A History of the Studebaker Company
Before the Studebaker Corp. made pointy-nosed cars, the company had a long and interesting history as wagon builders.
A chuck wagon on the job in eastern Colorado in the 1930s. As two cowboys rest (right), a more junior member of the crew is shown dumping a gunnysack of cow chips near the cook fire, where a pot hangs. Note the crude but serviceable modifications to the common farm wagon.
Before the Studebaker Corporation made pointy-nosed cars, the company had a long and interesting history as wagon builders.
The Staudenbecker clan of Solingen, Germany, were known as “blade makers” for the cutlery trade. In 1736, the family immigrated to America and settled in the English colonies. Some of the clan began building wagons in their blacksmith shops, and are credited with design and construction of the famous Conestoga wagon with its distinctive boat-like box design.
Others in the clan moved to Ohio, changed the spelling of the family name and established the Studebaker Wagon Co. John Studebaker traveled farther west to California to participate in the gold rush. After arriving, he discovered all the good claims had been taken and he could make more money serving the miners.
Since most mining was done by hand, John offered his expertise to ease the hard work demanded by the process. He used his wagon-making experience to design and build sturdy wheelbarrows used in gold digging. This earned him the name “Wheelbarrow Johnny,” plus a small fortune. When the gold rush waned, he moved back to Ohio, bought out a brother’s interest in wagon making, established the Studebaker Wagon Corp., and began building wagons on a much larger scale.
Strong enough for an army
When offered government contracts to build wagons for Union forces during the Civil War, John’s extremely durable and reliable units earned the company a legendary name. In spite of three major fires (the factories were rebuilt and improved after each), the company continued to prosper. The Studebaker name stood for quality and a progressive approach: The company was among the earliest manufacturers to standardize models and make interchangeable parts. That modernization allowed factories to maximize production.
For example, in 1898, the company built 500 wagons in a 36-hour span for the Spanish-American War. In 1914, as World War I began, the company contracted to build 3,000 units for England, and thousands more for France and Russia.
By 1920, the automobile age had arrived and the manufacture of horse-drawn equipment began to slow dramatically. Studebaker factories were completely refitted for automobile production.
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