A History of the Studebaker Company

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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.
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A Studebaker 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.

“Every pound more a wagon weighs means one less pound of cargo it can haul …”

This old saying, passed from early European wagon makers, had direct relevance in the Texas Panhandle when Charles Goodnight, the first rancher in the panhandle, invented and built the first “kitchen on wheels.” Used extensively on trail drives and ranch roundups, the vehicle was called a chuck wagon.

Goodnight chose a military-version Studebaker ambulance wagon as a base for his chuck wagon because it had steel axles, iron springs and other metal fixtures designed for rugged military use. He added a wooden water barrel on one side and a wooden chuck box on the rear with a folding lid used as a table. A “boot” was added below the food box to carry cast-iron Dutch ovens and a dried cowhide (possum belly) was slung below the wagon box to carry firewood and cow chips. The chuck wagon became the most famous conveyance in the history of the West.

The old saying about wagon weight caught up with Goodnight as observers of the time told how this first chuck wagon was built so heavy and “hell for stout” that four horses could not pull it along the trail. Instead, six big oxen were required. They moved so slowly that the tall, long-legged longhorn steers outpaced the wagon so far it did not catch the sleeping herd until midnight each night. That led to complaints from hungry trail drivers and, ultimately, to design modifications.

Most later chuck wagons were built on whatever brand and model wagon owned, the work performed by amateur cowboy carpenters with few tools and using whatever materials lay at hand. Many used drawers salvaged from abandoned furniture for the chuck box. Studebaker actually made a few metal, dust-proof chuck boxes for their special wagons during the company’s final years of wagon production. Weight was kept to a minimum in order to haul more supplies.

Political repercussions

In 1884 at Dodd City in Fannin County, Texas, relatives of employees of the Studebaker Wagon Corp. of South Bend, Ind., received word that a bulletin had been posted in the factories basically ordering them to vote Republican or be fired. It seems the company’s board of directors was aware that the bulk of the company’s wagon contracts were with the current administration and the board wanted to keep those contacts coming. Some 200 angry Dodd City citizens gathered and drafted a letter to the company president, informing him that they had purchased a new Studebaker wagon and a quantity of coal oil. They had parked the wagon on Main Street in Dodd City, invited the media and intended to burn the wagon to the ground in protest of the bulletin.

“The wagon would be burned in the same spirit that tea was tossed overboard at the Boston Tea Party in 1776,” the letter noted. The writers went on to predict that the Studebaker name would become “vile and odorous” anywhere liberty and freedom existed. “We burn it to consume a product that was made by the sweat and blood of your employees that your bulletin has reduced to below the standard of manhood,” the letter continued.

After mailing the letter, coal oil was splashed, a match applied, and the new wagon burned to the ground as the crowd rejoiced and made merry while the attending media watched.

No record has been found of whether the protest had any impact on the company or the election in Indiana. However, in Fannin County, Texas, the Democrats garnered 3,724 votes in 1884, the Independents got 911 and the Republicans brought up the rear with just 99 votes. History also records the presence of a black spot on Main Street in Dodd City for many years afterward. FC

Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.

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