Wednesday, March 11, 2015

An Interview with John Mohler Studebaker

I recently came across an issue of “The Hub” magazine from 1910.  This publication, and others like it, is filled with information regarding America’s early transportation industry.  From wooden vehicle designs and instruction on different trade crafts to details on the then-current industry news, there is a lot to be gleaned from these periodicals. 

“The Hub” was a prominent trade journal for the carriage and wagon industry.

Leafing through the pages, I noticed an interview with John Mohler Studebaker, President of Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Company in South Bend, Indiana.  Like many enthusiasts, I’ve read a fair number of books and articles about Studebaker but, poring over this interview, the impact of the words took on a different perspective.  No longer was I reading but, rather, it felt as though I was in the room; a bystander listening to the conversation. 

J.M. Studebaker would have been quite familiar with the horse drawn wagons shown in this 20th century catalog.  He passed away in 1917, just a few years prior to the company ceasing production of all horse drawn vehicles. 

Hearing something from Mr. Studebaker virtually firsthand is a rarity.  He passed away in 1917 and most historical accounts don’t include extended quotations.  1910 was a transitional period for the firm, so thoughts from one so deeply connected to the brand’s roots are intriguing.  In 1910, Studebaker was just six years into production of gasoline automobiles and roughly a decade from ceasing output of all horse drawn vehicles.  Times were changing but the old wagon man refused to conceal his love for wooden wheels.  He was “dancin’ with the one that brought him” the entire time.

With that in mind, and out of respect for the Studebaker brand, I thought it would be appropriate to share this century-plus-old interview from “The Hub.” At the time J.M. (John Mohler) was the last surviving brother of the famed Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Company: 

Mr. John M. Studebaker, of the Studebaker concern, was interviewed at the Waldorf-Astoria when in New York recently.  A part of what he said follows:

Mr. Studebaker said that he started out in life with a capital of 50 cents.  He said that he was 77 years old, “though,” he added, “my wife always gets after me when I tell my real age.  You see, the secret of long life and good health is hard work.  I have always worked hard.
Two of my brothers had a little blacksmith shop in South Bend, but I decided in 1852, while I was working for a wagon maker there, that I wanted to go out to California to seek my fortune.  So I built a wagon body that winter and my brother did the iron work for me.  There was a company going west the next spring, and I turned my wagon over to them to pay for my share of the expenses.  We had a drove of horses with us and the Indians chased us all the way.  Almost every night they would try to steal our horses.   They didn’t have rifles in those days, so they did not do much attacking.
It took us five months and eight days to get across to California, and when I landed there I only had 50 cents on which to begin life.  I took to prospecting but I kept at it only three months.  Then I decided to make use of my trade and I started in making wheelbarrows and picks.  After four years, I had enough of it and returned to South Bend in the winter of 1857.  (WTWTW note:  JMS actually returned at the end of the 1857 winter in April of 1858)

My two brothers were still in business and I bought the elder out, and we went into wagon making.  There wasn’t any marvelous growth – just natural.  The business spread and the day before I left South Bend, we received orders for 11,000 vehicles of various kinds.  We sell a good deal to Europe, though as much to England.  South America is our biggest foreign customer and the Argentine Republic is the chief part of that.  A friend who just go back to-day from the other side was telling me he hired a carriage at Jerusalem and found it was one of our make.  We turn out 400 different kinds of vehicles.”

“What has been the effect of the automobile on the carriage business?” Mr. Studebaker was asked.

“Well, it has practically killed the fine vehicle, but it has increased the output of the medium class article.”   

Building any brand into a household name is challenging.  The Studebaker family and their employees did it so well that the desire among collectors for all things Studebaker is still extraordinarily powerful – nearly a half century since the last auto was built and close to a century since the final wagon left the factory. 

We’ll share more details about the early days of Studebaker in a post later this year.  It’s a brand closely paralleling the excitement, opportunity, and growth of the American West.  By the way, if you haven’t yet signed up to receive this weekly blog via e-mail, just type your address in the "Follow By E-mail" section above. You'll receive a confirmation e-mail that you'll need to verify before you're officially on board. Please don't hesitate to let us know if we can be of assistance. We're looking forward to your visits each week.

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