Winona Wagon Co. Staked Reputation on Quality

"Iron clad" hubs and "outer bearing" axles characterize a Winona wagon.

| September 2009

By the time I rolled into western Oklahoma, I had been driving long enough that I was ready to stretch my legs.

Unfortunately, the cool comfort blowing from the truck’s air conditioner hadn’t prepared me for the Panhandle’s furnace of summer heat. Once I got out of the cab, the heat hit me with a vengeance and, with no clouds in sight, the sun quickly bore through my thinning head of hair.

Almost immediately, my local guide pointed out that we needed to walk “over there.” I looked down his finger and, for a moment, felt like getting back in the truck. His direction pointed to an overgrown, snaky and undoubtedly tick-thick field. I was suddenly reminded why my family doesn’t particularly enjoy all of my wagon-themed expeditions. They’ve learned, the hard way, that locating many of these forgotten treasures can come with unwelcome surprises.

On this particular quest, I was on a detour from another wagon-related journey. An acquaintance had asked if I could help identify the crumbled remains of an old wagon and I couldn’t resist the challenge. As we made our way through the waist-high grass and brush, I wondered why I hadn’t remembered to bring bug spray. Along with a camera, bottled water and notepad, it’s standard procedure for about any outdoor research excursion.

Almost as soon as those thoughts were formed, a pile of wood and metal appeared. As I stepped closer, the heap of history brought an immediate smile. It was one of those “aha,” instant connection moments almost every collector has experienced. Anytime I see familiar traits on a wagon, it’s like recognizing an old friend after years of separation. The hubs on this wagon gear were significantly different than those of about any other. They were covered in a unique metal sheath. Other iron sections on the gear were equally distinctive. Even after a century of age and decay, the pieces still had a lot to say about what it took to succeed in an extremely competitive industry: I was looking at a Winona wagon.

Early wagon markets

Nineteenth century America was a virtual field of dreams for many farm wagon makers. The discovery of gold and the opening of the West created opportunities and challenges beyond the imagination. So remarkable was the business that by the 1870s and 1880s, some wagon companies were regularly producing 30,000 to 50,000 vehicles per year. Working six days a week, 10 to 12 hours per day and finishing a vehicle as rapidly as every six minutes, fortunes were made – and lost.

In many ways, American vehicle makers in the 1800s were no different than those in the U.S., Germany or Japan today. They worked to consistently build quality products, keep good employees, strategically promote their advantages and maintain high customer loyalty.

But even with those lofty goals, for any brand to be successful, it must create and maintain an identity for itself, something consumers can relate to and remember.

Just as we often think of premium quality when brands like Cadillac or Lexus are mentioned, strong vehicle names also conjured up the same feelings of desirability in the 1800s and early 1900s. Whether the buyer was considering a Studebaker, Schuttler, Milburn, Murphy, Bain, Mitchell, Moline, Jackson, Espenschied or any of the thousands of other wagon brands, there was no shortage of competition. In fact, during a speech to a group of vehicle builders in 1877, Studebaker company President Clem Studebaker conservatively estimated there were as many as 80,000 horse-drawn vehicle makers in America.