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American Ingenuity

Author Photo
By David Sneed | May 1, 2005

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Right: This early catalog cover emphasized the interest of the folding wagon box to farmers, ranchers and businessmen alike.
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Above: Touting 15 wagon beds in one, American used simple graphics and illustrations to reinforce the versatile value of their box.
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Below: In a matter of minutes, the Melrose box could be adapted into a sturdy cattle hauler.
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Below: Farmers enjoyed the flexible control of the angle and height of the box sides.
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Above: In 1920, American’s motor truck bodies included 2-in-1, 3-in-1, 4-in-1 and 8-in-1 convertible designs.
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Below: American’s Melrose wagon box was substantially built and designed to transform its shape quickly, without tools.

“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.

Boxes were offered in 38- and 42-inch widths, and lengths of 9,
12, 14 and 16 feet. The boxes were said to hold as much as 100
bushels of shelled corn, 4,800 pounds of hay or two full-size
cows/bulls. A 12-foot Melrose bed from the American Wagon Co. cost
$30, according to the company’s 1911 catalog. While the 12-foot bed
weighed 75 pounds more than the average wagon box, it was also 18
inches longer.

American was proud of the fact that no nails were used anywhere
in the bed. Instead of wood supports, the company used steel sills
to strengthen the bottom of the bed. Telescoping side braces were
integrated with the hinged metalwork to fold the length of the box
into its multitude of shapes. End rods were double-galvanized for
extra protection against rust, and all metal parts were made from
cold rolled steel. Sales catalogs proclaimed the wood to be long
leaf pine, free from knots and double kiln-dried. With “superior
quality” and “real functional value” as company watchwords,
American worked hard to gain consumer confidence and make the
buying process as simple as possible. Compared to the planned
obsolescence of many products today, “In building this bed our
whole aim is permanency,” company officials noted.

Seasons change

By 1918, times were changing. The company had begun producing
cabs, beds and other wooden parts for motorized vehicles. Like many
others in the wagon-making trade, American was forced to branch
into additional lines of business once the automotive industry
gained a foothold. Following virtually the same production plan,
but now with truck bodies, the company built at least four
variations of truck beds. The convertible motor-truck bodies
included 2-in-1, 3-in-1, 4-in-1 and 8-in-1 designs. Applications
ranged from grain bodies to hog, stock, flat, poultry, basket and
flared racks. A fine example of an American motor truck bed is
found in a private vehicle collection in Bolivar, Mo. The Mark
Besser collection includes a 1918 All-American brand farm truck
with an authentic 8-in-1 American folding bed. It’s not only a good
looking fit to the truck, but obviously offered its original owner
various hauling options.

Whatever the reasons – whether it was consumer reluctance to
accept change, a limited distribution system, weak financial
capital, or simply a casualty of transitional times – there is no
evidence to suggest that convertible wagon beds ever grabbed a
strong hold on either the automotive or farm wagon market. Even
with an ingenious design and strong marketing principles, the wagon
company disappeared from city directories after 1922. Ironically,
the firm noted for such a highly adaptable product couldn’t quite
adapt itself to rapidly changing times.

Today, at estate auctions, farm sales and roadside antique
stores, vintage horse-drawn wagons can still be found. Local clubs,
historical societies, museums, chuck wagon groups, antique dealers,
yard decorators and collectors have strengthened a niche for these
relics from the past. Some look for high or low wheels, others want
wide or narrow boxes, stiff tongues, drop tongues or even specific
wagon brands. In the midst of it all are those looking for the
proverbial needle in a haystack … the rare piece that adds depth to
a quality collection while helping preserve a valued portion of
America’s farming legacy. With only a decade or so of production,
the Melrose convertible box is one of those hard-to-find pieces. By
the company’s own admission, the boxes were built to last. So,
while the whereabouts of most of these pieces isn’t known,
somewhere another American Melrose box is undoubtedly waiting to be
discovered and its creative dreams passed on to future
generations.

David Sneed is a historian of America’s early western
transportation industry. He can be reached at: Wheels That Won The
West™ archives, P.O. Box 1081, Flippin, AR, 72634; e-mail:
dsneed@southshore.com

Convertible Wagon Box Not Unique to American

In spite of the many unique features and farming
benefits generated by its convertible wagon box, American was not
the only company to offer such an inventive design. Other firms
with similar products included:

? The Mutschler Co., Goshen, Ind. This firm
made the “Mills” brand 8-in-1 adjustable wagon bed. It was
guaranteed for one year and included a 30-day trial.

? Montgomery Ward, Chicago, Ill. This legendary
mail-order house not only helped market the “Mills” brand
adjustable box, but also sold several other combination designs.
Lengths of 12, 14 and 16 feet were offered and capacities were said
to be a full 20 percent greater than an ordinary wagon box. A
30-day free trial and one-year warranty were among the features
included with these 8-in-1 designs.

? The True Manufacturing Co., Eaton Rapids,
Mich. This organization marketed the “True” brand folding wagon
box. It was built in 14- and 16-foot lengths with five different
positions, and an 85-bushel, 2-ton capacity. Like the American
Wagon Co.’s models, the True box also touted the benefits of a
no-tools-required, easily interchangeable setup.

? The Stoughton Wagon Co., Stoughton, Wis. By
1917, this well-known firm was also building an articulating box
called the “Stoughton Combination Bed.”

? Jas. L. Wilber Co., Farmington, Mich. As
early as 1888, Wilber was marketing a combined hay and stock rack
wagon bed.

American Ingenuity

Author Photo
By David Sneed | Apr 22, 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 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.

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