Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of seeing a lot of early western vehicles. Most have been in collections, auctions, or barn finds. A few had literally been unearthed. One was the 1856 Peter Schuttler running gear that I was able to identify and feature extensively for both our website and the Carriage Journal magazine back in 2008. Another came about when an archaeologist from the Los Angeles area contacted us after a reservoir was drained. Still another, more recent, discovery came to our attention when Christena Brooks, a writer from Detroit, Oregon, contacted us. Seems the mountainous area had been suffering through a drought and as the local lake began to recede, a complete wagon emerged from the watery depths. The wagon was lying on its left side in a soupy sea of mud and silt.
The area in Oregon had been flooded in 1953 upon completion of a dam. No one seems to know why the wagon was in the lake. It’s possible that even if this set of wheels had been left above the water line prior to the filling, it may have dislodged and became part of the lake’s structure over time. After more than six decades under water, though, the discovery led to a fair amount of speculation as to its age, original purpose, design, and builder.
These images were difficult to acquire as the old Milburn wagon was completely surrounded by a vast sea of mud. Thank you to Dave Zahn for sharing them.
A large clue as to as to the brand identity of the wagon lay in the name cast into the reach plate connecting the front and rear gear sections. The plate was labeled as ‘Milburn.’ After careful evaluation, we confirmed that the entire gear did match a Milburn hollow axle wagon. Closer examination led us to confirm a likely timeframe of manufacture as being somewhere from the turn of the 20th century to the teens. The box, on the other hand, was not an obvious match to the Milburn brand. In fact, it appeared to be from another era and maker. Boxes and gears were often interchanged so it’s not unusual to see a mismatched wagon box/gear. Ironically, the whole story reinforces a point that I’d mentioned a few weeks ago – you never know where you may run across one of these unique pieces of history.
This early trade card promoted the light-running capabilities of a Milburn wagon.
The roots of the Milburn Wagon Company can be traced to owner George Milburn and his start in Mishawaka, Indiana in 1848. He was contracted by the U.S. government to build wagons for the army in 1857 and ended up seeking help from the Studebakers in South Bend, just to get the order filled in time. In 1873, he moved the firm to Toledo, Ohio and, within a few years, began producing buggies and spring wagons. By 1888, Milburn was one of almost two dozen vehicle shops in the city. A decade and a half later, Toledo was home to nearly three dozen vehicle shops – yet, Milburn continued to dominate the city’s vehicle production.
As a bit of additional insight on the Milburn Wagon Company, immediately below is a segment taken from an 1882 issue of “The Hub.”
“...Ten years ago, the house held an important position in the trade, but their product then was exclusively confined to the specialty of Farm Wagons, while they are now manufacturing an extended line of both business and pleasure vehicles, including Farm Wagons of all kinds, Log Trucks, and heavy special wagons, both heavy and light spring Drays, spring wagons of various patterns, a full line of buggies, and some light carriages.
The Company makes a specialty of good substantial work, well-finished; and claims with apparent justice that they supply for $150, (wholesale rate), as good a buggy as can be had for that price in this country. Their trade is widely distributed, not only all over the United States, but in various foreign countries. They report a large and growing demand for their work through the Eastern states, especially New-York state... They make some very fine Delivery wagons, with solid wood panel sides, beveled corners, and double doors in the rear, handsomely lettered and ornamented, for which they get from $400-$500. They are shipping business wagons to almost every city east of the Rocky Mountains, and have a fine trade in the Mountains from Deadwood to Denver. In addition to this home trade they also report a fine trade in Australia, to which country they shipped three car-loads last spring, with several to follow; and they are now working on orders for Manilla, Philippine Islands, where they have been shipping goods heretofore. They anticipate a large increase in the demand from these countries, as the goods already shipped and heard from have given perfect satisfaction.”
During the mid-1800’s, Milburn was producing around 600 wagons per week. That’s one full wagon finished almost every 10 minutes. It’s the kind of statistic that helps reinforce just how efficient the production processes of many of these mega-sized wagon firms truly were. It also puts to rest any misconception that these folks were limited to crude hand tools and inconsistent design standards. Clearly, by the 1880’s, many of America’s largest wagon makers had come into their own and were a serious competitive force to be reckoned with.
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