The End of the Olds Wagon Works

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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I just finished an article for FarmCollector magazine that’s slated for the August issue of this year.  The opening paragraph shares some survivalchallenges that many wagon makers faced a few years after the turn of the20th century.  While some, more dominantagricultural brands like John Deere, International Harvester, and EmersonBrantingham were busy buying up wagon companies during this period, others werestarting to have trouble making ends meet. The automobile was making its presence felt and there would be no turning back.As early as 1904, there were literallyhundreds of firms building autos in the U.S. Reinforcing this pressure, larger wagon brands were tying up wood resources, making it hard for many competitors to acquire adequate materials.  Times were changing and changing fast. For horse drawn vehicle makers, it was the beginning of the end.  Hard times did not discriminate.  Large, small, and intermediately-sizedbuilders suffered.  One strong regionalmaker that seemed to quickly succumb to shifts in consumer buying habits was theOlds Wagon Works in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The business was established in 1881 and had been well known forbuilding quality, reputable products. Nonetheless, at just over a quarter century in age, the firm had decidedto face the music.
The Olds Wagon brand was a strong competitorduring the late 1800’s.
An article from 1907 outlines theclosing of the buiness...

“The Olds WagonWorks, one of the oldest manufacturing establishments in the city, will retirefrom business.  Scarcity in timber, generalrise in the price of skilled labor, with no corresponding increase in price inthe finished product, are the reasons assigned. The plant will close as soon as the present raw material on hand isworked up or disposed of.  The Olds WagonWorks was organized in 1881 by Henry G. Olds, father of the men who are now atthe head of the institution, and at first about 200 men were employed in theinstitution but of late years as demand for their product decreased the forcedwindled until at present there are about seventy-five men employed, nearly allof whom are skilled wagon builders.”

For modern day collectors, this type of informationnot only provides historical background for individual vehicle provenance butalso can be helpful in narrowing down a production timeframe.  Based on several period articles we’veuncovered, it indeed appears that all manufacturing of Olds brand wagons ceasedin 1907.  It’s an important detail as anysurviving Olds wagons will clearly be beyond a century in age. 
With multiple patents and innovativedesigns to its credit, the company was clearly a progressive competitor.  Late 19th century advertisements claimed thatthe wheels had 3/4 to 7/8 inch more spoke tenon in the hub.  As a result, the company professed that thewheels were “three times stronger” than others. Peak output of the wagon works is said to have been around 50 vehiclesper day.  While the production rate wasnot as high as prolific builders like Studebaker, it was significant enough tohave been a solid competitor to just about any wagon builder.  Certainly, theOlds plant was far from a small-time operation. As a parting thought, we’ve received emails in the past asking if thereis any connection between the Olds Wagon Works and the Oldsmobile brand ofautomobile.  Other than similar names,the businesses were not connected.  

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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