Studebakers launch their fortune with wagons
This year would mark the 150th anniversary of the Studebaker Corp., of South Bend, Ind., if the company were still in operation. Long prominent among car and truck manufacturers, Studebaker closed its doors in 1966, no longer able to keep up with competition from Detroit and foreign companies – but wagons were the firm’s first true claim to fame.
Production of Studebaker wagons stopped about 1920, but they played a major role in the United States’ westward expansion and had a major impact on North American farmers. They helped the North win the war against the South, helped the British defeat the Boers in South Africa, greatly aided in the defeat of German Emperor Wilhelm II, known as ‘Kaiser Bill,’ during World War I, and even helped crush the Axis powers during World War II.
The Studebaker story begins in the summer of 1736, when three German families named Staudenbecker left Rotterdam, Netherlands, on the sailing ship Harle. After landing Sept. 1 in Philadelphia, brothers Clement and Peter, their cousin Heinrich, and the men’s families began farming on the frontier in southern Pennsylvania. The area was so unsettled that even 20 years later, in March 1756, Heinrich and his wife and baby were killed and their three older children were captured in an Indian raid.
By 1798, the United States was almost 20 years old, John Adams was president and the wild frontier had been pushed west of the Miami River in Ohio Territory. The Staudenbecker family name had been Americanized to ‘Studebaker,’ and descendants of the original three families were living in York County, Pa., where they worked as blacksmiths and woodworkers.
In 1820, 21-year-old John Studebaker married Rebecca Mohler of Lancaster, Pa., and moved west to Adams County, Pa., to set up shop as a blacksmith and wagon builder. The couple lived near the tiny village of Getty’s Town, later renamed Gettysburg.
By 1834, John and Rebecca had three sons: Henry, Clement and John Mohler, the baby. Times were hard, so the family decided to move west again. John, the father, and the older boys built a Conestoga wagon for the trip, and the family traveled to Ashland, Ohio, where John built a new home and blacksmith shop. Legend has it that he hung a homemade sign over the door that read: ‘Owe No Man Anything But to Love One Another.’
Two more sons, Peter and Jacob, and a daughter, Maria, were born to John and Rebecca there, but John, with the help of his boys, was only able to eke out a precarious living. When the Panic of 1837 hit and crops failed in the Midwest, John, like most everyone else, went broke. He had to sell everything to pay his debts.
In the fall of 1851, after struggling for years in Ashland, John and the boys loaded up the old Conestoga wagon again and made their way on to South Bend, along the St. Joseph River in northern Indiana. John already had scouted out the location, and Clement had gone ahead the previous year. He was working in a thresher factory and teaching school there.
In February 1852, brothers Henry, age 25, and Clement, almost 22, hung a sign in front of a South Bend shed that read ‘H. & C. Studebaker.’ They had two sets of blacksmithing tools, a forge and $68 in capital, and they proposed to earn their livings by shoeing horses and making wagons.
They shoed one horse the first day, earning 25 cents, and a few weeks later they took seven days to build a wagon, which they sold for $175. One account says the boys painted the wagon box green and the running gear red, and proudly painted the name ‘Studebaker’ on the sides in big, yellow letters. Still, business was slow and the brothers needed additional capital.
In 1853, John Mohler, then almost 20, big and strong, and itching to join the California gold rush, built another wagon with the help of his brothers. He traded that wagon to a passing wagon train for passage and meals along the way, and when the wagon train reached Hangtown, Calif., – now known as Placerville – a roaring mining camp east of Sacramento, young John was ready to stake a claim. He had but 50 cents left in his pocket, though, and to begin prospecting for gold, he needed a grubstake. He took a job making wheelbarrows, which sold for $10 apiece, and ended up never prospecting for gold. He worked long and hard, though, at making wheelbarrows, repairing broken harnesses and stagecoaches, and shoeing horses, and by the spring of 1858, he’d saved $8,000 – more money than most of the gold prospectors ever found.
He and his family corresponded regularly, and his brothers wrote that their wagon business still wasn’t doing well because they lacked capital. The well-traveled young John believed a bright future existed in transportation – wagons in particular – so he packed his $8,000 into a money belt and headed back to South Bend.
The oldest brother, Henry, wanted to farm, so John bought Henry’s share of the H. & C. Studebaker firm, and then he and Clement re-capitalized the company, built a new brick factory and ‘… assured the public that the work in their establishment could not be excelled in Northern Indiana for durability or fineness of finish.’
John Mohler married Mary Jane Stull in January 1860, and while on their honeymoon trip, they stopped to see John’s younger brother, Peter, in Goshen, Ind. Peter ran a general store, and John talked him into building a shed beside the store and becoming a Studebaker wagon dealer.
In the months just before the Civil War, the brothers estimated their worth at a good, round $10,000, counting the brick factory, a small office, a separate painting shop and lumberyard, and Peter’s showroom in Goshen.
The Studebakers had long been Dunkards, members of a German-American Baptist sect that believed in brotherly love and despised war. Dunkards opposed military service, but the Studebakers served their country in another way during the Civil War: they supplied thousands of wagons and gun caissons to the Union Army. The company’s huge government wartime contracts and the growing demand for wagons by homesteaders going West after the war brought 1868 assets of the newly renamed Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Co. to a total of $223,269.06. FC
Next month: The Studebaker wagon story continues.
– Sam Moore became interested in agricultural machinery while growing up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. Now, he lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items.