Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mitchell Wagon Company Closes in Racine

One of the most prominent names from America’s early western transportation industry is ‘Mitchell.’  Building countless farm, freight, ranch, stage, business, and family vehicles, Mitchell was a well-known brand on the American frontier.  So successful was the firm that, in its 75th year alone, it produced 1.5 million dollars in business.  A handful of years later, the company sold to a group of eastern investors who changed the name from the Mitchell-Lewis Wagon Company to the Mitchell Wagon Company.  So, if you happen to own a ‘Mitchell-Lewis’ wagon, you immediately know it will be over a century in age.  As a bit of background, the ‘Lewis’ portion of the brand was added after founder, Henry Mitchell’s son-in-law, William T. Lewis, joined the firm in 1864. 

Even with the fanfare attached to the sale to eastern capitalists, within just a few years, the big wagon factory at Racine, Wisconsin fell silent.  Capturing that moment, in August of 1917, “The Hub” published a notice outlining the ending of an era at Racine.  As noted in the articles below, John Deere ultimately purchased the rights to the brand.  Industry directories in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives show that Deere continued building the Mitchell brand in its own factories through the late 1940’s.

Here’s the August, 1917 article from “The Hub.”

“The Mitchell Wagon Co., of Racine, Wis., which was founded in 1855, has ceased to exist, as it was liquidated on July 14.  All stock and much machinery has been sold to Deere and Co., for its plant at Fort Smith, Ark., and the buildings have been taken over by the Mitchell Motors Co., where automobile bodies will be constructed.

Deere & Co., have assumed the obligation of the Mitchell Wagon Co. to its customers to replace defective parts on wagons sold during the last year.  Arrangements are also being made to supply wagon parts from the regular Mitchell patterns to Mitchell customers throughout the country.  Correspondence with reference to Mitchell wagon repairs should be addressed to the John Deere Wagon Works, Moline, Ill.

The Mitchell Wagon Co. was founded by Henry Mitchell in 1855 and a few years later his two sons, Henry and Frank, and two sons-in-law, William T. Lewis and Calvin T. Sinclair, became associated with him in the great industry.  The factory buildings covered 20 acres of land. 

In 1910 the Mitchell Wagon Co. merged with the Mitchell Automobile Co. and automobiles and farm and spring wagons were manufactured.  Three years ago there was a dissolution, one syndicate taking over the automobile plant and the other the wagon plant.  All of the men who were interested in the original company, excepting Frank L. Mitchell, have passed away.”

Some will note that the article above dates the company’s inception to 1855.  This is a reference to the company’s beginnings at Racine, Wisconsin.  The actual start of the firm is tied to the year 1834 at Fort Dearborn (Chicago).  Henry Mitchell moved his business about a decade or so later to Kenosha, Wisconsin and then finally to Racine, Wisconsin.  Adding a bit more detail to the August sale report above is this earlier piece from June of 1917...

“The directors of the Mitchell Wagon Co., Racine, Wis., have decided to discontinue the manufacture of wagons and have disposed of the greater part of the wagon stock which it was their policy to keep constantly on hand.  The wagon business has been carried on by a separate and distinct corporation since the reorganization of the Mitchell Motors Co., two or three years ago.  The wagon company is in sound financial condition and the decision to discontinue manufacturing is a result of present conditions in the wagon trade which have convinced the owners that it is not advisable to continue.  Mitchell wagons have been among the leaders in high grade farm wagons for about 70 years.”

This high wheel, Mitchell wagon is part of Doug Hansen’s personal collection.  It retains an impressive amount of original paint and is an extraordinary surviving example of the brand. 

Clearly, as the years rolled by, the investors in Mitchell could see the writing on the wall.  Times were changing and advancements in farming and the automobile were affecting the way folks looked at horse-drawn wagons.  Even so, where the business didn’t make sense for some, it proved to be a smart opportunity for others.  John Deere already had multiple wagon factories with plenty of capacity.  The purchase of Mitchell allowed Deere to further capitalize on the legacy of a powerful brand without adding significant overhead costs.  Similar manufacturing and marketing tactics took place a few years later when powerhouse brands like Peter Schuttler, Studebaker, Bain, and more were sold to other wagon makers who continued marketing those heralded labels from their own factories.  Today, these efficiency practices are replicated with factories often producing multiple brands of products – whether they be cars, boats, food products or any number of other goods. 

The original Mitchell logos on these sideboards are accompanied by signage for the selling dealer as well.

On another note, a few weeks ago, I encouraged folks to write in and share about some of their latest projects and happenings.  I’m happy to pass along a few of those emails today...  Texas Cowboy, Glenn Moreland, is in the midst of restoring a 2-seat, mountain hack built by Hesse and Son from Leavenworth, Kansas.  He’s also in the process of bringing a buggy built by Hynes Buggy Co. of Quincy, Illinois back to life.  As a bit of a side note, our research shows that the Hynes Buggy Company was established in 1869 and went out of business on October 31, 1914.  Glenn shared that both pieces are from a local ranch that was settled over a 100 years ago.  They’ve been in a barn for the last 70 or 80 years.  Great to hear from you Glenn and congrats on what we know will be quality restoration work. 

This image of a Yellowstone Touring Coach shows the original number and lettering uncovered during conservation work being done at HWWS. 

Elsewhere, Doug Hansen and his team at Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop are working on an original Yellowstone Touring Coach.  While engaged in the conservation and restoration efforts, the crew found a fair amount of original paint under multiple layers of re-paintings from years gone by.  Equally significant, they’ve also uncovered the original maker marks from the legendary firm of Abbot-Downing in Concord, New Hampshire.  It’s always good to see valuable history uncovered and preserved. 

This photo of the Yellowstone coach shows the seats and top removed as the coach undergoes a blend of conservation and restoration efforts.

Underneath years of repainting, the team at Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop found the original maker marks from Abbot-Downing on this Yellowstone coach.

Finally, we’d like to congratulate Jerry Maclin, the new owner/collector of both an original, high wheel Peter Schuttler and also a high wheel Bain wagon we had on-site.  Both vehicle brands carry tremendous heritage and each will date to the earlier 1900’s.  As many know, our ‘For Sale’ inventory is always changing and the website listings are rarely inclusive of all the vehicles we have available.  Don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you’re looking for something in particular.  From original Conestoga sideboards to a rare turn-of-the-century high wheel, Schuttler with 42 inch bolsters, we’re committed to both collecting and selling pieces with distinction.

Jerry Maclin is the new owner of this 93-year-old, high wheel, Schuttler wagon.

Stay tuned!  We have even more discoveries and details on early wagons and western vehicles slated for future blogs.  In the meantime, give us a shout if you have a special project or set of wheels you’d like to share.  It’s always great to hear from you.

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC