Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Winona Wagon Company

In last week’s post, I mentioned the discovery of a rare Winona sheep wagon photo.  It reminded me that there are probably a number of folks that haven’t seen the story we published on the Winona Wagon Company back in 2009.  So, I thought I’d re-visit a portion of that article in this week’s blog.  Enjoy...

Nineteenth century America was a virtual field of dreams for many farm wagon makers. The discovery of gold and the opening of the West created opportunities and challenges beyond the imagination. So remarkable was the business that by the 1870s and 1880s, some wagon companies were regularly producing 30,000 to 50,000 vehicles per year. Working six days a week, 10 to 12 hours per day and finishing a vehicle as rapidly as every six minutes, fortunes were made – and lost.

In many ways, American vehicle makers in the 1800s were no different than those in the U.S., Germany, Japan, Italy, or about any other country today. They worked to consistently build quality products, keep good employees, strategically promote their advantages and maintain high customer loyalty.  It’s a tried-and-true business model.  But, even with those lofty goals, for any brand to be successful, it must create and sustain an identity for itself – something that consumers can remember and relate to.  Just as we may think of premium quality when Cadillac or Lexus brands are mentioned, strong vehicle names also conjured up the same feelings of desirability in the 1800’s.  Whether someone was considering a Studebaker, Schuttler, Milburn, Moline, Mitchell, Abbot-Downing or any of the thousands of others, there was no shortage of competition to be reckoned with.

So, if you’re a vehicle maker in the nineteenth century catering to farms, ranches, businesses and the American frontier, how do you separate yourself from so many viable competitors?  It’s a question with many answers and, the closer we look at a particular set of wheels, the easier it is to see how each company was strategically positioned. 

Quality Winona brand wagons remain in high demand today.  Many Winona wagons featured the eye-catching style of a yellow running gear.

Located on the upper Mississippi River, the Winona (Minn.) Wagon Company was ideally located for shipping and receiving materials as well as acquiring quality timber.  By the time it was established in 1879, Winona had plenty of firmly established competition.  Price wars, lawsuits, and leveraged buyouts were just some of the heavy-handed tactics used by well-heeled brands to squash newcomers vying for regional and national attention.  It was a demanding marketplace but Winona employed a variety of efforts to rise above the challenges of well-known, confident rivals.

While virtually all builders dealt with the worry of maintaining a strong, marketable identity, many – just like companies today – created a slogan that summarized their commitment to quality or some other beneficial feature.  The Winona Wagon Company was quite effective using the catchphrase “Good Timber and Bone Dry.”  The saying focused on the central and most important element of any early wagon – superior wood selection, preparation, and construction.  After all, quality hardwoods were the heart of a wagon and companies that presented themselves as thorough, trustworthy and value-conscious generally enjoyed the greatest success.  The use of higher-grade raw materials, though, wasn’t the only advantage Winona touted.  Like many successful firms, it promoted itself heavily while consistently stressing innovative features and design elements.

Joining the chorus of those parroting their brand to have the “lightest draft” and “wheels boiled in oil,” Winona also proclaimed the superiority of its “clipped” undercarriages as opposed to competitive wagon gears that were through-bolted and presumably weakened.  Their grain-tight boxes were designed to keep flax and seed from spilling out of the wagons and double-riveted felloes provided even more strength to the wheels. Ultimately, though, those qualities were remarkably similar to those of other competitors.  Fortunately, the company had other features that really did set it apart.  As it turns out, those characteristics were some of the most visually different and promotionally significant traits on any wagon and they centered on the foundational soundness of axles and wheels.

This image clearly shows an iron reinforcement block placed between the axle and rear bolster of a Winona wagon.  Even so, not all Winona wagons will include this feature or that of iron clad hubs.

Reinforcing the company’s commitment to quality construction, Winona built its heavier mountain wagons with a characteristic it called “outer bearing” axles.  The term sounds like it referred to a roller bearing or outer seal on the axles.  In fact, the feature was more simple, but equally ingenious.  On many Winona wagons, a custom-formed block of iron was placed immediately beneath the bolster stake and allowed to rest on the shoulder of the skein.

The effect was similar to the addition of structural supports to a suspension bridge.  The iron blocks helped take more of the load off the center portion of the axle and spread it across the entire wheel base.  The result was that the outer axle was tied to the upper bolster while also being reinforced by the skein (the metal thimble fitted over the wooden axle).  It meant that both the axle beam and the bolster or sand board above it would have to break before the wagon could be rendered helpless.  In an era when wagons were often used in remote, rugged regions, this was a dramatically important feature.

According to Winona, by shifting the load toward the wheels, the wagon could carry a greater load and was easier to pull.  The company explained this by pointing out that an ordinary wagon with a very heavy load experiences a strain that pushes down on the axle, slightly springing it and throwing the wheels outward at the bottom.  The net effect of the wheels being pushed out would cause them to bind against the nut on the outside and the axle on the inside, making the entire rig harder to maneuver and roll.  By contrast, Winona claimed that its outer bearing axles actually relieved the strain beneath the hounds, kept the axle rigid, the bearings straight, and the grease more evenly distributed.  It all had a very technical and logical sound to it, helping reinforce Winona’s image as a leader.

Truly, the whole structure was a novel idea and Winona took great advantage of promotional opportunities.  Beyond a simple verbal description touting the design’s strength, the company’s marketing folks made a practice of cutting out the entire center section of a Winona rear axle.  Then, they loaded the wagon and took photos to show the design strengths at work.  At the same time, they would take a competitor’s wagon, remove the same area of the rear axle, load it and clearly demonstrate the weakened and sagging gear.  These types of dramatic visual displays continually reinforced Winona as a major competitive force.

This century-plus-old image is housed in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.  It clearly shows the significant strength of the outer bearing axle design.

Yet another distinctive design feature of Winona wagons was the “iron clad” hub. Once again, the carefully chosen name presented a vivid mental picture of strength, value, and confidence.  The design was a metal covering or shield tightly formed around the hub, protecting it from the destructive elements of work and weather.

According to the company’s early literature, this feature meant that “no matter how much the hubs were exposed to sun, snow, rain or dirt, they wouldn’t check or crack.”  Winona claimed that once a wagon hub begins to check, “the spokes work loose, the tires come off, and a breakdown occurs.”  While other builders could match many of the company’s quality construction traits, the patented features of an ironclad hub and outer bearing axle were clear advantages that set Winona apart.  The distinctions were so easy to see that, even today, they’re very helpful in the identification process.  (NOTE: Even though these features can help with the authentication process, there were other brands that used similar technology.  As a result, careful study is still needed to correctly identify the brand.)

During the teens of the 20th century, Winona adopted what would be one of its last identifiable icons.  Further securing itself to the historical namesake of its city and the romance of the Old West, the company attached its brand to the symbol of a Dakota American Indian maiden by the name of Wenonah.  It was a distinctive and easy-to-remember visual.  The Native American image was often included on the wagon, wagon seat, company letterhead, catalogs, ads and other promotional signage.

Even with a strong commitment to promotion, Winona ultimately fell victim to the same weakness that gripped virtually every wagon maker of the period.  Almost all of the old builders found it hard to accept the passing of the grand wagon era.  Changing times, needs, and expectations helped increase the influence of motorized transportation while the archaic look of a horse-and-wagon-dominated society fell increasingly out of favor.

By the 1930s, Winona (and the majority of U.S.-based wood-wheeled wagon makers) had ceased operations. Vintage directories list Mike’s Trading Store in Spokane, Wash., as the only place to obtain replacement parts during the Great Depression.  Fittingly, the company’s final legacy continues to be carried by many of those highly identifiable design and construction traits.  It seems “Good Timber and Bone Dry” was more than a slogan.  It was a deep-seated commitment to craftsmanship that can still be seen as the Winona brand regularly takes on all comers in 21st century chuck wagon and sheep wagon competitions as well as collector gatherings throughout the country.


Through much of the company’s history, Winona also made another brand of wagon called ‘Rushford.’  This was actually the company that Winona originated from in 1879.  In the early part of the 20th century, the firm ceased using the Rushford name and it was carried on by another organization.  It’s an important element of history as not all surviving Rushford wagons can be connected to the Winona Wagon Company. 

In a nod to the company’s roots, the Rushford brand was marketed by Winona throughout the late nineteenth century. 


Winona made a wide variety of wagon types including farm, freight, mountain, sheep camp, fruit, potato bed, and U.S. military wagons.  While ironclad hubs and outer bearing axles were primarily used on the company’s heavier vehicles, individual features of every wagon were designed to satisfy specific terrain, user purposes, and price ranges.

Throughout its construction, Winona utilized hickory timber for axles and white oak for spokes, hubs, and felloes. Box sides were generally constructed from poplar but cottonwood was also used.  Box floors were almost always built from pine.

Beyond wheel size and box bed variations, other distinctions between different styles of Winona wagons included choices between wooden or steel axles, stiff or drop tongues as well as multiple brake styles, track widths, and tire widths ranging from 1-1/2 to 4 inches. All wagon builders had geographical regions where they were most competitive.  Winona wagons were touted as being particularly well suited to the South and West and, as such, were sold predominantly west of the Mississippi River. 

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