American Ingenuity

Unfolding the history of the American Wagon Company

| May 2005

"Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door," or so the saying goes. In the early 1900s, the American Wagon Co. was one of several firms testing that philosophy by offering a new twist on an old design. Wagon boxes, the cargo-hauling portion of a horse-drawn wagon, were the company's specialty. Believing necessity to really be the mother of invention, American was perfecting some of the most visibly significant changes to farm wagons in close to a half-century. Between 1905 and 1909, the company secured at least two patents on their creations. Internal enthusiasm and faith in the product's success was high. But, in just over a decade, the wheels of progress would take a hard turn.

Putting ideas to work

Based in Dixon, Ill., in 1911, American brought a promise of greater prosperity to the area. Sales offices were maintained in nearby Chicago, and catalog rhetoric indicated that more manufacturing sites were being contemplated to meet the growing demand. According to period accounts in the Dixon Evening Telegraph, the old Grand Detour wagon plant had been remodeled to meet the needs of the newly arrived company. As the nation celebrated its 135th birthday, the factory officially began manufacturing in Dixon on July 5, 1911.

The company's name implies that the firm was involved in full-scale wagon production. However, the box (often called the bed) was the only part of the wagon that the organization actually manufactured. But the American Wagon Co.'s box was far from ordinary and, in many ways, typical of the agricultural inventive genius prevalent during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Farmers, ranchers and businesses of the day needed different wagon beds to haul different types of payloads. Most wagons met this requirement with designs that allowed the box to be lifted off the running gear and replaced with a different rack or bed as the need arose. For some, though, this type of traditional wagon design offered a less-than-adequate solution to hauling multiple varieties of cargo.

At issue were the added time and money involved in adjusting the wagon to meet every need. In order to help its customers avoid the difficult and costly exercise of buying or building different beds and frequently changing them, the American Wagon Co. marketed just one box that satisfied more than a dozen common uses. So, whether the farmer needed a hay rack to bring in loose hay from the field, a stock rack for hauling livestock, a corn wagon with built-in bang boards, a flax-tight grain wagon, an enclosed box for transporting poultry, or even a custom rig with ladder-back seats to carry a couple dozen folks to a Sunday afternoon church picnic, these quick-changing boxes catered to almost every need a rural farmer and businessman might encounter.

Going the extra mile

Early print advertisements and catalogs went to extraordinary detail explaining the value and benefits of American's Melrose convertible wagon bed. The advertisements warned against confusing the company's Melrose brand with cheaper, heavier and cruder imitations. Some of the designs that American competed against could be found in the pages of Montgomery Ward's discount catalogs, as well as among a few other makers and independent dealers. American's morphing design was touted as a time and money saver. They also boasted greater durability, capacity, flexibility and efficiency … all for about the same cost as a "first-class, single-purpose bed."

Though the concept had been on the market for several years, a 1912 full-page advertisement describes the wagon bed as a "new farm invention." Specific advantages included a "15-wagon-beds-in-one" design … a no tools, easy changeover configuration … strong, warp-free construction … and a 5-year guarantee. It was an unusually strong guarantee: Most horse-drawn wagon warranties of the day were limited to one year of coverage. Additionally, the box came with a free, 30-day trial. The American Wagon Co. even paid the freight.