Have You Seen These Wagon Brands?

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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The study of America’s firsttransportation industry – wagons and western vehicles, in particular – continuallytakes me down trails that can be confusing, hard to follow, and even phantom-likeas they appear and then disappear.  It’sstill well worth the chase, though, as the mystery of the unknown can provideamazing insights into vehicle provenance – not the least of which is thenarrowing down of manufacturing time frames. 

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

I began to think about all those brandswith strong reputations that I’ve seen at least one example of but no more thana handful of survivors in total.  After afair amount of consideration, I believe a number of these brands also have theopportunity to excel in resale values – especially when found in above averagecondition.  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 vehiclecollection.  Certainly, the back-storiesto the brands are filled with thought-provoking details.  What follows is a simple overview of some ofthose makers...

Beggs – Many folksmay associate this brand with Circus wagons or even early automobiles as itbecame so well-known for in Kansas City, Missouri.  Long before these products were part of thecompany’s offerings, though, the firm was producing a host of other horse-drawnvehicles.  Samuel Beggs grew up learningboth the farming and wagon-making trades of his father, James Beggs.  According to the Centennial History of Missouri, when Samuel turned twenty-two yearsold in 1881, he started his own wagon manufactory in King City, Missouri.  A half dozen years later, he moved toCarrollton, 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 bettershipping facilities and freight rates.  Productionof farm, freight, log, and mountain wagons was maintained at least through themid-teens.  Within a few years of movingto Kansas City, though, Beggs also took up the manufacture of all types ofcircus wagons, including chariots.  As anotherdecade began to pass, the firm shifted its transportation focus once more.  This time, the only horses involved wereunder a sheet metal hood.  By 1917, ithad become clear to the folks at Beggs that the future of ground transportationwould not be focused on horse-drawn vehicles. The auto industry was already well-entrenched and was gaining ground onvirtually every front – from commercial and farm uses to mining, military, andpersonal use.  So, in that same year, theBeggs Wagon Company began manufacturing motor cars and expanding theirdistribution from coast to coast.  Inspite of that vision, the company ceased operations before the mid-1920’s.  With Samuel Beggs dating his vehicle-makingbeginnings to 1875, the Beggs firm could lay claim to being in business foralmost a half century.  Still, finding aquality example of a Beggs wagon in the twenty-first century can be a tallorder.

One of the toughest Beggs brand wagonsto find is their California Rack Bed.
Flint – In 1882, thesame year that Jesse James was killed by Robert Ford – four years before thesurrender 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 wagonswere adorned with scenic murals similar to those found on Concordstagecoaches.  It was a significantvisual difference between Flint and other wagon makes with the ultimate purpose being to draw attention and quality perceptions to thebrand.  Even though the West was stillwild during the early days of this firm, the company was destined to be different
The manufacture of wood-wheeled wagons wasa business model that would, eventually, be abandoned as part of thetransportation revolution in America.  JamesWhiting could see the change coming.  He was one of the Flint Wagon Works founders and roughly two decades after he andhis partners established the brand, he announced that the firm hadpurchased the newly-founded Buick company so they could produce gasoline enginesfor farm customers.  There is speculationthat, from the beginning, Whiting intended to use the purchase as a launch forleaving the horse-drawn era and pursuing the age of travel by internalcombustion.  Unfortunately, the entireoperation was under-capitalized, putting a strain on the Flint Wagon Works.  Whiting and his partners would need more helpif they were going to make this venture work. Enter another highly successful horse-drawn vehicle maker, William C.Durant (Durant-Dort Carriages).  By allaccounts, Durant was a popular entrepreneur with extensive manufacturingexperience, a long list of investor connections, and an uncanny ability to selljust about anything he believed in. After initial talks with Whiting, Durant accepted the opportunity totake charge of Buick and grow the brand. It was the beginning of a major transition into the U.S. autoindustry. 

With consistent growth andattention-building excitement, Durant significantly grew the Buick brand.  By 1908, he had formed a parent holdingcompany, General Motors, and within another couple years, he’d added Cadillacand multiple other auto brands as part of the overall organization.  While many of these vehicles were initially builtelsewhere, by 1909 the old wagon factory was rapidly being looked upon as avalued automotive asset.  The July 1909issue of The Hub reported that the FlintWagon 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 autosled to the Flint wagon factory being the place where many of the first Buicksand 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 mentionsof Flint Wagons in old directories are those referring to replacement skeins.  Those skeins could be purchased from IllinoisIron & Bolt Company in Carpentersville, Illinois.  The Flint brand is special because it’s avisible and firm connection between two worlds – the Old West and some of theearliest beginnings of General Motors – especially with the Buick and Chevroletbrands.  Finding a surviving Flint wagontoday is a rare treat.  Owning one is evenmore uncommon.    

This logo is part of a well-preserved Flint survivor in a private collection.
FishBros. - Racine, Wisconsin or Clinton, Iowa.– You may be looking at this and saying, “I thought Fish Bros. was a largewagon manufacturer in Racine, Wisconsin.” If so, you’d be right.  Ultimately,there were two, highly publicized firms incorporating the ‘Fish Bros.’ namewithin their company monikers.  The FishBros. Wagon Company in Racine was started in 1864 by Abner Fish and hisbrother, Titus.  The firm had actuallybegun operations a year earlier under the name of Fish and Bull (only to haveMr. Bull retire in 1864 and the Fish brothers take over the firm). 

Within a few years of the startup, the companybegan 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. Fishstruck out on their own, enlisting the help of the Olds Wagon Works in Ft. Wayne, Indiana to build a separate brand of FishBros. wagons.  By the mid-to-late 1880’s,the brothers had gradually returned to the original factory which was now undernew ownership in Racine.  However, theharmony with the new proprietors didn't last and the Fish family and brotherswere back on their own by 1890.  This wasthe start of another new Fish Bros. firm.  This time, the family reached out to a different brand, theLabelle Wagon Company, to help build the wagons for the new venture.  Even with the added business, by the mid-1890’s, the Labelle factory hadbecome 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 continuedto thrive, the name similarities between the new Fish Bros. operation and thosein Racine were causing quite a stir.  Tothe folks in Racine, the use of the name was an unthinkable violation oftrademark laws.  To the family members,it was a clear and rightful use of a brand name that had always belonged tothem.  Ultimately, it was a source ofconstant irritation to both sides and a long line of lawsuits and legalwrangling ensued as the Racine firm sought to squelch the family from using thename.  Even the Labelle Wagon Company hadbeen drawn into the fray and others similarly contemplating association withthe ‘new’ Fish wagons were threatened with legal action by the folks in Racine.  Nonetheless, after years of infighting andcountless monies spent, the end result was that both firms were deemed to havelegal right to the name, ‘Fish Bros.,’ as well as the use of a fish in thecompany logos and branding efforts. 

In 1904, the Clinton, Iowa factoryclaimed 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 industrydirectories by or before the early teens of the twentieth century.  As a result, it's a safe bet that any original survivor of eitherof these brands is over a century in age.  

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

FortSmith– The Fort Smith Wagon Company was organized in 1903.  By 1907, John Deere had begun purchasingshares of the firm with a total buyout taking place a few years later.  I’ve always been fascinated with the brandfor a number of reasons.  While thewestern legacy attached to the Fort Smith name is one draw, the company’sassociation with John Deere along with the production of wagons for NativeAmericans 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 labelare extremely tough to find today.  Inall of my searching, I’ve only come across two survivors and both had been repainted.  In my view, an unrestored, solid Fort Smithwagon is an excellent – and extremely rare – piece to have in anycollection.  You can read a little moreabout 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 brandenjoyed strong sales and distribution for over forty years, surviving examplesof this brand are tough to find today.

Labelle – With originsdating to 1868, the Labelle Wagon Works of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin was once oneof the most recognized names on thewestern frontier.  So prominent was thefirm in Old West that, within its first decade of production, it was alreadybeing recognized alongside other firms who were decades older.  In 1874, the company was purchased byBenjamin F. Moore and A.G. Ruggles.  Atthat time, the name was changed from Farnsworth Bros., Knapp and Company to theLabelle Wagon Works.  By 1880, the brandis 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 fromMinneapolis.  As a result, the brand wassold and moved to Superior, Wisconsin in 1890. In 1892, period records indicate that Labelle produced over 8,000 wagonsat its factory in Superior.  It was animpressive 17% increase over the previous year and the company was preparingfor annual production rates to rapidly approach 10,000.  It should be noted that, during this sametime frame, Labelle was producing wagons for the family members who wereresponsible 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 builtin Superior around 1896, this was not the last time the brand would grace theside of a high wheel wagon.  For thefirst decade of the twentieth century, the Labelle and New Labelle names werebuilt by the Fish Bros. Mfg. Company wagon firm (Fish family) which had finallylocated itself in Clinton, Iowa.  In away, it was likely a tribute to the brand while also an opportunity for theClinton, Iowa maker to capitalize on a quality, well-known name. 

A Labelle brand wagon from an 1895advertisement.
Luedinghaus – In October of2013, I wrote an article for Farm Collector magazine that highlighted six period wagon makers from St. Louis,Missouri.  One of those was the legendaryfirm of Luedinghaus Wagon Company.  Founder,Henry Luedinghaus’ earliest days in St. Louis are connected to anotherwell-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 witheach man’s separate shop still being within sight of the other.   Luedinghaus continued to grow and by 1889had merged with another legendary St. Louis maker – the Espenschied WagonCompany.  By the late 1890’s, reports inindustry trade publications indicate the brand continuing to grow with fiftycompleted wagons being built each day.  Afterseveral attempts to compete in the automobile and trailer industry, theLuedinghaus firm finally closed its doors in 1934.  Henry Luedinghaus had died almost two decadesbefore on Christmas night of 1916.  Hewas 83.  In all of my searches for earlywagons, I’ve only come across a handful of Luedinghaus wagons.  They are among a number of legendary but elusivebrands.

The Luedinghaus-Espenschied brand wasstill 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 witheither Racine, Sattley, or both names combined on the side of the wagon areamong a host of medium to large-sized wagon firms with very few survivingexamples today.  These, and many others,are worthy of serious evaluation and, if you know of one, I’d enjoy hearingfrom you.  These rolling legacies caneasily possess the history, rarity, and the intrigue to be coveted byenthusiasts 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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