Wednesday, August 21, 2013

John Deere & Keller Wagons

With a history dating to 1837, John Deere has a rich heritage and lengthy legacy of leadership.  In fact, when it comes to agricultural products, the brand has acquired a strong reputation for quality.  That said, it took some time before this business giant took the leap toward producing one of the most prominent early farm vehicles – the wooden wagon.  While the company began with plows and expanded their offerings to include many other farm implements, their production of wagons came much later, especially as compared to most other builders.

During the late 1800’s and very early 1900’s, John Deere was relatively content to sell other nationally recognized brands like Mitchell, Fish Bros., Old Hickory, and Moline.  In fact, even before Deere began building their own wagons, their branch houses in various parts of the country were selling other brands and even private labeling their own.  “Deere & Weber” was one private label and serves as a good example of how a branch house could take full advantage of opportunities to sell even more wagons.

While the corporate office helped market well-known, non-Deere brands, other wagon makers also saw sales potential and worked to curry the favor of John Deere and the large branch distributors.  Among those suitors was an upstart firm by the name of “Keller.”  Located in Joplin, Missouri, the Keller Manufacturing Company is purported by some sources to have started in 1908.  However, as shown below, we came across this January 1907 report in The Carriage Monthly indicating that the firm was already in business at least a year earlier.  
“The Keller Mfg. Co., Joplin, Mo., who have recently completed a large wagon plant, 100 x 450 feet have just made their first shipment of wagons to the John Deere Plow Co., Omaha, Neb.  The plant has a capacity to turn out 5,000 wagons monthly.  At present, there are 700 wagons in process of manufacture, and orders are on file for 3,000 more.”
The report doesn’t list how many wagons were sent to the Deere branch.  However, it appears they had little chance to send many more.  Unfortunately for Keller, John Deere was about to finally devote some serious resources to making their own wagons.  By the time of the above report, Deere was in the process purchasing the Fort Smith Wagon Company.  Three years later, Deere bought the Moline Wagon Company and a year after that the Davenport Wagon Company became part of the business.  Wagon sales were strong and Deere was looking to optimize opportunities by creating its own wagon brands; ultimately allowing greater control over quality, costs, and profits.  By all indications, the company wasted no more time in getting their name on the side of these vehicles.  Near the time of the Ft. Smith acquisition, the first ‘John Deere’ branded wagons began to be promoted for the legendary Moline, Illinois firm.

It was a move that, no doubt, negatively affected the young Keller operation as it did not stay in business in Joplin.  The plant was sold within a half dozen years of its opening to a firm specializing in the manufacture of whiskey barrels.  By 1913, the Joplin facility had ceased production of Keller wagons.  If not for a few occasional references today, this business, like so many other early vehicle makers might have disappeared forever.  For a brief time, though, they enjoyed the excitement and benefits of being connected to one of America’s most iconic and desirable brands.