The World of Wagons, 100 Years Ago

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Understanding the ins-and-outs of America’s first transportation industry requires a great deal of research.  It’s one of the reasons I spend a fair amount of time perusing the early trade papers.  Period magazines like The Spokesman, The Implement Age, The Carriage Monthly, Blacksmith and Wheelwright, and The Hub are packed with valuable details on who did what, when, where, and why.  Those publications – and others – provide a true window into yesterday, helping minimize modern-day speculation and best guesses while giving us a better appreciation of the times.  In many instances, “the good ol’ days” from the horse drawn era were just as competitive, aggressive, and stressful as corporate maneuverings today. 

Regular challenges from fires, floods, corporate takeovers, economic depressions, bank failures, raw material shortages, and other issues meant that the most successful wagon and carriage makers had to be true businessmen (and women).  They had to be intensely focused on present and future circumstances as competition in this industry demanded acumen at every level.  Even so, at the turn of the 20th century, another issue began to plague America’s horse-drawn vehicle builders.

The growing popularity of the automobile was a new kind of challenge.  It was a direct attack on the entire industry and one that was difficult for many to understand.  Initially, the industry ignored the noisy and expensive upstarts.  Progress, though, couldn’t be stopped by turning a blind eye to the facts.  Eventually, a good number of wagon and carriage makers did unite in their efforts to deal with this johnny-come-lately competitor.  In other ways, though, the added pressure to pay the bills actually reinforced hard-line competition and backbiting rumors within the ranks.  Ultimately, every dollar was vital to those struggling to keep their doors open and many did whatever they felt necessary to secure business. 

While reviewing some of what took place a century ago, I examined several issues of The Hub magazine from that time frame.  As you might imagine, topics pertaining to the continued growth of the auto industry dominated the pages.  Nonetheless, countless other articles related to stock dividends, company expansions, business failures, deaths, adjustments to sales and distribution networks, the importance of good roads, needs for vehicle standardization, values of horses and mules, proper painting methods, elimination of waste – especially with wood, and a host of other news was covered.   

The subject matter is so vast that I couldn’t begin to list everything in my weekly blog.  However, I did pick out a few tidbits that may be of particular interest to today’s western vehicle enthusiasts.  With that said, below are a few takeaways from the 1915 and 1916 issues of “The Hub.”

  • The Kentucky Wagon Company announced it would begin assembling Dixie Motor Cars and manufacture some of the parts.  Just a few years earlier, the firm had shared that they had built over 1 million wagons since 1879.
  • William T. Lewis died on December 30, 1915.  His obituary states that he was born in Utica, New York but moved to Racine, Wisconsin when he was in his mid-teens.  In 1864, he married the daughter of legendary wagon maker, Henry Mitchell.  Lewis then joined the wagon firm and, within a couple of years, the company was renamed as Mitchell, Lewis & Co.
  • Studebaker announced they would reduce weekly working hours from 55 to 50.
  •  As the Stoughton Wagon Company wrapped up its 50th anniversary, they shared some details related to the firm’s roots with legendary wagon builder, T.G. Mandt.  According to the report, Mandt’s first wagons sold for $85 each and many of his first laborers came from Norway.  Mandt is said to have paid for their passage to America but required repayment by reducing wages.  It was an agreeable arrangement for all parties.
  • A.A. Cooper (Cooper Wagons) celebrated his 86th birthday on November 9, 1915. 
  • The Florence Wagon Works (Florence, Alabama) resumed operation in June of 1915 after being closed for a few months due to slow business. 
  • The Fort Smith Wagon Company reported that its staff of 250 workers were enduring 12 hour days to fulfill a large military ambulance contract.  The vehicles were being used by the Red Cross on European battlefields.
  • While the auto industry was growing rapidly, 1914 still saw the completion and sale of 1 million horse drawn carriages.
  • For modern-day collectors looking for the earliest timeframe of a Turnbull brand (Defiance, Ohio) bob sled, the May 1915 issue of “The Hub” announced these new additions to the company’s product line.
  •  Despite rumors to the contrary, Tiffin Wagon Company (Tiffin, Ohio) vigorously denied claims that it was ceasing construction of wagons.  They shared that they had “not the remotest intention of discontinuing” production.
It’s interesting to read history first-hand.  When I was going through these pages of The Hub, it became obvious that some companies clearly understood the promotional power of the press while others only occasionally shared news about their organization.  It’s an observation that can still be made today.  In fact, the more I looked at these old stories, the more convinced I became that some things never change – even to the point of gasoline discussions.  Believe it or not, a century ago, some were calling for the government to investigate petroleum producers due to the high prices of gasoline.  One hundred years later, the price of gas (high or low) continues to be a regular topic and – albeit to a smaller number of buyers – horse drawn vehicles are still being sold.

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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