John Deere & the Fort Smith Wagon Company

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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My last few blog posts havepredominantly dealt with early wood-wheeled vehicles found on the WestCoast.  So, this week, it seemed appropriate to venture back toward therising sun and balance things out a bit.  To those looking for a rhyme orreason as to how I determine each week’s topic, I’m afraid you’re out ofluck.  Like many, my world seems to run full throttle.  So, mostweeks, I’m simply on a quest to stay one step ahead of another postingdeadline.  Subject ideas can come fromany number of places.  Once determined, Igo to work fleshing out the short story, preparing imagery, and scheduling thefinished piece. 

As I began pondering this week’ssubject, it occurred to me that, of all the blogs and articles I’ve written, Idon’t believe I’ve ever penned anything on an Arkansas wagon maker.  As anative of the region, that oversight is to my shame I suppose.  So, tomake things right and give The Natural State its due, I thought I’d share a bitabout a legendary builder from the northwest corner of the state.

This letter from the Fort Smith WagonCompany dates to November of 1906, approximately 6 months before the firm waspurchased by John Deere.
Located on the banks of the ArkansasRiver, the modern day city of Fort Smith is steeped in America’s westernhistory and lore.  During the nineteenthcentury, it was the last bastion of U.S. law before crossing into IndianTerritory.  Even so, it was still home toits share of saloons, brothels, outlaws, drifters, and ne'er do wells.  Any less-than-legal shenanigans, though, werebalanced out by the firm-handed justice of ‘Hanging Judge’ Issac Parker whoserved as U.S. District Judge for more than two decades beginning in 1875.  The judge passed away while still serving in1896.  Seven years later, the Fort SmithWagon Company was formed.

This extremely rare photo has been cropped to showmore details of employees from the Fort Smith Wagon Company.  The originalimage shows more than 70 workers outside the factory.
Organized in 1903, the Ft. Smith brandgot its start after individuals in the city heard about an opportunity topurchase the equipment and assets of the South Bend Wagon Company inIndiana.  Established two decadesearlier, South Bend had been a strong marketer and promoter but as times beganto change so did its profitability.

Once the new factory was up and runningin Arkansas, it didn’t take long to attract the attention of John Deere’sbranch houses.  In 1905, a number ofthose distribution outlets began selling Fort Smith wagons.  Within a couple more years, the branch housesjoined forces with the home office to buy the Fort Smith firm.  It was the first acquisition of an outsidecompany by John Deere.1  In1910, Deere took the next step by purchasing all of the shares of the wagoncompany.  Clearly, Fort Smith’s locationnear quality hardwood forests as well as railroad and river shipping ports madesolid sense to the market and opportunity-savvy folks at Deere.  It was about this same time that the Moline,Illinois firm was buying other wagon brands as well.  Davenport, Moline, and ultimately, Mitchellall joined the John Deere stable of legendary wagon brands.   

Promotional materials showcasing products from the Ft. Smith Wagon Company are hard to find today. 
Fort Smith branded vehicles wereavailable in a number of different sizes and styles for one and two-horsewagons.  By the mid-teens, Deere’sdistribution system had grown the company to the point that some claimed it wasthe largest of its kind in the West2.  While the vehicles increased in popularity,business priorities were changing and, by 1925, Deere had decided toconsolidate all of its wagon manufacturing in Moline.  Even so, according to period directories inour collection, the Fort Smith brand remained active until the late1940’s.   
This photograph is just one of several period photos within the Wheels That Won The West® Archives showing Native Americans alongside Fort Smith wagons.
        1“John Deere Tractors and Equipment” by Don MacMillan & Russell Jones,            Vol. 1, 1988
       2 “Current Events:An Industrial and Agricultural Magazine,            Vol. 14, No. 1, January 1915, p. 10 

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