Joel Turney & the Charter Oak Wagon

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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With roots to the California gold rushand America’s huge migration west, the Charter Oak wagon brand offers greatinsight into the opportunity, trials, and character of our nation’s firsttransportation industry.  From theoverall story of this brand to its very name, the ‘Charter Oak’ moniker wasoften associated with exceptional strength, resilience, and premiumquality. 

The actual title of Charter Oak iscenturies old and carries tremendous history and purpose.   As the story goes, in 1856 (the first yearof the Charter Oak wagon brand), the legendary ‘Charter Oak’ tree fell during astorm in Hartford, Connecticut.  The treewas no ordinary stick of lumber.  It was amassive white oak that Connecticut’s Royal Charter of 1662 was apparently hiddenin at one time.  Tradition says that theofficial document was placed there to prevent its capture by the Englishgovernor-general who was seeking to reverse the state’s autonomy granted by aprevious king.  As the years went by, thetree became a well-known symbol of American independence, strength, andfaithful determination.  Ultimately, itproved to be an ideal name for a transportation brand that became one of thebest-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 theCalifornia gold strikes and westward expansion of America.  With countless souls headed west and thetranscontinental railroad yet to be built, the demand for horse drawntransportation was growing exponentially during the mid-nineteenthcentury.  Turney’s experience, location, and commitmentto building quality vehicles all converged to make the most ofhis business timing.  While Turney builthis first wagons in 1852, the origins of the actual Charter Oak wagon brand aredated to 1856. 
This segment of a Charter Oak Wagonletterhead dates to January 1888, just after Joel Turney moved his company fromTrenton to Fairfield, Iowa.
Ultimately, it was Joel Turney’s earliestexperiences as a blacksmith that helped pave the way for his reputation as anoted wagon manufacturer.  In 1848, thetwenty-one-year-old left Columbus, Ohio with somewhere between fifty and one hundred dollars (depending on the period report you read) andset up a blacksmith shop in Trenton, Iowa. Even though his start-up fund was small, the discovery of gold inCalifornia was the economic boost that he and many others needed to help secureplenty 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 establishthe Charter Oak brand as a significant competitor for over three-quarters of acentury. 
As the United States expanded, Turney’sblacksmithing services also grew in demand. Soon, he was repairing as well as building wagons.  Time progressed and his facilities expandedfrom 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 theircommunity.  Turney had numerous, close friendsin Trenton.  His roots were cementedthere and, for the moment, he just couldn’t bear to leave the small town and somany friends that made the place feel like home.  He picked up the pieces of his business andimmediately rebuilt. 

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

In order to maintain a healthy, thrivingcompany, Turney knew he needed additional space and better access to shippingby rail.  His search for more efficientfacilities led him back to the folks that had reached out to him in 1879.  The town of Fairfield was just a few miles tothe southwest and a new location here could prove to be a strong, shot-in-the-armfor the firm.  The community of Fairfieldhad 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 alongsidethe railroad tracks in Fairfield.  Withina year, production began and continued for a decade until a fire destroyed theplant in 1897.  Fires were familiartragedies among wagon makers and among the most feared perils.  Dry wood, flammable solvents, and the openflames of the forging processes maintained a strong brew of explosivepotential.
The Charter Oak factory measured nearly100,000 square feet under roof with a capacity for 6,000 wagons produced eachyear.
No strangers to hard work andcommitment, Turney and his sons quickly went towork.  This time, they put up an evenlarger plant built from brick construction. The firm continued to grow and, by 1902, the Turney Wagon Works employed80 people.  June of 1905 brought thefamily another setback as Joel Turney passed away.  By this time, though, Dillon and Ellsworth werealready in complete charge of the factory. Just prior to the teens, the company had grown into a capacity of 6,000wagons per year.  Similar to other wagonmanufacturers, they began marketing an entry-level brand alongside the premiumquality Charter Oak name.  Thecompetitively-priced brand was known as ‘Fairfield’ and it was offered as awagon, truck, trade box, and bob sled.   The company also made a ‘Turney Special” farmtruck.  ('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 entirewagon or just the box or running gear.
In 1918, the company suffered anotherfire causing roughly $40,000 in losses to buildings and machinery.  Only about half of the damages were coveredby insurance.  Still, the factory inFairfield, Iowa continued to produce thousands of wagons throughout thetwenties.  (As a side note, the companysuffered at least 4 fires during the life of the business – 1879, 1897, 1900, and 1918)  In 1931, the fate of the company took onemore hard turn when it’s leader, Dillon Turney, died as a result of a cerebralhemorrhage.  The son of the brand’sfounder was sixty-five.  Inmany ways, it was the last straw for the firm. Countless other wagon makers had already succumbed to the changingtimes.  Dillon and his brother,Ellsworth, had provided a stabilizing force to the company upon the death oftheir father in 1905.  The passing of Dillon,combined with the pressures of the Great Depression and America’s increasingreliance on motorized transportation, left the business with fewalternatives.  The Charter Oak plant wasclosed soon after the death of Dillon. 

This rare, surviving Charter Oak wagonretains almost all of its original paint. It likely dates to the late teens or early twenties of the twentiethcentury.
Charter Oak wagons were made in at leasttwo dozen models while the Fairfield designs were made in at least fourdifferent sizes.  Capacities ranged from2500 to 6000 pound weight capacities. Cut-under gears were also available. According to period promotional literature, a variety of wood stock wasused in the wagons.  Hickory was employedfor axles, neck yokes, singletrees and doubletrees.  White Oak was selected for hounds, bolsters,wheels, and tongues.  Cottonwood was usedfor sideboards and long-leaf, yellow pine or fir was used for the boxbottoms. 
Over time, there were numerous otherproducts that touted the “Charter Oak” name. Towns, stoves, banks, farms, bicycles, and countless other organizationstook advantage of the strength of the label. Even so, few acquired the recognition, significance, and brand longevitythat Turney’s wagons did.  When JoelTurney first left Ohio and stopped in Trenton, Iowa, he was on his way to theCalifornia gold fields.  His stop wasmeant to be a temporary stay with an opportunity to make a little more moneyfor the trip.  If he had forged ahead,blindly focused on a desire for gold, we might never have heard of him or hisdreams.  As it happened, he traded oneaspiration for another.  The result beingthat 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 tomake the most of it.  In Joel Turney’scase, 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 qualitiesheld 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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