The Wagon Business

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Similar to today’s automotive industry, America’searly wagon makers spent a lot of time talking about how well their productswere received by the public.  Theseclaims were especially hard to dispute when the larger firms openly shared thenumber of vehicles they built each year. Studebaker, of South Bend, Indiana, was among the largest.  Far from the traditional corner blacksmithshop, Studebaker – and many others – were ultra-efficient, aggressivemanufacturers that quickly learned the power of marketing and a solid distributionsystem.  So successful was this brand that, by 1890, the company is said to have employed some 1400 workers,turning out a new wagon every six minutes.1   It’s a contention further reinforced bycompany assertions that in the decade between 1897 and 1907, they built andsold over a million vehicles.2  
Winona Wagon Factory - Winona, Minnesota
The vast number of wood-wheeled wagonsthat major manufacturers like Peter Schuttler, Studebaker, Winona, Kentucky, Weber,Bain, Mitchell, Stoughton, Mandt, Moline, Jackson, and so many otherswholesaled can easily overshadow specific sales examples at the retaillevel.  Truth is, for record numbers ofthese vehicles to have been built during the course of any year, they had to beflying off of the proverbial dealer shelves. While period newspapers and other historical accounts often providenumbers of wagons and emigrants moving west, specific details showing thesuccesses of product turnover at the retail level are often hard to find.  
1882 Winona billheads 
To that point, I recently ran across apair of 1882 billheads from the Winona Wagon Company that shed a mere pinholeof light on the feverish retailing of wagons during this timeframe.  Both invoices are made out to a single dealer- Strehlow & Company in Casselton, Dakota. Posted a full seven years prior to North & South Dakota becomingindividual states, these pieces show nearly sixty wagons and gears sold to thelocal dealer in less than two months’ time; all of this to a tiny population ofabout 400 folks.  Taken as a sampling ofan entire year, it’s quite possible that this ultra-small-town dealer couldhave been responsible for at least 200 to 300 wagon/gear sales in just twelvemonths.  With thousands upon thousands oflocal and regional trade areas throughout the U.S., these bits of information(even for extremely localized districts) help emphasize just how lucrativewagon sales could be.  It’s a big reasonthe industry was so fiercely competitive; from price wars to timber buy-outs,patent lawsuits, and other extreme measures. Many dealers – sometimes referred to as agents – hung out a shingle formultiple wagon brands as a way to ‘lock up’ sales and minimize interferencefrom other local sellers.
1882 Winona Wagon Co. letterhead 
During the same year of 1882, thefledgling Winona Wagon Company (Winona, Minnesota) was just three yearsold.  It was the successor to theRushford Wagon Company of Rushford, Minnesota. Within a few years, Winona would become a force to be reckoned with byeven the largest of vehicle builders. The firm held multiple patents while also becoming well-known for itshigh quality farm, freight, military, fruit, and mountain wagons as well asheader gears and even sheep camp wagons. Today, the brand is still extremely popular with collectors andenthusiasts.  
From individual corporations to theentire industry, the competitive focus within the world of horse drawn vehiclebuilders set the stage for the automobile business in almost everyrespect.  Crucial lessons regardingmanagement of raw materials, distribution channels, manufacturing efficiencies,advertising tactics, advancements in engineering and new product innovation,quality practices, and other all-important drivers of brand perceptions wereopening up even more opportunity within America’s free enterprise system.  From coast to coast, the business oftransportation was growing up and, ultimately, only the strongest wouldsurvive.

1 “The Great Southwest”, vol 2, no. 9, p.13 (September 1890)

2 Wheels That Won The West® Archives 
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