The Kentucky Studebaker

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I enjoy researching old farm and freight wagon companies. So much so, that no matter where I travel, I scan roadside farms, homes and businesses looking for telltale signs of vintage wheels. Maybe the passion comes from the thrill of chasing a good mystery or perhaps it’s simply a kinship toward an all-but-forgotten way of life. Whatever the reason, the search keeps me young and, like any nearly lost art, there’s always something new to experience and learn.

The mystery wagon

Knowing my fetish for old wagons, an Amish friend had told me about a Studebaker model that I needed to see in Kentucky. With my day job keeping me tied down, it seemed that I just never had an extra few days to explore the eastern part of that state. When I eventually took some time off, I was surprised at what I found. Sitting inside a barn, covered by a thin, gray tarp, sat a piece of yesterday… a beautifully constructed workhorse on wheels that had long since been retired.

Lifting off the canvas, the early morning sun lit up the faded and well-worn green paint of a wagon that had once been a farmer’s pride and joy. Yellow pinstripes ran the length of the wooden box, which showed significant weathering from age and use.

Yet, the unmistakable flowing curves of the Studebaker emblems really got my attention. Resting on an original Studebaker gear, the wagon still boasted bright logos on both sides of the box as well as the folding end gate. Conspicuously positioned below each logo, though, was the word ‘Model.’ It was painted in the same yellow and black tones as the Studebaker name, but used a smaller block style of lettering.

I’d never seen a farm wagon or even a vintage advertisement carrying the label ‘Studebaker Model.’ Other than the painted stencil that identified the dealer who originally sold the wagon, I found no other markings that might help shed some light on the puzzle.

The unusual addition to the Studebaker name was an important departure from other wagons I’d seen, and the difference nagged at me. The owner couldn’t explain it, so I was left to solve that riddle myself. Why was it there? Was it a variation of a Studebaker design? Was it an original piece? Where did it come from? Dozens of questions begged to be answered and so began my research into another chapter of the mostly uncharted history of America’s wagon makers.

A pivotal agreement

Back home in my own element, I was confident I could find some answers. I dug through a number of Studebaker catalogs, flyers, trade cards, print ads and associated correspondence and found nothing. I talked to wagon collectors and traders and even re-read some early Studebaker articles and book chapters without luck. Despite my best efforts, that Studebaker stumped me.

A month passed and, as fortune would have it, I happened across an old dealer price list from the Kentucky Wagon Co. of Louisville, Ky. The flyer included prices and specifications on several wagon brands and gears that Kentucky made. One of the brands featured was – you guessed it – the Studebaker Model. I’d found my first piece of the puzzle, which turned out to be a very important piece.

I knew that Kentucky had purchased construction patterns and some parts from Studebaker after the wagon and automobile maker officially closed its wagon business in 1920. But that’s all I’d ever seen written about their business relationship. The mystery wagon made me wonder: Did Kentucky have an agreement allowing them to use the Studebaker name?

To find out, I wrote the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Ind., and asked for help. According to the museum’s archivist, this facet of Studebaker’s history had never been explored in detail. With a little searching, however, the museum staff uncovered exactly what I was looking for: evidence of an old contract between the Studebaker Corporation and Kentucky Wagon Co.

In the minutes of an 83-year-old set of executive meeting notes, Studebaker not only resolved to sell the remaining wagons, wagon parts, patterns, blueprints, business records and advertising materials to the Louisville firm, but also licensed Kentucky to use the Studebaker name on wagons built from the authentic Studebaker patterns.

The resolution was dated January 5, 1921, and it authorized Kentucky to use the Studebaker name until June 30, 1923. Even though the Studebaker Co. had ended its wagon production, it seems there was still a great deal of life, as well as some profit, in the name recognition that came with the Studebaker identity.

The Studebaker model

Kentucky’s agreement with Studebaker came none too soon. By 1920, the automobile industry had staked its claim on the transportation market and was running with a strong head of competitive steam. For wagon and carriage makers, that era brought a business environment that required a serious reconsideration of company strategies and goals, and Kentucky was no different.

The purchase of Studebaker’s blueprints and patterns allowed Kentucky to ease some of the competitive pressure by reinforcing its image as a trustworthy brand with strong name recognition and high-quality construction. The arrangement to use Studebaker’s name opened Kentucky products to a broader customer base and, by aligning themselves with the sterling reputation and design features of Studebaker, added some of the country’s best wagon dealers to its distribution system.

Beyond the profits earned from the wagon division sale, the transition from wagon maker to auto builder also benefited Studebaker by providing a quality outlet where existing Studebaker wagon owners could obtain original replacement parts and maintenance support. Thus, the company maintained good relations with its family of wagon owners.

While Kentucky continued to build wagons under the well-known names of Old Hickory, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the Studebaker acquisition allowed the company to add another powerful brand to their lineup. Labeled as ‘The Studebaker Model,’ these wagons sported the same logo and proven design that the original wagons from South Bend had carried for nearly 75 years.

According to early sales literature, the Studebaker Model was sold as both a one and two-horse wagon. Light, medium, and heavy grades were offered. Wheel sizes varied, with the one-horse wagon featuring 40-inch front and 44-inch rear wheels. Two-horse versions were available in a broader range of 36-and 40-inch, 40- and 44-inch or 44- and 48-inch wheel heights. Additionally, tire sizes varied from 1 3/8-inch to 4-inch widths for two-horse wagons, while one-horse wagon models were offered in 1 1/8-inch to 3-inch sizes.

How many of these surrogate Studebakers have survived is difficult to say. With so few original business records remaining, it’s even more difficult to know how many were actually built. Luckily, the Studebaker Model price list I ran across when the investigation began included a print date of July 15, 1928. From that single sales flyer, it appears that Kentucky was able to secure a significant extension to the original agreement limiting its use of the Studebaker name.

In fact, according to other documents that have since surfaced, Studebaker was still referring customer inquiries to the Kentucky Wagon Co. as late as June of 1929 – a full six years after its agreement with Kentucky was supposed to lapse.

When it comes to collecting these old horse-drawn vehicles, the Studebaker name naturally attracts a lot of attention. As with any major farm equipment brand, Studebaker will likely always have a solid core of fans. How does the Kentucky ‘Studebaker Model’ fit into the list of vehicles sought by collectors, historians and other enthusiasts? Only time will tell.

Yet, with only a decade or so of production, it’s clear that the Kentucky-made models aren’t only the last of the ‘Studebaker’ wagons -but they may also be the most rare wagons to ever carry that logo.

– David Sneed is a collector and historian of early wagon companies. Write him at P.O. Box 1081, Flippin, AR 72634

The Kentucky Wagon Co.

The Kentucky Wagon Co. was incorporated in 1879 in Louisville, Ky. In 1890, the firm acquired the interests of wagon builders Cherry, Morrow & Co. of Nashville, Tenn. The acquisition allowed the company to add the well-known ‘Tennessee’ brand to its product lineup. Kentucky also marketed wagons under the names of Old Hickory, New Hickory and Kentucky, as well as ‘American’ dumping wagons.

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, each of the wagon brands carried strong reputations for quality. As a result, the company’s popular products could be found almost anywhere in the country serving as chuck wagons, farm and log wagons, freight carriers and business wagons.

According to period accounts, Kentucky’s wagon-building facilities were among the largest and most modern available. By 1891, the firm employed nearly 600 craftsmen and produced up to 35,000 wagons each year. Kentucky also vied for its share of the early automobile business. Between 1912 and 1923, the company added several electric- and gasoline-powered vehicles to its product offerings.

With immense competition from the automotive industry, however, and the Great Depression, Kentucky found it difficult to remain profitable. Ultimately, the firm became a victim of hard economic times and the forward-thinking progress Kentucky had helped to foster all along. The last Kentucky wagons were built in the early 1930’s, and surviving models are found in collections across the country.

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