The Remarkable St. Louis Wagon Builders

Legacy of legendary St. Louis wagon builders endures.

| October 2013

Old wagons talk to me.

I know that sounds strange, but those early wheels do have a lot to say and one of the best ways to listen is by focusing on where the vehicle was made. For serious collectors, it’s one piece of information that can hold a wealth of details related to brand identity, design, construction, features, purpose, rarity and even competition in the market.

Location. Location. Location.

While most early wagon builders were small shops serving limited regions, many prominent makers capitalized on location. An area with easy access to navigable rivers, rails and roads was almost always a favorite spot. Chicago, for instance, was home to Peter Schuttler and Weber. South Bend, Ind., claimed Studebaker, Birdsell and Coquillard. Racine, Wis., boasted Mitchell, Racine and Fish Brothers.

St. Louis’ position on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers made it a natural crossroads for westward traffic and commerce. In fact, so many business opportunities existed there that, by the 1880s, the city was home to about 140 wagon and carriage builders, far more than any other city west of the Mississippi at that time. By the turn of the 20th century, directories show St. Louis with nearly 200 horse-drawn vehicle builders. The industry was so significant that some suppliers sent the majority of their production to the city. Many contend that St. Louis was home to more nationally recognized wagon companies than any other U.S. city.

Among those Mound City makers, several standout brands played significant roles in U.S. history. From immigrant travel to freighters, cattle drives and military campaigns, St. Louis wagons were well represented throughout the country. Many of those builders are still highly regarded by historians, enthusiasts and collectors. In honor of the city’s 250th anniversary in 2014, we’re taking a close look at a half dozen of the area’s most accomplished wagon brands.

J. Murphy & Sons

Established in 1825, Joseph Murphy’s shop was one of the oldest successful wagon manufacturers in St. Louis. Likewise, Murphy is arguably the most discussed and least known of any major U.S. wagon maker. Even though Murphy and his wagons are regularly referenced by collectors and academics, many questions remain about his company. In fact, of the 200,000 wagons purported to have been built by Murphy, not one has been conclusively identified.