Joel Turney & the Charter Oak Wagon

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Joel Turney & the Charter Oak Wagon
With roots to the California gold rush and America’s huge migration west, the Charter Oak wagon brand offers great insight into the opportunity, trials, and character of our nation’s first transportation industry.  From the overall story of this brand to its very name, the ‘Charter Oak’ moniker was often associated with exceptional strength, resilience, and premium quality. 

The actual title of Charter Oak is centuries old and carries tremendous history and purpose.   As the story goes, in 1856 (the first year of the Charter Oak wagon brand), the legendary ‘Charter Oak’ tree fell during a storm in Hartford, Connecticut.  The tree was no ordinary stick of lumber.  It was a massive white oak that Connecticut’s Royal Charter of 1662 was apparently hidden in at one time.  Tradition says that the official document was placed there to prevent its capture by the English governor-general who was seeking to reverse the state’s autonomy granted by a previous king.  As the years went by, the tree became a well-known symbol of American independence, strength, and faithful determination.  Ultimately, it proved to be an ideal name for a transportation brand that became one of the best-known wagon firms in the country.

Like so many other vintage wagon makers, Joel Turney owed a large part of his early manufacturing successes to the California gold strikes and westward expansion of America.  With countless souls headed west and the transcontinental railroad yet to be built, the demand for horse drawn transportation was growing exponentially during the mid-nineteenth century.  Turney’s experience, location, and commitment to building quality vehicles all converged to make the most of his business timing.  While Turney built his first wagons in 1852, the origins of the actual Charter Oak wagon brand are dated to 1856. 

This segment of a Charter Oak Wagon letterhead dates to January 1888, just after Joel Turney moved his company fromTrenton to Fairfield, Iowa.

Ultimately, it was Joel Turney’s earliest experiences as a blacksmith that helped pave the way for his reputation as a noted wagon manufacturer.  In 1848, the twenty-one-year-old left Columbus, Ohio with somewhere between fifty and one hundred dollars (depending on the period report you read) and set up a blacksmith shop in Trenton, Iowa. Even though his start-up fund was small, the discovery of gold in California was the economic boost that he and many others needed to help secure plenty of business.  Trenton, it seems,was just one of the way points in the route west for many travelers.  As a result, this original location was crucial in helping establish the Charter Oak brand as a significant competitor for over three-quarters of a century. 

As the United States expanded, Turney’s blacksmithing services also grew in demand. Soon, he was repairing as well as building wagons.  Time progressed and his facilities expanded from a tiny shop to a modest factory. Things were rocking along fairly well until 1879 when the plant inTrenton suffered a fire.  At that time, several folks in Fairfield, Iowa tried to entice him to move to their community.  Turney had numerous, close friends in Trenton.  His roots were cemented there and, for the moment, he just couldn’t bear to leave the small town and so many friends that made the place feel like home.  He picked up the pieces of his business and immediately rebuilt. 

Success, and the challenges associated with that growth, though, were destined to follow.  By the mid-1880’s, the company was building more than 500 wagons a year and the demand for the wagons was outgrowing the manufacturing facilities inTrenton.  The output was being sold far beyond Trenton and railroad facilities were needed to help with distribution, competitive opportunity, and profitability.

In order to maintain a healthy, thriving company, Turney knew he needed additional space and better access to shipping by rail.  His search for more efficient facilities led him back to the folks that had reached out to him in 1879.  The town of Fairfield was just a few miles to the southwest and a new location here could prove to be a strong, shot-in-the-arm for the firm.  The community of Fairfield had several thousand residents and was considerably larger than Trenton.  In 1887, Turney decided to make the move.  He and his sons, Ellsworth and Dillon, built the new operation alongside the railroad tracks in Fairfield.  Within a year, production began and continued for a decade until a fire destroyed the plant in 1897.  Fires were familiar tragedies among wagon makers and among the most feared perils.  Dry wood, flammable solvents, and the open flames of the forging processes maintained a strong brew of explosive potential.

The Charter Oak factory measured nearly 100,000 square feet under roof with a capacity for 6,000 wagons produced each year.

No strangers to hard work and commitment, Turney and his sons quickly went to work.  This time, they put up an even larger plant built from brick construction. The firm continued to grow and, by 1902, the Turney Wagon Works employed 80 people.  June of 1905 brought the family another setback as Joel Turney passed away.  By this time, though, Dillon and Ellsworth were already in complete charge of the factory. Just prior to the teens, the company had grown into a capacity of 6,000 wagons per year.  Similar to other wagon manufacturers, they began marketing an entry-level brand alongside the premium quality Charter Oak name.  The competitively-priced brand was known as ‘Fairfield’ and it was offered as a wagon, truck, trade box, and bob sled.   The company also made a ‘Turney Special” farm truck.  ('Trucks' might look like a typical wagon gear but they were utility vehicles with cheaper construction and less features than a wagon) Dealers could order the entire Turney Special wagon or just the box or running gear.

In 1918, the company suffered another fire causing roughly $40,000 in losses to buildings and machinery.  Only about half of the damages were covered by insurance.  Still, the factory in Fairfield, Iowa continued to produce thousands of wagons throughout the twenties.  (As a side note, the company suffered at least 4 fires during the life of the business – 1879, 1897, 1900, and 1918)  In 1931, the fate of the company took one more hard turn when it’s leader, Dillon Turney, died as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage.  The son of the brand’s founder was sixty-five.  In many ways, it was the last straw for the firm. Countless other wagon makers had already succumbed to the changing times.  Dillon and his brother, Ellsworth, had provided a stabilizing force to the company upon the death of their father in 1905.  The passing of Dillon, combined with the pressures of the Great Depression and America’s increasing reliance on motorized transportation, left the business with few alternatives.  The Charter Oak plant was closed soon after the death of Dillon. 

This rare, surviving Charter Oak wagon retains almost all of its original paint. It likely dates to the teens or early twenties of the twentieth century.

Charter Oak wagons were made in at least two dozen models while the Fairfield designs were made in at least four different sizes.  Capacities ranged from 2500 to 6000 pound weight capacities. Cut-under gears were also available. According to period promotional literature, a variety of wood stock was used in the wagons.  Hickory was employed for axles, neck yokes, singletrees and doubletrees.  White Oak was selected for hounds, bolsters, wheels, and tongues.  Cottonwood was used for sideboards and long-leaf, yellow pine or fir was used for the box bottoms. 
Over time, there were numerous other products that touted the “Charter Oak” name. Towns, stoves, banks, farms, bicycles, and countless other organizations took advantage of the strength of the label. Even so, few acquired the recognition, significance, and brand longevity that Turney’s wagons did.  When Joel Turney first left Ohio and stopped in Trenton, Iowa, he was on his way to the California gold fields.  His stop was meant to be a temporary stay with an opportunity to make a little more money for the trip.  If he had forged ahead, blindly focused on a desire for gold, we might never have heard of him or his dreams.  As it happened, he traded one aspiration for another.  The result being that every surviving vehicle produced in the Charter Oak factory is a reminder; a notice of what can happen when opportunity comes knocking and we’re ready to make the most of it.  In Joel Turney’s case, he saw great value in raw timber and even more fortune in the security, stability, durability, strength, and promise of what it could become.  Ironically, these were the same qualities held in the original Charter Oak tree.

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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