Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Memories of Kentucky Wagons

Several years ago, the country music duo, “Montgomery Gentry,” released a song entitled, “Gone.”  While the lyrics inevitably focus on a lost love, they also reminisce about once common things that have disappeared.  Along that line of thought, when it comes to early western vehicles – namely wagons and coaches – a lot of this history has also gone the way of the wind.  Sometimes it happens through attrition, tragedy or negligence and in other cases; it seems to be the price of progress so to speak.  As a result, it’s not only hard to find examples of certain vehicles built by many legendary makers but equally tough to locate original manufacturing structures still standing. 

Such is soon-to-be the case with one of the industry’s more notable brands, the Kentucky Wagon Company.  Established in 1879, this Louisville, Kentucky firm quickly became a serious competitor with quality vehicles and broad distribution.  They were a major supplier of horse-drawn military vehicles as well as producer of countless farm, freight, ranch, construction, timber and business wagons.   Old Hickory, Tennessee, Kentucky and American dump wagons were among the labels they manufactured. 

Many are aware that when the legendary Studebaker Wagon Company closed its doors that Kentucky purchased the patterns, designs and many construction materials from them.  Kentucky then re-branded and sold the Studebaker designs under the name, “Studebaker Model.”  I wrote an article in the June 2004 issue of Farm Collector magazine profiling this interesting part of both Studebaker and Kentucky’s history. 

Kentucky Wagon’s successor, the Kentucky Manufacturing Company, survives today under the name of Kentucky Trailer.  The company builds high quality truck bodies and specialty trailers for mobile broadcasting, marketing, racing, medical and military purposes.  Sadly, the original buildings where so much early wagon history took place are gradually being razed to make room for educational expansions on the University of Louisville campus.  As the old buildings deteriorate, it’s an inevitable fate I suppose.  And why, I’m thankful we had an opportunity to see these facilities before it was all just a memory.  Early 20th century literature points out that the facility covered 30 acres, with much of it under roof.  In their heyday, the company touted a capacity of as many as 90,000 vehicles annually.  Kentucky even built automobiles for a few years.  In fact, as a tribute to the transport maker’s heritage, Kentucky Trailer recently restored a rare “Dixie Flyer” car produced by the firm.

As time progresses and memories wane, it will be up to the few surviving vehicles, two-dimensional photos and pages from rare surviving literature to serve as reminders of the vital role this firm played; not only in America’s first transportation industry but, the growth and development of a nation into a world power.