The American Wagon Company

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
Published on:
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
Share This Blog:
Well over a decade ago, I wrote afeature article on the American Wagon Company. It was a unique firm with distinctive products utilized by both thehorse-drawn wagon and early automobile industries.  I don't recall ever posting this story to my blog orwebsite so, I thought I’d share it this week along with a little more info thatI’ve come across.  Enjoy!

“Build a better mousetrap and the worldwill beat a path to your door.”  It’s anoften-heard phrase associated with the rewards of true ingenuity and hardwork.  To that point, in the early1900’s, the American Wagon Company was one of several firms testing out thatphilosophy by offering a new twist on an old design.  Wagon boxes, the cargo-hauling portion of ahorse-drawn wagon, were the company’s specialty.  Believing necessity to really be the motherof invention, American was perfecting some of the most visibly significantchanges to farm wagons in close to a half-century.  Between 1905 and 1909, multiple patents were secured on the new creations. Internal enthusiasm and faith in the product’s success was high.  But, in just over a decade, the wheels ofprogress would take a hard turn. 

The folding box designs from theAmerican Wagon Company enabled farmers, ranchers, and business owners tooptimize their time and financial investments.
Locating themselves in Dixon, Illinoisin 1911, American brought a promise of greater prosperity to the localarea.  Sales offices were maintained innearby Chicago and catalog rhetoric indicated that more manufacturing siteswere being contemplated to meet the growing demand.  According to period accounts in the “DixonEvening Telegraph,” the old Grand Detour wagon plant was unoccupied and hadbeen re-modeled to meet the needs of the newly-arrived company.  After celebrating the nation’s 135thbirthday, the factory officially began manufacturing in Dixon on July 5,1911. 

The American Wagon Company name seems toimply that the firm was involved in full-scale wagon production.  However, the box, often called the bed, wasthe only part of the wagon that the organization actually manufactured.  But the box was far from ordinary and, inmany ways, typical of the agricultural inventive genius prevalent during the19th and early 20th centuries.  Farmers,ranchers, and businesses of the day needed different wagon beds to hauldifferent types of payloads.  Most wagonsmet this requirement with designs that allowed the box to be lifted off of therunning gear and replaced with a different rack or bed as the need arose.  For some, though, this type of traditionalwagon design offered a less-than-adequate solution to hauling multiplevarieties of cargo. 

At issue was the added time, money, andmanpower involved in adjusting the wagon to meet every need.  In order to help customers avoid thedifficult and costly exercise of buying or building different beds and frequentlychanging them, the American Wagon Company marketed just one box that satisfiedmore than a dozen common uses.  So,whether the farmer needed a hay rack to bring in loose hay from the field, astock rack for hauling livestock, a corn wagon with built-in bang boards, aflax-tight grain wagon, an enclosed box for transporting poultry, or even acustom rig with ladder-back seats to carry a couple dozen folks to a Sundayafternoon church picnic, these quick-changing boxes catered to almost everyneed a rural farmer, rancher, and businessman could encounter.

Custom built for many different uses,the Melrose wagon box was much more versatile than traditional wagon beds.
Early print ads and catalogs went toextraordinary detail in explaining the value and benefits of American’s‘Melrose’ brand convertible wagon bed. The ads warned against confusing their unique designs with cheaper,heavier, and more crude imitations.  Someof the designs that American competed against could be found in the pages ofMontgomery Ward’s discount catalogues as well as among a few other makers andindependent dealers.  American WagonCompany’s morphing design was touted as a time and money saver.  They also boasted greater durability,capacity, flexibility, and efficiency… all for about the same cost as a“first-class, single-purpose bed.” 
Even though the concept had been on themarket for several years, a 1912 full-page print ad describes the wagon bed asa “new farm invention.”  Specificadvantages included a “15-wagon-beds-in-one” design… a no tools, easychangeover configuration… strong, warp-free construction… and a 5-yearguarantee.  To get an idea of just howstrong this pledge was, it’s important to note that typical horse drawn wagonwarranties were limited to just one year of coverage.  Additionally, the box came with a free 30-daytrial.  The American Wagon Company evenpaid the freight.  We may be accustomedto these types of incentives vying for our attention today but it was trulyinnovative marketing a century ago.

The boxes were offered in widths of 38”and 42”.  Lengths of 9 ½’, 12’, 14’, and16’ were available and the boxes were said to hold as much as 100 bushels ofshelled corn, 4800 pounds of hay, or two full-sized cows/bulls.  A 12’ Melrose bed from the American WagonCompany cost $30 in their 1911 catalog. While the 12’ bed weighed 75 pounds more than the average wagon box, itwas also a foot and a half longer.

American was proud of the fact that nonails were used anywhere in the bed. Instead of hardwood supports that might break or warp, they used steelsills to strengthen the bottom of the bed. Telescoping side braces were integrated with the hinged metalwork tofold the entire length of the box into its multitude of shapes.  End rods were double galvanized for extraprotection against rusting and all metal parts were made from cold rolledsteel.  Sales catalogs proclaimed thewood to be long leaf pine, free from knots, and double kiln-dried.  With superior quality and real functionalvalue as their watchwords, American worked hard to gain consumer confidence andmake the buying process as simple as possible. Compared to the planned obsolescence of many products today, Americanstated that, “In building this bed our whole aim is permanency.” 

American’s five-year warranty provided ahuge marketing advantage, especially since virtually all other boxes werelimited to a one-year guarantee.
By 1918, times were changing and thecompany had begun producing cabs, beds, and other wooden parts for motorizedvehicles.  Like many others in the wagon-making trade, they were compelled to branch out into additional lines ofbusiness once the automotive industry gained a foothold.  Following virtually the same production plannow with truck bodies, the company built at least four variations of truckbeds.  The convertible motor-truck bodiesincluded 8-in-1, 4-in-1, 3-in-1, and 2-in-1 designs.  Applications ranged from grain bodies to hog,stock, flat, poultry, basket, and flared racks. Years ago, I came across a fine example of one of the motor truck bedsin a private vehicle collection in Bolivar, Missouri.  The 8-in-1 American folding bed was mounted ona 1918 motor-truck.  More than just agood-looking fit to the truck, the combination offered its original owner agreat deal of hauling options. 

Whatever the reasons - whether it wasthe consumers’ reluctance to accept change, a limited distribution system, weakfinancial capital, or simply a casualty of transitioning times - there is noevidence to suggest that the convertible wagon beds ever grabbed a strong holdon either the automotive or farm wagon market. Even with an ingenious design and strong marketing principles, the wagoncompany disappeared from city directories after 1922.  Ironically, the firm noted for such a highlyadaptable product couldn’t quite adapt itself to the rapidly changing times.

Interestingly, among the directors ofthe American Wagon Company were John Ringling of Ringling Bros. Circus as wellas H.H. Windsor who was the president, founder, and first editor of PopularMechanics magazine.  The man that startedthe American Wagon company was Ellsworth B. Overshiner, president of theSwedish-American Telephone Company.  In1910, Overshiner worked hard to jump start the wagon box company’s capital witheditorialized ads in publications like The Railroad Telegrapher and LocomotiveEngineers’ Monthly Journal.  The ads werestrongly worded with promises like, “A new Million Dollar corporation which Iam heavily interested in and President and Director of, will be one of thegreatest and best paying Industrial Corporations in the United States and itsstock will advance many times in value.” Overshiner ratcheted up the hype with comments like, “I want to, andwill make every railroad man that joins me in this new enterprise, some realmoney in sums worth while and on an investment of only fifty dollars and fivemonths to pay it in... Come along and get in on the ground floor.”  It was a lot to live up to and,unfortunately, the firm never came close to those expectations. 

In addition to their offerings for horse-drawn wagons, American's folding beds also brought quality, versatility, andconvenience to those using motor trucks.
One hundred years ago, it was fairlyeasy to avail yourself of one of the ‘all-in-one’ wagon box designs.  Today, the story is much different.  Finding the rarest of rare artifacts hasbecome a challenge as many race to rescue the most significant parts of ourpast before they’re gone.  After all,it’s these pieces that are the proverbial needle in a haystack – ultra rarehistory that adds real intrigue to a quality collection while helping preservea valued portion of America’s farming, ranching, and transportation legacy.

With just over a decade of production,the Melrose convertible box is one of those genuinely hard-to-find pieces.  By the company’s own admission, the boxeswere built to last.  So, while thewhereabouts of most of these pieces isn’t known, somewhere another AmericanMelrose box is undoubtedly waiting to be discovered and its creative dreamspassed on to future generations.  

The American Wagon Company worked toovercome product stereotypes by offering unique, patented wagon box designs.
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
Go Top