The Springfield Wagon Company could be called the company that didn’t blink. Through nearly 80 years of business, it took on many bigger companies head on, challenging them on their own terms. Now, the Springfield Wagon Company could be called the company that wouldn’t die.
About 200 people recently gathered at Founder’s Park in Springfield, Mo. to attend a public forum in order to share their common interest in an early-day vehicle. They collected memorablia, one-of-a-kind photographs, and videotaped interviews. They also celebrated the return of a company that closed fifty years ago.
The original Springfield Wagon Company, which operated near the scene of the collectors’ meet, sold many thousands of wagons from 1872 until 1941, when the factory relocated to Fayetteville, Ark. ‘Farm and road’ type wagons were made there near the Ozark hardwood forests until 1951. The wagon was one of the last high-wheeled vehicles in production.
Springfield wagons were made from the best materials. The yellow poplar box was finished in green with yellow striping, and the brand name was printed in white-painted block type. Its oak or hickory running gear, including spoked (12 in front and 14 in the taller rear) wheels were orange, trimmed in black. This combination of distinct colors would remain trademarks of the well-known wagon for 80 years.
When Springfield entered the market for wagons, it was a little fish in a big pond. Three major wagon manufacturers looked down their proverbial noses at the fledgling company. Studebaker had one of the longest pedigrees and was probably the most successful wagon at the time, followed closely by the Bain and Schuttler wagon companies. These companies were not alone. Birch, Wilson, John Deere and others had begun to establish footholds in the market.
When it went out of business in 1951, though, Springfield was the largest (and practically the last) producer of wagons in the country. Studebaker made the transition early to producing ‘gas buggies’ and put Old Dobbin out to pasture. John Deere and International had bought up several patents to stay in the ‘road and farm’ wagon market until the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Bain and Peter Schuttler companies were absorbed into the Springfield firm, which continued to place the former maker’s brand names on sideboards to appease loyal farmers.
The road the company took was not an easy one. In fact, it can be said that the company probably would have folded several times under the guidance of any man other than Col. Homer Franklin Fellows.
By the time he took over the Springfield Manufacturing Company, H.F. Fellows had already proven himself a good businessman and a hard nut to crack. He had served in the Civil War and would carry the title of colonel with him to his grave. He raised three daughters on his own for three years, following the death of his wife. During that time, he built Springfield’s first grain elevator and began building a few custom-made implements.
From the beginning, Springfield needed help. In its first three years, production delays and national stock market woes threatened to kill Springfield’s hopes. Homer and his friend Robert McElhany stepped in and took over the factory by assuming its debts and management. The company closed down for ten days and, after re-opening, began to slowly build toward financial strength.
It was successful, in part, because of the addition of Capt. Ezekiel Boyden, a longtime wagon manufacturer and blacksmith, who just happened to be the father of Homer’s new bride, his second wife, Minnie L. Boyden. Ezekiel was not only a master builder, but also frugal builder. His cost cutting – by forcing suppliers to supply better quality materials and then, in a blacksmith shop the owners had added, building many of their parts themselves – increased the company’s efficiency many times over.
It was also successful because the Springfield was, by all accounts, a very high quality wagon. In 1876, only the first year after the reorganization, the company made a bold claim, daring other wagon manufacturers to test their wagons against the Springfield. If the competitor’s wagon proved to be better, Springfield would pay $500 to the company. P.E. Studebaker accepted, but the Studebaker wagon never showed, leaving the Springfield standing as the victor by default.
In 1877, Col. Fellows sued the Springfield Manufacturing Company. In getting a loan to pay off the debts of the company before reorganization, the company had owed him tens of thousands of dollars. When he won the suit, the stockholders could not find the money to pay Fellows his $23,000 reward and he, his brother and Boyden bought the company outright. There were accusations – which did not stick in court – that the Fellows brothers had conspired to exhaust the company’s funds before their suit, making it easier for them to buy.
The company, now renamed the Springfield Wagon Company and fully under the control of the trio, began to set earnings records almost yearly, but was tested once again. Springfield was expanding and increasing output, too, when the company was destroyed by a fire, started by a defective drying kiln in October 1883. A little over a year later, the company had been rebuilt better than ever and, because of the fire, it had avoided the stock market Panic of 1884, which decimated the company’s competitors.
There were further trials and tests. There were more name changes – from the Springfield Wagon Company to the Springfield Wagon and Trailer Company – and back again. H.F.’s son, Frank, took over the management of the company after his father’s death in 1892. The company won lucrative government contracts to produce wagons for the U.S. Cavalry in World War I, and for farmers who could not buy trucks (due to rationing) during World War II. Mules and horses pulled a variety of light, four-wheeled vehicles made at the Springfield wagon works. Sodbusters, ranchers, and the U.S. Army utilized this versatile means of overland transportation.
Near the end of production, and with the advent of better roads, the Springfield was fitted with pneumatic tires and shortened tongues to adapt for tractor use. Several circus wagons had been made, and some of the last were for Tom Mix and Col. Tim McCoy for use as equipment trailers and horse-drawn parade wagons.
Much of the wagon’s historical significance would have disappeared if it had not been for microfilm newspaper accounts preserved in the Springfield/Greene County Library, F.P. Rose’s article, ‘The Springfield Wagon Company’ in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly (Spring 1951), and a book authored by Steven Stepp, The Old Reliable.
But history is only half of the Springfield story. Recently, a Springfield resident named Louis Allen (who portrays Col. Homer Franklin Fellows at local living history events and organized the collectors’ rally) decided to revive the company. At the time of this writing, everything was in place for the company’s resurrection but for a few legal details, so, as you read this, Louis and others are more than likely building new Springfields right now.
Louis had been building period wagons for a Renaissance-themed park, but, when the park went under, he was too far hooked by the techniques of building to let go. ‘The only question was,’ Louis says, ”What do we do after Camelot?”
Someone suggested that Louis bring back the Springfields, and, when he first saw one, he was fascinated by a simple joint in the wood. ‘I got the feeling,’ he remembers, ‘that someone carved these simple mortise and tenon joints with some pride, because, 100 years later, they still fit like a glove.’
The Springfield Wagon Company will sell new wagons built in the traditional Springfield style. For further information, or to share your memories about the Springfield Wagon Association and registry, contact Louis Allen, 7192 W. Farm Road 2, Willard, MO 65781 or telephone (417) 742-5038.
This information and much more was collected by Steven Step for his book, ‘The Old Reliable’: The History of the Springfield Wagon Company 1872-1952.