As most of our regular readers know,when it comes to the wheels that built the American West, we share a tremendousamount of history inside each of our weekly blogs. Even so, there’s a lot more informationlocated in our maker archives and ongoing research files. As I’ve mentioned before, the depth of thissubject is so vast that it’s hard to find a single early source outlining whathappened with who, when, how, where and why. So… what early assets do we rely on?
First and foremost, we look to as many primary sources as possible. Original promotional literature, photos, business correspondence, government records,period articles and books, unaltered vehicles and parts, old directories, andeven obituaries can provide valuable insights into America’s firsttransportation industry. First handexperiences are also importance resources. To this day, I regret not talking more about this topic with my grandparents and greatgrandmother while I had the chance.
|While this advertisement dates to the mid-1860’s, an earlier 1859 promotion published by Mr. Kern offers “substantial” wagons for emigrants and miners moving west.
My great-grandmother was born in 1884,less than eight years after the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Growing up near Indian Territory in westernArkansas, she lived more than 100 years, witnessing massive product innovationsand equally significant lifestyle changes. She was 11 years old in the spring of 1895; the same timeframe that sawthe passing of a number of legendary wagon makers such as Jacob Kern of St.Louis and O.R. Johnson, the then-owner of Fish Bros. Wagon Company in Racine,Wisconsin. That same spring, one of theoriginators of the legendary Studebaker Wagon Company also passed away. Understandably, news of Henry Studebaker’sdeath was covered by many news outlets. Immediately below is one of the accounts as it was published in theApril 1895 issue of the trade magazine known as The Hub…
“Henry Studebaker, one of the founders of the great Studebaker wagon establishment at South Bend, Ind., died March 2d, aged sixty-eight years.
Mr. Studebakerwas born at East Berlin, in Adams County, Pa., October 5, 1826. He was the sixth of a family of thirteenchildren born to John and Rebecca Studebaker. The family emigrated to Ashland County, O., when Henry was nine years of age. Serious reverses had overtaken themin their old home, and they made the trip from Pennsylvania to Ohio across theAlleghenies, with all their earthly belongings in an old fashioned “schooner”wagon, built by the father, who was by trade a blacksmith and wagon maker. Henry was apprenticed to a countryblacksmith, working at the forge in summer, and going to district school in thewinter. Later he returned to the familyhome and completed his trade with his father and brothers, Clem and J.M., atthe old shop near Ashland.
In 1847 Henry had accumulated enough to buy a horse, and with a few extra dollars in hispocket he started out to seek his fortune in the West. He went to Goshen, Elkhart County, Ind., andthere engaged to work at blacksmithing. He sold his horse, intending to have no temptation to yield tohomesickness and go back to Ashland. Butat the close of several months’ service, without other pay than his board, allthe compensation which his employer was able to give him was an old silverwatch. Discouraged with this experience,he turned his face homeward, and walked the entire distance from Goshen toAshland, O.
In 1850 ClemStudebaker went to South Bend, and the next year Henry and the rest of thefamily followed. This trip the familyaccomplished in two wagons, mainly constructed by Henry himself for thisespecial purpose. In February, 1852,Henry and Clem Studebaker, with a joint capital of $68, opened a blacksmithshop for horseshoeing and wagon making in South Bend. There, under the firm name of H. & C.Studebaker, was instituted to the business to-day known to the world as that ofthe Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Company.
In 1858, thebusiness had become prosperous for the time, and as hard work at the forge hadtold on his health and strength, he sold out his interest to his brother, J.M,purchased land and turned his attention to farming, making the same success atthat calling as in manufacturing, and left behind him a handsome rural estate.”
In between horseshoeing and general blacksmithing work, Henry and Clement managed to build two wagons during theirfirst year – a far cry from the 100,000 annual production mark the firm wouldeventually achieve. Their firstsignificant financial shot-in-the-arm came as a result of instabilities in Utahduring 1857. During those events, Armyorders for wagons provided important cash flow for the duo. Even so, as a pacifist in the Dunkard faith,Henry is said to have had difficulty accepting the company’s role in warconflicts. He eventually left thebusiness, selling his share to another brother, John Mohler (J.M.), in 1858 for $3,000. More government contracts cameduring the Civil War and production rates gradually climbed to 8 completedwagons per week.1 TheStudebakers weren’t slowing down and, by the late 1860’s, the brand was goinghead-to-head on the frontier with well-established western freighting brandslike Espenschied and Joseph Murphy.2 By the end of the 1870’s, the company was producing around 20,000horse-drawn vehicles annually. Through each of these and subsequent eras, the wagon designsand paint configurations continually changed as part of the company’s commitmentto brand excellence.
|Henry Studebaker was the oldest of the five Studebaker brothers.
From the first wagon built in 1818 bythe brothers’ father, John Studebaker, to the last Studebaker wagon built in1920, the family name became synonymous with exceptional quality, innovation,and leadership. Today, collectors clamorover just about any original vehicle truly authenticated as a Studebaker. It’s a badge of honor and a continualreminder of what brand-building success looks like. After all, it’s been at least 50 years sinceStudebaker built automobiles and almost a full century since they constructedthe last horse-drawn wagon in South Bend. Even so, the name remains extremely popular among collectors and, forthose willing to dig a little deeper, primary source documents can add evenmore appreciation to a world of antique wooden wheels.
1According to “Land Owner” periodical records within the Wheels That Won TheWest® Archives.
2 D.P.Rolfe – Early wagon freighter, Wheels That Won The West® Archives
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