The Winona Wagon Company

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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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
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In last week’s post, I mentioned thediscovery of a rare Winona sheep wagon photo. It reminded me that there are probably a number of folks that haven’tseen the story we published on the Winona Wagon Company back in 2009.  So, I thought I’d re-visit a portion of thatarticle in this week’s blog.  Enjoy...

Nineteenth century America was a virtualfield of dreams for many farm wagon makers. The discovery of gold and theopening of the West created opportunities and challenges beyond theimagination. So remarkable was the business that by the 1870s and 1880s, somewagon companies were regularly producing 30,000 to 50,000 vehicles per year.Working six days a week, 10 to 12 hours per day and finishing a vehicle asrapidly as every six minutes, fortunes were made – and lost.

In many ways, American vehicle makers inthe 1800s were no different than those in the U.S., Germany, Japan, Italy, orabout any other country today. They worked to consistently build qualityproducts, keep good employees, strategically promote their advantages andmaintain high customer loyalty.  It’s atried-and-true business model.  But, evenwith those lofty goals, for any brand to be successful, it must create andsustain an identity for itself – something that consumers can remember andrelate to.  Just as we may think ofpremium quality when Cadillac or Lexus brands are mentioned, strong vehiclenames also conjured up the same feelings of desirability in the 1800’s.  Whether someone was considering a Studebaker,Schuttler, Milburn, Moline, Mitchell, Abbot-Downing or any of the thousands ofothers, there was no shortage of competition to be reckoned with.

So, if you’re a vehicle maker in thenineteenth century catering to farms, ranches, businesses and the Americanfrontier, how do you separate yourself from so many viable competitors?  It’s a question with many answers and, thecloser we look at a particular set of wheels, the easier it is to see how eachcompany was strategically positioned. 

Quality Winona brand wagons remain inhigh demand today.  Many Winona wagons featured the eye-catching style ofa yellow running gear.
Located on the upper Mississippi River,the Winona (Minn.) Wagon Company was ideally located for shipping and receivingmaterials as well as acquiring quality timber.  By the time it was establishedin 1879, Winona had plenty of firmly established competition.  Price wars,lawsuits, and leveraged buyouts were just some of the heavy-handed tactics usedby well-heeled brands to squash newcomers vying for regional and nationalattention.  It was a demandingmarketplace but Winona employed a variety of efforts to rise above the challengesof well-known, confident rivals.

While virtually all builders dealt withthe worry of maintaining a strong, marketable identity, many – just likecompanies today – created a slogan that summarized their commitment to qualityor some other beneficial feature.  TheWinona Wagon Company was quite effective using the catchphrase “Good Timber andBone Dry.”  The saying focused on thecentral and most important element of any early wagon – superior woodselection, preparation, and construction. After all, quality hardwoods were the heart of a wagon and companiesthat presented themselves as thorough, trustworthy and value-consciousgenerally enjoyed the greatest success. The use of higher-grade raw materials, though, wasn’t the only advantageWinona touted.  Like many successfulfirms, it promoted itself heavily while consistently stressing innovativefeatures and design elements.

Joining the chorus of those parrotingtheir brand to have the “lightest draft” and “wheels boiled in oil,” Winonaalso proclaimed the superiority of its “clipped” undercarriages as opposed tocompetitive wagon gears that were through-bolted and presumably weakened.  Their grain-tight boxes were designed to keepflax and seed from spilling out of the wagons and double-riveted felloesprovided even more strength to the wheels. Ultimately, though, those qualitieswere remarkably similar to those of other competitors.  Fortunately, the company had other features that really did set it apart.  As it turnsout, those characteristics were some of the most visually different and promotionallysignificant traits on any wagon and they centered on the foundational soundnessof axles and wheels.

This image clearly shows an ironreinforcement block placed between the axle and rear bolster of a Winonawagon.  Even so, not all Winona wagons will include this feature or thatof iron clad hubs.
Reinforcing the company’s commitment toquality construction, Winona built its heavier mountain wagons with acharacteristic it called “outer bearing” axles. The term sounds like it referred to a roller bearing or outer seal onthe axles.  In fact, the feature was moresimple, but equally ingenious.  On manyWinona wagons, a custom-formed block of iron was placed immediately beneath thebolster stake and allowed to rest on the shoulder of the skein.
The effect was similar to the additionof structural supports to a suspension bridge. The iron blocks helped take more of the load off the center portion ofthe axle and spread it across the entire wheel base.  The result was that the outer axle was tiedto the upper bolster while also being reinforced by the skein (the metalthimble fitted over the wooden axle).  Itmeant that both the axle beam and the bolster or sand board above it would haveto break before the wagon could be rendered helpless.  In an era when wagons were often used inremote, rugged regions, this was a dramatically important feature.

According to Winona, by shifting theload toward the wheels, the wagon could carry a greater load and was easier topull.  The company explained this bypointing out that an ordinary wagon with a very heavy load experiences a strainthat pushes down on the axle, slightly springing it and throwing the wheelsoutward at the bottom.  The net effect ofthe wheels being pushed out would cause them to bind against the nut on theoutside and the axle on the inside, making the entire rig harder to maneuverand roll.  By contrast, Winona claimedthat its outer bearing axles actually relieved the strain beneath the hounds,kept the axle rigid, the bearings straight, and the grease more evenlydistributed.  It all had a very technicaland logical sound to it, helping reinforce Winona’s image as a leader.

Truly, the whole structure was a novelidea and Winona took great advantage of promotional opportunities.  Beyond a simple verbal description toutingthe design’s strength, the company’s marketing folks made a practice of cuttingout the entire center section of a Winona rear axle.  Then, they loaded the wagon and took photosto show the design strengths at work.  Atthe same time, they would take a competitor’s wagon, remove the same area ofthe rear axle, load it and clearly demonstrate the weakened and sagginggear.  These types of dramatic visualdisplays continually reinforced Winona as a major competitive force.
This century-plus-old image is housed inthe Wheels That Won The West® Archives.  It clearly shows the significant strength of the outer bearing axle design.
Yet another distinctive design featureof Winona wagons was the “iron clad” hub. Once again, the carefully chosen namepresented a vivid mental picture of strength, value, and confidence.  The design was a metal covering or shieldtightly formed around the hub, protecting it from the destructive elements ofwork and weather.

According to the company’s earlyliterature, this feature meant that “no matter how much the hubs were exposedto sun, snow, rain or dirt, they wouldn’t check or crack.”  Winona claimed that once a wagon hub beginsto check, “the spokes work loose, the tires come off, and a breakdown occurs.”  While other builders could match many of thecompany’s quality construction traits, the patented features of an ironclad huband outer bearing axle were clear advantages that set Winona apart.  The distinctions were so easy to see that,even today, they’re very helpful in the identification process.  (NOTE: Even though these features can helpwith the authentication process, there were other brands that used similartechnology.  As a result, careful studyis still needed to correctly identify the brand.)

During the teens of the 20th century,Winona adopted what would be one of its last identifiable icons.  Further securing itself to the historicalnamesake of its city and the romance of the Old West, the company attached itsbrand to the symbol of a Dakota American Indian maiden by the name of Wenonah.  It was a distinctive and easy-to-remembervisual.  The Native American image wasoften included on the wagon, wagon seat, company letterhead, catalogs, ads andother promotional signage.

Even with a strong commitment topromotion, Winona ultimately fell victim to the same weakness that grippedvirtually every wagon maker of the period. Almost all of the old builders found it hard to accept the passing ofthe grand wagon era.  Changing times,needs, and expectations helped increase the influence of motorizedtransportation while the archaic look of a horse-and-wagon-dominated societyfell increasingly out of favor.

By the 1930s, Winona (and the majorityof U.S.-based wood-wheeled wagon makers) had ceased operations. Vintagedirectories list Mike’s Trading Store in Spokane, Wash., as the only place toobtain replacement parts during the Great Depression.  Fittingly, the company’s final legacycontinues to be carried by many of those highly identifiable design and constructiontraits.  It seems “Good Timber and BoneDry” was more than a slogan.  It was adeep-seated commitment to craftsmanship that can still be seen as the Winonabrand regularly takes on all comers in 21st century chuck wagon and sheep wagoncompetitions as well as collector gatherings throughout the country.


Through much of the company’s history,Winona also made another brand of wagon called ‘Rushford.’  This was actually the company that Winonaoriginated from in 1879.  In the earlypart of the 20th century, the firm ceased using the Rushford name and it wascarried on by another organization.  It’san important element of history as not all surviving Rushford wagons can beconnected to the Winona Wagon Company. 

In a nod to the company’s roots, theRushford brand was marketed by Winona throughout the late nineteenthcentury. 
Winona made a wide variety of wagontypes including farm, freight, mountain, sheep camp, fruit, potato bed, andU.S. military wagons.  While ironcladhubs and outer bearing axles were primarily used on the company’s heaviervehicles, individual features of every wagon were designed to satisfy specificterrain, user purposes, and price ranges.

Throughout its construction, Winonautilized hickory timber for axles and white oak for spokes, hubs, and felloes.Box sides were generally constructed from poplar but cottonwood was alsoused.  Box floors were almost alwaysbuilt from pine.
Beyond wheel size and box bedvariations, other distinctions between different styles of Winona wagonsincluded choices between wooden or steel axles, stiff or drop tongues as wellas multiple brake styles, track widths, and tire widths ranging from 1-1/2 to 4inches. All wagon builders had geographical regions where they were mostcompetitive.  Winona wagons were toutedas being particularly well suited to the South and West and, as such, were soldpredominantly west of the Mississippi River. 

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
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