Book Sparks Renewed Interest in Florence Wagon Company

Historical book inspires club, parade and wagon shop in Alabama town

| September 2002

Not many visible clues remain of the Florence Wagon Company factory at the end of South Richards Street in Florence, Ala.

The company opened in 1889 and at one time claimed to be North America’s second largest wagon maker, producing 15,000 horse-drawn wagons a year.

Today, though, the dilapidated walls of the factory are crumbling down to the vegetation-covered ground, and railroad tracks that once connected the firm to the rest of the world are abandoned and barely visible. The factory is gone – but not forgotten.

Book sparks interest in old wagon company

The Florence Wagon Company has undergone a renaissance of attention in recent years. Much of the renewed interest is the result of a book written by Florence resident and local historian Jane Johnson Hamm, titled Florence Wagon Co. Memories & More. The book chronicles the history and memories of the firm and its employees, and has inspired the formation of the Florence Wagon Club, the Florence Wagon Works Celebration parade and the establishment of the local South’s Wagon Shop, where wagons are actually restored.

Willard South is owner and operator of South’s Wagon Shop. “There aren’t that many people restoring wagons and not many of these steel-wheeled wagons are left,” Willard says. “We might be the only ones in the country restoring Florence wagons; as a hobby, there’s few people out there doing what we do.” Of the 15 wagons that Willard has restored so far, seven have been Florences. He’s also helped his brother John “Buck” South do two, and his cousin Rufus do one.

Restoration of a Florence wagon

The restoration process for the wagons usually requires total reconstruction of all the wood parts and likely some of the metal fittings as well. Unlike metal on tractors, the wood on wagons quickly rots away, so finding pre-existing parts simply may not be possible. New wood must be cut from patterns taken from the few wagons that are found in fairly good condition. On some wagons, figuring out the correct pattern is a challenge because many old-time brands do not have identifying model numbers cast into the axle.

Florence wagons are an exception. Willard says they have “Flo.” cast on each axle plate, along with “2 3/4” or “3,” which identifies the size in inches of the wagon axle skein – a thimble-like covering on the end of each axle that protects the axle-wheel connection.