Not many visible clues remain of the Florence Wagon Company factory at the end of South Richards Street in Florence, Ala.
The company opened in 1889 and at one time claimed to be North America’s second largest wagon maker, producing 15,000 horse-drawn wagons a year.
Today, though, the dilapidated walls of the factory are crumbling down to the vegetation-covered ground, and railroad tracks that once connected the firm to the rest of the world are abandoned and barely visible. The factory is gone – but not forgotten.
Book sparks interest in old wagon company
The Florence Wagon Company has undergone a renaissance of attention in recent years. Much of the renewed interest is the result of a book written by Florence resident and local historian Jane Johnson Hamm, titled Florence Wagon Co. Memories & More. The book chronicles the history and memories of the firm and its employees, and has inspired the formation of the Florence Wagon Club, the Florence Wagon Works Celebration parade and the establishment of the local South’s Wagon Shop, where wagons are actually restored.
Willard South is owner and operator of South’s Wagon Shop. “There aren’t that many people restoring wagons and not many of these steel-wheeled wagons are left,” Willard says. “We might be the only ones in the country restoring Florence wagons; as a hobby, there’s few people out there doing what we do.” Of the 15 wagons that Willard has restored so far, seven have been Florences. He’s also helped his brother John “Buck” South do two, and his cousin Rufus do one.
Restoration of a Florence wagon
The restoration process for the wagons usually requires total reconstruction of all the wood parts and likely some of the metal fittings as well. Unlike metal on tractors, the wood on wagons quickly rots away, so finding pre-existing parts simply may not be possible. New wood must be cut from patterns taken from the few wagons that are found in fairly good condition. On some wagons, figuring out the correct pattern is a challenge because many old-time brands do not have identifying model numbers cast into the axle.
Florence wagons are an exception. Willard says they have “Flo.” cast on each axle plate, along with “2 3/4” or “3,” which identifies the size in inches of the wagon axle skein – a thimble-like covering on the end of each axle that protects the axle-wheel connection.
Iron axles and other metal parts are sandblasted, primed and painted. “In some cases,” Willard says, “some of the iron you have to make because that is missing also. It’s hard work, but I enjoy it.” Then, the wagons are reassembled from scratch.
The “light running” wagon
The 1923 company catalog shows a variety of wagon styles, all termed “light running,” as well as a number of accessories. The term “light running” is explained: “Why the Florence Wagon Runs Light: It is made mechanically correct, with just the proper ‘tuck’ and ‘gather,’ which insures a perfect track and light draft. This gives it the loud ‘cluck’ so dear to the good teamster.”
Styles listed include one- and two-horse road wagons, farm, lumber and log wagons, and combinations of several of the above. There were plantation and railroad dump carts, and cut-under drays, which were bigger than the road wagons and used for heavier hauling. And according to a 1974 newspaper report included in Hamm’s book, small replicas of the original wagons, designed to be pulled by goats, also were sold.
Among the wagons Willard has restored to date is a Florence road wagon, which he bought from 78-year-old Ed Haraway of Rogersville, Ala. Ed told him he was 5 years old when his father bought the wagon new from the Bettenfield Hardware Store in Rogersville.
The elder Haraway used the wagon until he died, then Ed used it until he gave up farming. When he contacted Willard, after reading about Willard’s restoration work in a newspaper report, he was ready to sell.
“The wagon was in pretty bad shape,” Willard recalls, “but we bought it and restored it.” All the wood had to be newly made, but the iron was all there; it just needed to be cleaned up and painted.
Willard sent out for the wheels: “We get the Amish people in Ethridge, Tenn., to build our wheels because they build them like people used to do.” Once the wagon was all back together, Willard painted it in its original colors, based on old Florence advertisements.
Beginning of the Florence Wagon Club
As he continued to restore wagons, he says, more people heard about what he was doing and called, like Ed, offering to sell their wagons. “Sometimes, people would call us and want to give us an old wagon just because they wanted to see it restored.” Willard is a founding member of the Florence Wagon Club, which now has about 30 members who collect and help restore these old wagons. He says all together, he thinks the club has saved about 25 wagons; no one has any idea how many of the original wagons still exist.
The group puts on an annual wagon parade and celebration the third Saturday in May, which attracts wagons and people of all types. The five-year-old parade has grown every year, says author Jane Hamm, who also is a member of the club. “The parade travels for five miles through town and then there is an awards ceremony, where ribbons and plaques are given out for categories such as ‘best restoration’ and ‘most original unrestored wagon.’” Last year, 52 wagons were entered, 12 of them Florences.
“A lot of people who own these wagons don’t have any idea that they are so important to this area,” Jane says. “Sometimes they are tucked in a barn, or somewhere on the farm just rotting away. These wagons put this town on the map – and that’s historical.” FC
Read more about author Jane Johnson Hamm, her book and its impact: “Jane Johnson Hamm and the Florence Wagon Company.”
Read more about the Florence Wagon Company’s roots: “The Florence Wagon Company.”
For more information:
– Jane Johnson Hamm, 210 Knights Bridge Rd., Florence, AL 35630; (205) 764-8370.
– Willard South, South’s Wagon Shop, 2073 County Road 154, Florence, AL 35633; (256) 766-6476.