Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Davenport Wagon Company

I’ve shared several John Deere-related blogs over the past few months.  With connections to Fort Smith, Moline, Mitchell, Old Hickory, Deere & Webber, Cyclone, and more wagon brands, the depth of Deere’s early involvement in wagon sales was truly amazing.

Soon after the turn of the 20th century, Deere determined to acquire its own wagon factories and began purchasing some of the best-known brands.  One of the makes Deere secured in 1911 was the Davenport Wagon Company.  Headquartered in Davenport, Iowa – just minutes across the Mississippi River from Moline, Illinois – the brand was among the more unique and uncommon firms because of the design of their gears.  These undercarriages were made entirely of metal and were promoted as being “built like a bridge.”  Other features such as roller bearings, a reinforced tongue and reach, and the use of linch pins instead of wheel nuts helped these workhorses stand out from other, potentially less reliable vehicles.

The excerpt below is from a 1912 catalog; possibly the first feature-length brochure about the brand as it was produced under the new John Deere ownership.

“The Davenport Wagon, with steel gearing, steel wheels, and roller-bearings, after the most severe and thorough tests, has easily proven far superior to the old style farm wagon… Because of the scarcity and inferior grade of wood the old style wagon is not, today, of as good quality as it was years ago… Particularly about the farm do we notice advance and improvement in everything excepting the wagon.  The implements are practically all steel.  The steel wheel is used almost entirely on implements, the wooden wheel is rarely seen.  The farmer appreciates the roller-bearing, its use is constantly increasing on farm equipment of all kinds…”

All of these statements supporting Davenport’s steel gears and wheels are especially interesting when one considers that – at the same time – other John Deere-owned wagon brands were singing their separate, yet equally self-indulgent praises of wood-wheeled superiority.  Clearly, the company was working to optimize wagon sales in every corner of the market.  When it came to the foundation of a Davenport gear, they were known for using steel I-beams, C channel steel, and angle irons – much like many quality trailer and equipment manufacturers still do today. 

Benefits of the steel wheels and gear weren’t limited to strength and durability.  Quietness and ease of maintenance were joined by the incorporation of steel roller bearing pins; promoted as helping to reduce the draft of the load by as much as 30 to 50 per cent.  Compared to traditional wooden wheels – which were more prevalent in the industry – the company pointed out that these steel wheels were not affected by temperature and moisture, so the dish always remained the same, allowing the wheel to run on the full face of the tire.  The system was advertised as one which allowed the gear to maintain truer tracking with plumb spokes and noticeably less wear to the wheel.  Lubrication of the wheels was accomplished through “oil cups” positioned on the hubs, allowing each wheel to be cared for without a need to jack up the wagon and wheels.

While Davenport Wagon Company’s beginnings date to 1904, the idea for metal wagons originates much earlier.  Patents for an iron wagon gear in the U.S. were issued as early as the time of America’s Civil War.  Nonetheless, even with its advantages, it was an idea that had trouble gaining traction.  Deere’s vast distribution network and strong marketing budgets helped draw even more attention – and profits – to the design.

Among the Davenport brand offerings were standard farm wagons, mountain wagons, cut-under wagons, lumber wagons, teaming gears, and even trail wagon equipment utilizing a horn and bumper.  Boxes on the wagons were made of wood but were touted as being heavily ironed and using additional hardwood cross sills, larger self-centering box rods, anti-spreader chains, and three sets of straddler cleats.  Even though the Davenport wagon brand ceased production nearly a century ago in 1917, the foundation for steel gears and wheels was laid and the combination would be used for decades more on the farm – long after the company closed.