Milburn Wagons – Another Legacy Found

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Over the years, I’ve had the privilegeof seeing a lot of early western vehicles. Most have been in collections, auctions, or barn finds.  A few had literally beenunearthed.  One was the 1856 Peter Schuttlerrunning gear that I was able to identify and feature extensively for both ourwebsite and the Carriage Journal magazine back in 2008.  Another came about when an archaeologist fromthe Los Angeles area contacted us after a reservoir was drained.  Still another, more recent, discovery came toour attention when Christena Brooks, a writer from Detroit, Oregon, contacted us. Seems the mountainous area had been suffering through a drought and asthe local lake began to recede, a complete wagon emerged from the waterydepths.  The wagon was lying on its leftside in a soupy sea of mud and silt. 

The area in Oregon had been flooded in1953 upon completion of a dam.  No oneseems to know why the wagon was in the lake. It’s possible that even if this set of wheels had been left above thewater line prior to the filling, it may have dislodged and became part of thelake’s structure over time.  After morethan six decades under water, though, the discovery led to a fair amount ofspeculation as to its age, original purpose, design, and builder. 

These images were difficult to acquire as the old Milburn wagon was completely surrounded by a vast sea of mud.  Thank you to Dave Zahn for sharing them.
A large clue as to as to the brandidentity of the wagon lay in the name cast into the reach plate connecting thefront and rear gear sections.  The platewas labeled as ‘Milburn.’  After carefulevaluation, we confirmed that the entire gear did match a Milburn hollow axlewagon.  Closer examination led us toconfirm a likely timeframe of manufacture as being somewhere from the turn ofthe 20th century to the teens.   The box,on the other hand, was not an obvious match to the Milburn brand.  In fact, it appeared to be from another eraand maker.  Boxes and gears were ofteninterchanged so it’s not unusual to see a mismatched wagonbox/gear.  Ironically, the whole storyreinforces a point that I’d mentioned a few weeks ago – you never know whereyou may run across one of these unique pieces of history.

This early trade card promoted the light-running capabilities of a Milburn wagon.
The roots of the Milburn Wagon Companycan be traced to owner George Milburn and his start in Mishawaka, Indiana in1848.  He was contracted by the U.S.government to build wagons for the army in 1857 and ended up seeking help fromthe Studebakers in South Bend, just to get the order filled in time.  In 1873, he moved the firm to Toledo, Ohioand, within a few years, began producing buggies and spring wagons.  By 1888, Milburn was one of almost two dozenvehicle shops in the city.  A decade anda half later, Toledo was home to nearly three dozen vehicle shops – yet,Milburn continued to dominate the city’s vehicle production. 

As a bit of additional insight on theMilburn Wagon Company, immediately below is a segment taken from an 1882 issueof “The Hub.”

“...Ten yearsago, the house held an important position in the trade, but their product thenwas exclusively confined to the specialty of Farm Wagons, while they are nowmanufacturing an extended line of both business and pleasure vehicles,including Farm Wagons of all kinds, Log Trucks, and heavy special wagons, bothheavy and light spring Drays, spring wagons of various patterns, a full line ofbuggies, and some light carriages.

The Company makesa specialty of good substantial work, well-finished; and claims with apparentjustice that they supply for $150, (wholesale rate), as good a buggy as can behad for that price in this country. Their trade is widely distributed, not only all over the United States,but in various foreign countries.  Theyreport a large and growing demand for their work through the Eastern states,especially New-York state... They make some very fine Delivery wagons, withsolid wood panel sides, beveled corners, and double doors in the rear,handsomely lettered and ornamented, for which they get from $400-$500.  They are shipping business wagons to almostevery city east of the Rocky Mountains, and have a fine trade in the Mountainsfrom Deadwood to Denver.  In addition tothis home trade they also report a fine trade in Australia, to which countrythey shipped three car-loads last spring, with several to follow; and they arenow working on orders for Manilla, Philippine Islands, where they have beenshipping goods heretofore.  Theyanticipate a large increase in the demand from these countries, as the goodsalready shipped and heard from have given perfect satisfaction.” 

During the mid-1800’s, Milburn wasproducing around 600 wagons per week. That’s one full wagon finished almost every 10 minutes.  It’s the kind of statistic that helpsreinforce just how efficient the production processes of many of these mega-sizedwagon firms truly were.  It also puts torest any misconception that these folks were limited to crude hand tools andinconsistent design standards.  Clearly, by the1880’s, many of America’s largest wagon makers had come into their own and werea serious competitive force to be reckoned with.

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.
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