Wednesday, January 7, 2015

An Overview Of The Star Wagon Company

Living in an age where visual arts have enjoyed so much progress can make it tempting to take the work of graphic design for granted.  Modern advances in digital photography, clip art, computerized image manipulation, and stock photo availabilities make it significantly easier to produce eye-catching advertising in the 21st century. 
Looking back to the late 1800’s, promotional expressions were not so simple.  Businesses desiring a tailored polish to their marketing materials were at the mercy of the tedious, costly, and highly skilled craft of engraving as well as the burgeoning lithographic processes.  As such, quick turnarounds on elaborate, custom printings weren’t commonplace during the 1870’s and ‘80’s. 

From business and promotional literature to the vehicle, itself, early wagon makers recognized the value of first impressions and often produced elaborate visuals to reinforce a reputable brand image. 

Nevertheless, many agricultural companies of the day took great pains to set themselves apart in advertising.  Prominent wagon makers were no exception.  From dynamic depictions of frontier scenes to the use of vibrant colors and exquisite line work, countless designs were meticulously fashioned and widely distributed by savvy western vehicle marketers like Peter Schuttler, Mitchell, Bain, Moline, Jackson, and Studebaker.  Among the early pieces in the Wheels That Won The West® archives are several produced by a wagon company launched on the edge of the American frontier just after the Civil War.  Today, the manufacturer is best known as the Star Wagon Company from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 

As shown in this early 1880’s letterhead and receipt, the Star Wagon Company produced impressive graphics to accompany their acclaimed vehicles. 

According to the 1878 book, “The History of Linn County Iowa,” the organization began its life in 1866 as Upton, Chambers, and Company.  Even so, it seems the firm’s brand may have always been aligned with the five-pointed celestial name.  A very early local advertisement from 1867 refers to the vehicles as ‘Star Wagons.’
In 1871, the business was officially incorporated and the name was changed from Upton, Chambers, and Company to the “Star Wagon Company.”  Almost before the ink on the incorporation papers was dry, the firm suffered a devastating fire.  In the aftermath, the charred wooden remains were replaced with brick structures.  The rebuilding process was completed in 1872.  By 1877, the company was producing 3,000 vehicles per year and, within another couple years, the enterprise had become recognized as one of the leading wagon builders for the western trade. (See our December 10, 2014 blog for more details).  

One of the greater complications for a number of larger-scale wagon makers during the late 1800’s was the use of prison labor by a few private sector vehicle builders.  On the surface, it sounds like a pretty good idea; put felons to work, teach ‘em a trade, and keep ‘em out of more trouble – all the while helping reduce costs in the penal system.  Like any good idea, though, there’s likely somebody somewhere waiting to exploit it.  The problem?  Convicts were paid a mere fraction of the day rates required by those hiring from the general populace.  It was a situation that allowed some large-scale builders to drastically undercut prices to the public as well as in government bids.  At the end of the day, it put most all wagon makers at a huge disadvantage in the marketplace.

So serious was the issue that in 1886, officials from the Star Wagon Company met with numerous other wagon and farm implement manufacturers such as Studebaker, Schuttler, Bain, Mandt, Coquillard, Winona, John Deere, and others.  Within a few years, these meetings and the ensuing political pressures finally resulted in changes to prison labor practices across a whole spectrum of industries.

This section of an original illustration shows a portion of the Star Wagon Works as it appeared in 1875.

While Star was never the powerhouse of manufacturing that Studebaker and others were, they were clearly far from being a marginal bystander.  During their startup in 1866, vehicle offerings were limited to lumber and farm wagons.  However, by the 1880’s their product line had greatly expanded to also include drays, ice wagons, heavy trucks, butcher’s wagons, milk wagons, express wagons, ranch wagons, oil wagons, grain wagons, furniture wagons, road wagons, road carts, surreys, phaetons, bob sleds, and numerous styles of carriages. It’s quite an array of vehicles for so many to have not survived.  (To date, we’ve only located one confirmed Star Wagon – see below.)  Then again, we could say similar things for about any manufacturer during this timeframe.  Most 19th century-built wagons have disappeared through neglect, abuse, and the passage of time.
The story of the Star Wagon Company begins to rapidly wind down during the 1890’s.  Like so many other firms, the devastating economic depression created by the Panic of 1893 likely added to the swift downfall of the organization.  By the turn of the 20th century, the Star Wagon Company is no longer listed, even for repairs, within industry directories.

Below are a number of images graciously shared with us by Dale Stutzman of Iowa.  Several years ago, he found this Star Wagon.  As you can see in the ‘before’ images, it was in tough shape.  The primary brand identifier left on the wagon was the cast ‘Star Wagon Co.’ name molded into each of the axle skeins.  In an effort to preserve the legacy of the vehicle and company, Mr. Stutzman rebuilt the box using the surviving wood for patterns while also salvaging all the original metal for placement on the new box.  Apparently, most of the running gear was solid but the felloes and spokes were replaced.  The hubs are original.  Our thanks again to Mr. Stutzman for his generosity in providing these images for the story.

Where there is one, there is always the possibility of more.  Perhaps through this brief blog, enough information can be passed along that other Star vehicles can be accurately preserved for future generations as well.