid-1920’s.  With Samuel Beggs dating his vehicle-making beginnings to 1875, the Beggs firm could lay claim to being in business for almost a half century.  Still, finding a quality example of a Beggs wagon in the twenty-first century can be a tall order.

One of the toughest Beggs brand wagons to find is their California Rack Bed.

Flint – In 1882, the same year that Jesse James was killed by Robert Ford – four years before the surrender of Geronimo and a full decade before the historic Johnson County War, the Flint Wagon Works was formed in Flint, Michigan.  Many of the earliest examples of these wagons were adorned with scenic murals similar to those found on Concord stagecoaches.  It was a significant visual difference between Flint and other wagon makes with the ultimate purpose being to draw attention and quality perceptions to the brand.  Even though the West was still wild during the early days of this firm, the company was destined to be different

The manufacture of wood-wheeled wagons was a business model that would, eventually, be abandoned as part of the transportation revolution in America. James Whiting could see the change coming.  He was one of the Flint Wagon Works founders and roughly two decades after he and his partners established the brand, he announced that the firm had purchased the newly-founded Buick company so they could produce gasoline engines for farm customers. There is speculation that, from the beginning, Whiting intended to use the purchase as a launch for leaving the horse-drawn era and pursuing the age of travel by internal combustion.  Unfortunately, the entire operation was under-capitalized, putting a strain on the Flint Wagon Works.  Whiting and his partners would need more help if they were going to make this venture work. Enter another highly successful horse-drawn vehicle maker, William C.Durant (Durant-Dort Carriages).  By all accounts, Durant was a popular entrepreneur with extensive manufacturing experience, a long list of investor connections, and an uncanny ability to sell just about anything he believed in. After initial talks with Whiting, Durant accepted the opportunity to take charge of Buick and grow the brand. It was the beginning of a major transition into the U.S. auto industry. 

With consistent growth and attention-building excitement, Durant significantly grew the Buick brand.  By 1908, he had formed a parent holding company, General Motors, and within another couple years, he’d added Cadillac and multiple other auto brands as part of the overall organization. While many of these vehicles were initially built elsewhere, by 1909 the old wagon factory was rapidly being looked upon as a valued automotive asset.  The July 1909 issue of The Hub reported that the Flint Wagon Works had already “completed a half dozen or so machines” and expected to “put out a complete line of cars in 1910.” 

Ultimately, that interest in early autos led to the Flint wagon factory being the place where many of the first Buicks and Chevrolets were built in this country. Production of the last Flint wagons appears to have wrapped up by 1912.  In the following decades, the only mentions of Flint Wagons in old directories are those referring to replacement skeins.  Those skeins could be purchased from Illinois Iron & Bolt Company in Carpentersville, Illinois.  The Flint brand is special because it’s a visible and firm connection between two worlds – the Old West and some of the earliest beginnings of General Motors – especially with the Buick and Chevrolet brands.  Finding a surviving Flint wagon today is a rare treat. Owning one is even more uncommon.    

This logo is part of a well-preserved Flint survivor in a private collection.

Fish Bros. - Racine, Wisconsin or Clinton, Iowa.– You may be looking at this and saying, “I thought Fish Bros. was a large wagon manufacturer in Racine, Wisconsin.” If so, you’d be right.  Ultimately, there were two, highly publicized firms incorporating the ‘Fish Bros.’ name within their company monikers.  The Fish Bros. Wagon Company in Racine was started in 1864 by Abner Fish and his brother, Titus.  The firm had actually begun operations a year earlier under the name of Fish and Bull (only to have Mr. Bull retire in 1864 and the Fish brothers take over the firm). 

Within a few years of the startup, the company began to struggle financially and engaged the support of J.I. Case.  The financial hardships continued and, by 1883, Case was appointed receiver and took control of the factory.  At that point, Titus Fish and E.B. Fish struck out on their own, enlisting the help of the Olds Wagon Works in Ft. Wayne, Indiana to build a separate brand of Fish Bros. wagons. By the mid-to-late 1880’s, the brothers had gradually returned to the original factory which was now under new ownership in Racine.  However, the harmony with the new proprietors didn't last and the Fish family and brothers were back on their own by 1890.  This was the start of another new Fish Bros. firm.  This time, the family reached out to a different brand, the Labelle Wagon Company, to help build the wagons for the new venture.  Even with the added business, by the mid-1890’s, the Labelle factory had become insolvent and the brothers were in the midst of a move to Clinton, Iowa.  There, they set up their own factory to build ‘Fish Bros. Wagons’ under the company name of Fish Bros. Manufacturing Company. 

While the original factory in Racine continued to thrive, the name similarities between the new Fish Bros. operation and those in Racine were causing quite a stir. To the folks in Racine, the use of the name was an unthinkable violation of trademark laws. To the family members, it was a clear and rightful use of a brand name that had always belonged to them. Ultimately, it was a source of constant irritation to both sides and a long line of lawsuits and legal wrangling ensued as the Racine firm sought to squelch the family from using the name. Even the Labelle Wagon Company had been drawn into the fray and others similarly contemplating association with the ‘new’ Fish wagons were threatened with legal action by the folks in Racine.  Nonetheless, after years of infighting and countless monies spent, the end result was that both firms were deemed to have legal right to the name, ‘Fish Bros.,’ as well as the use of a fish in the company logos and branding efforts. 

In 1904, the Clinton, Iowa factory claimed a capacity for 20,000 wagons annually. It's a sizeable number that seems to point to a healthy business. Even so, both the Iowa and the Wisconsin brands disappear from industry directories by or before the early teens of the twentieth century.  As a result, it's a safe bet that any original survivor of either of these brands is over a century in age.  

Years ago, we worked with Doug Hansen and his team at Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop to restore a Fish Bros. wagon back to its former glory.  The wagon was originally built by Fish Bros. Manufacturing Company in Clinton, Iowa.   

Fort Smith – The Fort Smith Wagon Company was organized in 1903.  By 1907, John Deere had begun purchasing shares of the firm with a total buyout taking place a few years later.  I’ve always been fascinated with the brand for a number of reasons.  While the western legacy attached to the Fort Smith name is one draw, the company’s association with John Deere along with the production of wagons for Native Americans is another intriguing part of our nation’s early transportation history.  Even though the brand is fairly well-known (with sales extending into the 1940’s), original wagons with the Fort Smith label are extremely tough to find today.  In all of my searching, I’ve only come across two survivors and both had been repainted.  In my view, an unrestored, solid Fort Smith wagon is an excellent – and extremely rare – piece to have in any collection. You can read a little more about the unique background of this brand in a brief bio I wrote in one of our blogs from 2014.

Even though the Fort Smith wagon brand enjoyed strong sales and distribution for over forty years, surviving examples of this brand are tough to find today.

Labelle – With origins dating to 1868, the Labelle Wagon Works of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin was once one of the most recognized names on the western frontier.  So prominent was the firm in Old West that, within its first decade of production, it was already being recognized alongside other firms who were decades older.  In 1874, the company was purchased by Benjamin F. Moore and A.G. Ruggles.  At that time, the name was changed from Farnsworth Bros., Knapp and Company to the Labelle Wagon Works.  By 1880, the brand is purported to have been building around 5,000 wagons per year and, by 1887, it was viewed as a highly profitable investment opportunity by a group from Minneapolis. As a result, the brand was sold and moved to Superior, Wisconsin in 1890. In 1892, period records indicate that Labelle produced over 8,000 wagons at its factory in Superior. It was an impressive 17% increase over the previous year and the company was preparing for annual production rates to rapidly approach 10,000. It should be noted that, during this same time frame, Labelle was producing wagons for the family members who were responsible for starting and running the original Fish Bros. Wagon Company – Titus Fish, Edwin Fish, and Fred Fish who had separated from the Fish Bros.factory in Racine, Wisconsin and had started their own company. 

While the last Labelle was likely built in Superior around 1896, this was not the last time the brand would grace the side of a high wheel wagon.  For the first decade of the twentieth century, the Labelle and New Labelle names were built by the Fish Bros. Mfg. Company wagon firm (Fish family) which had finally located itself in Clinton, Iowa.  In a way, it was likely a tribute to the brand while also an opportunity for the Clinton, Iowa maker to capitalize on a quality, well-known name.

A Labelle brand wagon from an 1895 advertisement.

Luedinghaus – In October of 2013, I wrote an article for Farm Collector magazine that highlighted six period wagon makers from St. Louis, Missouri. One of those was the legendary firm of Luedinghaus Wagon Company.  Founder Henry Luedinghaus’ earliest days in St. Louis are connected to another well-known wagon brand - Gestring (pronounced as 'Guess - String').  During Gestring’s early years and, until just after the Civil War, Luedinghaus was a partner with the brand’s namesake, Casper Gestring.  By 1866, the partnership had dissolved with each man’s separate shop still being within sight of the other.  Luedinghaus continued to grow and by 1889 had merged with another legendary St. Louis maker – the Espenschied Wagon Company.  By the late 1890’s, reports in industry trade publications indicate the brand continuing to grow with fifty completed wagons being built each day.  After several attempts to compete in the automobile and trailer industry, the Luedinghaus firm finally closed its doors in 1934.  Henry Luedinghaus had died almost two decades before on Christmas night of 1916. He was 83. In all of my searches for early wagons, I’ve only come across a handful of Luedinghaus wagons. They are among a number of legendary but elusive brands.

The Luedinghaus-Espenschied brand was still marketing large freight wagons at the turn of the twentieth century.

The six examples above are just a few of the tough-to-find brands worth adding to any collection. There are many others.  Brands like Chattanooga from Chattanooga,Tennessee, James & Graham from Memphis, Tennessee, and Racine-Sattley with either Racine, Sattley, or both names combined on the side of the wagon are among a host of medium to large-sized wagon firms with very few surviving examples today.  These, and many others, are worthy of serious evaluation and, if you know of one, I’d enjoy hearing from you. These rolling legacies can easily possess the kind of history, rarity, and intrigue to be coveted by enthusiasts everywhere.  

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, 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
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