When we hear the name Studebaker the first thing we may think of are those unique automobiles with the front end bullet shaped noses.
Those automobiles of the early 1950’s were produced by a company that started into business 100 years previously in South Bend Indiana from ancestors who had immigrated to America from Germany. The family’s name had been changed from Stutenbecker to Studebaker.
The Studebaker brothers, Henry and Clement, began in business as horse drawn wagon makers and achieved a great deal of success. The Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company, established in 1852, built horse drawn wagons for a population that was on the move.
Pioneers and Prospectors Head West
The 1850’s were a time of great western expansion and there were many of the Studebaker brother’s products that made the trek over the popular Overland Trail. In a big way the California Gold Rush and it’s demand for transportation launched to Studebaker brothers into the wagon building business.
The Studebakers just like many others realized there was a good deal of money to be made by supplying the needs of prospectors rather than searching for gold.
The story is that a Studebaker brother journeyed to California to search for gold. On his way he was fleeced by gamblers and arrived in California with no money to buy prospecting supplies. Instead, he built sturdy wheelbarrows to sell to prospectors. When he reported back to his brothers the demand for wagons the Studebaker wagon building soon commenced.
A another good example of these businessmen were the merchants of early Sacramento California who ended up establshing the Central Pacific Railroad.
The Studebaker’s who had also been involved in blacksmithing earlier on quickly achieved a reputation for building quality wagons that could take a lot of punishment. Their first covered wagon was built in 1857.
Wagons For The Union Army
At the time of the American Civil War the Studebaker brothers were operating the country’s leading horse drawn wagon manufacturer. They had actually supplied wagons to the Union in 1858 prior to the war. Their wagons were well known for their durability and as a result, and their location in the Union town of South Bend Indiana, the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company was called upon to supply wagons to the Union Army. The fact was, it took tens of thousands of wagons to keep an army on the move. This was a key event that helped solidify the company as America’s premiere wagon builder.
Expansion After the Civil War
When the Civil War came to an end, the brothers has a factory in South Bend and the capital necessary to expand further. The Studebaker’s were building all types of wagons from simple farm wagons to elaborately built closed carriages.Some of these wagon models were named the Phaeton, the Victoria and the Brougham. Interestingly enough, these same model names were used by various automobile makers during the 1900’s.
As a side note, the tale of the first chuckwagon also has a Studebaker connection. The legendary Texas rancher and developer of the chuckwagon, Charles Goodnight, modified and used an old Studebaker military ambulance wagon in 1866 as the first chuckwagon for his cattle drives to the northern rail heads. These surplus wagons, and there were many after the war, had steel axles and iron springs and Goodnight felt comfortable they could handle the rigors of a trail drive.
In 1878 the Studebaker wagons won awards at the Paris Exposition and in 1888 President Harrison chose Studebaker wagons for the White House. The Studebaker name gained such a strong reputation for quality that sales continued to grow and they were the first to standardize production methods and build interchangeable parts. With standardized production, the Studebaker company was able to build 500 wagons in about a day and a half for the Spanish American War effort. When World War One began the Studebakers built thousands of wagons for England.
The Automotive Business
Studebaker’s experiments on a horseless carriage had started as early as 1895.
The Studebaker Brothers Corporation entered the automotive business with electric powered horseless carriages from 1902 to 1911. .At the same time they were involved in body building for other upstart manufacturers. Studebaker manufactured it’s last automobile in December 1963.
Two additional Trips Into History articles you may enjoy are on the links below…
One of the most thorough books regarding Studebaker is Studebaker: The Complete History by author Patrick R. Foster.
Today there are several places to view models of Studebaker wagons.
The wagon shown in this article is exhibited at the Pioneer Museum in Corsicana Texas just south of Dallas. Another venue you may want to add to your trip planner is the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend Indiana. For those in northern California, the museum at the Empire Mine State Historic Park exhibits several Studebaker wagons used during the Gold Rush era. This park is located in Grass Valley California, east of Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
(Article and photos of Studebaker wagon copyright 2013 Trips Into History. Studebaker Brothers photo from the public domain)