The Top Wagon Makers In The West

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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From time to time, I’m asked, “Who werethe leading wagon makers back-in-the-day?” It’s a great question but like so many other queries, there are somecaveats.  The answer depends a lot onwhat timeframe you’re looking at.  Wagoncompanies, like countless establishments today, could experience significantfluctuations in business, both positive and negative.  While many benefited from steady growth,challenges to progress could easily be inflicted by sagging national or regionaleconomies, a lack of capital to keep the brand competitive, lawsuits,poor management, workforce issues, raw material shortages, or weak distributionchannels.  Even natural disasters such asfires, storms, and floods often created huge setbacks for firms.  As a result, some of the premier brands couldoccasionally be seen rotating in and out of market dominance. 

This extremely rare promotional brochure was distributed during the 1880’s.  It goes to great lengths to describe the superior features of the ‘Whitewater’ wagon made by the Winchester & Partridge Mfg. Co.
With those thoughts in mind, not longago, I was fortunate to uncover a number of rare insights into the vehiclemakers producing the most western wagons in the late 1870’s.  The primary source account highlights nearly twodozen of the top farm wagon companies in the West.  It’s such a scarce find that it’s possiblethis blog post marks the first time the details have been shared with any modernday audience.  The piece appeared in theJune 1, 1879 issue of “The Hub,” a well-known and highly-respected voice for the early wagonand carriage industry.  Whilethe story was primarily focused on producers of farm wagons, it’s interestingto note that most of these firms also built freight wagons.  I’ve reproduced the text from the articlebelow.  Please note, for greaterseparation and clarity, I placed hyphens between the individual makers…

 “The Farm Wagons Built In The West annuallyaggregate upwards of 125,000.  Theleading houses which make a specialty of wagons for farm purposes are thefollowing:  Mitchell, Lewis & Co. –Fish Bros. – and the Racine Carriage & Wagon Co., in Racine, Wis. – EdwardBain, Kenosha, Wis. – LaBelle Wagon Works (B.F. Moore) Fon du Lac, Wis. – TheWinchester & Partridge Mfg. Co., Whitewater, Wis. – The NorthwesternFurniture Co., Fort Atkinson, Wis., who have recently extended their businessand added farm wagon work to their previous specialty of furniture. –  Studebaker Bros. Mfg. Co. and A. Coquillard,South Bend, Ind. – Milburn Wagon Co., Toledo, O. – Robinson Wagon Co.,Cincinnati, O. – Austin, Tomlinson & Webster Mfg. Co., who have twofactories; one at Jackson, Mich., where they employ convict labor and buildabout twenty wagons a day; and the second at Moundsville, W. Va., with aproduct of about ten a day. – S.G. Krick, farm wagons as well as carriages,Niles, Mich. – Wm. Harrison, Grand Rapids, Mich. – Burrell Bros., wagons andcarriages, Kalamazoo, Mich. – Newton & Co., Batavia, Ill. – Moline WagonCo., Moline, Ill. – Peter Schuttler, Chicago, Ill. – A.A. Cooper, Dubuque,Iowa. – Star Wagon Co., Cedar Rapids, Iowa. – Kansas Mfg. Co., Leavenworth,Kas.  Judging by the reports of the proprietorsof the twenty-two factories named above, the product of these alone, during theyear 1878 was 104,000 farm wagons.  Thisfact gives a slight glimpse of the magnitude of the great West, and of itswonderful growth both in agriculture and manufacturing.”

Of course, the information in the articleis only a snapshot of this particular time in the late 1870’s.  Nonetheless, it does provide us with betterawareness of production numbers and wagon makers considered to be prominent onthe plains and frontier during the era. Clearly, there are some builders given high accolades today that are notincluded in this listing.  It’s quitelikely that, in most cases, the firm had either (a) already peaked and was indecline, (b) was in a momentary production lull, or (c) had yet to achieve itslegendary status. 

As home to so much western vehiclehistory, we’re pleased to share that the Wheels That Won The West® Archivescontain period literature and imagery of virtually all of the builders listedin this article.  While a few of theaforementioned brands are largely unknown to enthusiasts today, they  werepopular brands and active leaders during some of the most historic and momentous days in theAmerican West.  We'll share a bit more on several of the lesser known legends in the coming months.
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