Winona Wagon Co. Staked Reputation on Quality

"Iron clad" hubs and "outer bearing" axles characterize a Winona wagon.

Winona was one of a select few major manufacturers that built and sold sheep herder wagons.

Winona was one of a select few major manufacturers that built and sold sheep herder wagons.

Courtesy David Sneed

Content Tools

By the time I rolled into western Oklahoma, I had been driving long enough that I was ready to stretch my legs.

Unfortunately, the cool comfort blowing from the truck’s air conditioner hadn’t prepared me for the Panhandle’s furnace of summer heat. Once I got out of the cab, the heat hit me with a vengeance and, with no clouds in sight, the sun quickly bore through my thinning head of hair.

Almost immediately, my local guide pointed out that we needed to walk “over there.” I looked down his finger and, for a moment, felt like getting back in the truck. His direction pointed to an overgrown, snaky and undoubtedly tick-thick field. I was suddenly reminded why my family doesn’t particularly enjoy all of my wagon-themed expeditions. They’ve learned, the hard way, that locating many of these forgotten treasures can come with unwelcome surprises.

On this particular quest, I was on a detour from another wagon-related journey. An acquaintance had asked if I could help identify the crumbled remains of an old wagon and I couldn’t resist the challenge. As we made our way through the waist-high grass and brush, I wondered why I hadn’t remembered to bring bug spray. Along with a camera, bottled water and notepad, it’s standard procedure for about any outdoor research excursion.

Almost as soon as those thoughts were formed, a pile of wood and metal appeared. As I stepped closer, the heap of history brought an immediate smile. It was one of those “aha,” instant connection moments almost every collector has experienced. Anytime I see familiar traits on a wagon, it’s like recognizing an old friend after years of separation. The hubs on this wagon gear were significantly different than those of about any other. They were covered in a unique metal sheath. Other iron sections on the gear were equally distinctive. Even after a century of age and decay, the pieces still had a lot to say about what it took to succeed in an extremely competitive industry: I was looking at a Winona wagon.

Early wagon markets

Nineteenth century America was a virtual field of dreams for many farm wagon makers. The discovery of gold and the opening of the West created opportunities and challenges beyond the imagination. So remarkable was the business that by the 1870s and 1880s, some wagon 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 as rapidly as every six minutes, fortunes were made – and lost.

In many ways, American vehicle makers in the 1800s were no different than those in the U.S., Germany or Japan today. They worked to consistently build quality products, keep good employees, strategically promote their advantages and maintain high customer loyalty.

But even with those lofty goals, for any brand to be successful, it must create and maintain an identity for itself, something consumers can relate to and remember.

Just as we often think of premium quality when brands like Cadillac or Lexus are mentioned, strong vehicle names also conjured up the same feelings of desirability in the 1800s and early 1900s. Whether the buyer was considering a Studebaker, Schuttler, Milburn, Murphy, Bain, Mitchell, Moline, Jackson, Espenschied or any of the thousands of other wagon brands, there was no shortage of competition. In fact, during a speech to a group of vehicle builders in 1877, Studebaker company President Clem Studebaker conservatively estimated there were as many as 80,000 horse-drawn vehicle makers in America.

So, if you’re a wagon builder in the late 19th century catering to farms, ranches, businesses and the American frontier, how do you separate yourself from so many viable competitors? It’s a question with many answers, some of which were still present in the pile of wood and wheels I’d come across in the middle of that overgrown Oklahoma field. Ultimately, it was those same answers that helped positively identify the all-but-forgotten remains as a legendary Winona mountain wagon.

Winona’s will to win

Located on the upper Mississippi River, the Winona (Minn.) Wagon Co. was ideally positioned for shipping and receiving materials and equally well located for acquiring quality timber. By the time it was established in 1879, Winona had plenty of firmly established competition. Price wars, lawsuits and leveraged buyouts were just some of the heavy-handed tactics used by well-heeled brands to squash newcomers vying for regional and national attention. It was a demanding marketplace but Winona employed a variety of strategies to rise above the challenges of well-known, confident rivals.

While virtually all builders dealt with the worry of maintaining a strong, marketable identity, many – just like companies today – created a slogan that summarized their commitment to quality or some other beneficial feature. The Winona Wagon Co. was quite effective using the catchphrase “Good Timber and Bone Dry.” The saying focused on the central and most important element of any early wagon – superior wood construction. After all, quality hardwoods were the heart of a wagon and companies that presented themselves as thorough, trustworthy and value-conscious generally enjoyed the greatest success. The use of higher-grade raw materials, though, wasn’t the only advantage Winona touted. Like many successful firms, it promoted itself heavily while consistently stressing innovative features and design elements.

Standing out in a crowd

Joining the chorus of those parroting their brand to have the “lightest draft” and “wheels boiled in oil,” Winona also proclaimed the superiority of its “clipped” undercarriages as opposed to competitive wagon gears that were through-bolted and presumably weakened. Their grain-tight boxes were designed to keep flax and seed from spilling out of the wagons and double-riveted felloes provided even more strength to the wheels. Ultimately, though, those qualities were remarkably similar to those of other competitors. Fortunately, the company really did have features setting it apart. As it turns out, those features were some of the most visually different and promotionally significant traits on any wagon and they centered on the foundational soundness of axles and wheels.

Reinforcing the company’s commitment to quality construction, Winona built its heavier mountain wagons with a characteristic it called “outer bearing” axles. The term sounds like it referred to a roller bearing or outer seal on the axles. In fact, the feature was more simple, but equally ingenious. On many Winona wagons, a custom-formed block of iron was placed immediately beneath the bolster stake and allowed to rest on the shoulder of the skein.

The effect was similar to addition of structural supports to a suspension bridge. The iron blocks helped take more of the load off the center portion of the axle and transfer it to the wheel. The result was that the outer axle was tied to the upper bolster while also being reinforced by the skein (the metal thimble fitted over the wooden axle). It meant that both the axle beam and the bolster beam above it would have to break before the wagon could be rendered helpless. In an era when wagons were often used in remote, rugged regions, this was a dramatically important feature.

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

Truly, the whole structure was a novel idea and Winona took great advantage of promotional opportunities. Beyond a simple verbal description touting the design’s strength, the company’s marketing folks made a practice of cutting out the entire center section of a Winona rear axle. Then, they loaded the wagon and took photos to show the design strengths at work. At the same time, they would take a competitor’s wagon, remove the same area of the rear axle, load it and clearly demonstrate the weakened and sagging gear. These types of dramatic visual displays continually reinforced Winona as a major competitive force.

An ironclad reputation

Yet another distinctive design feature of Winona wagons was the “iron clad” hub. Once again, the carefully chosen name presented a vivid mental picture of strength, value and confidence. The design was a metal covering or shield tightly formed around the hub, protecting it from the destructive elements of work and weather.

According to the company’s early literature, this feature meant that “no matter how much the hubs were exposed to sun, snow, rain or dirt, they wouldn’t check or crack.” Winona claimed that once a wagon hub begins to check, “the spokes work loose, the tires come off, and a breakdown occurs.” While other builders could match many of the company’s quality construction traits, the patented features of an ironclad hub and 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.

Soon after the turn of the 20th century, Winona adopted what would be one of its last identifiable icons. Further securing itself to the historical namesake of its city and the romance of the Old West, the company attached its brand to the symbol of a Dakota American Indian maiden by the name of Wenonah. It was a distinctive and easy-to-remember visual. The American Indian image was often included on the wagon, wagon seat, company letterhead, catalogs, ads and other promotional signage.

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

By the 1930s, Winona (and the majority of U.S.-based wood-wheeled wagon makers) had ceased operations. Vintage directories list Mike’s Trading Store in Spokane, Wash., as the only place to obtain replacement parts during the Great Depression. Fittingly, the company’s final legacy continues to be carried by many of those highly identifiable design and construction traits. It seems “Good Timber and Bone Dry” was more than a slogan. It was a deep-seated commitment to craftsmanship that can still be seen as the Winona brand regularly takes on all comers in 21st century chuck wagon competitions and vintage wagon shows throughout the country. FC

Read more about the Winona Wagon Co. and its vehicles: “Winona Offered Diverse Wagon Line.”