Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Springfield Wagons

When I grew up, the phrase – “I’ll have a Coke” – was general language that could have been referring to about any soft drink.  Similarly, as I grew up in the Ozarks, almost every wooden wagon was called a ‘Springfield’ wagon.  It was such a ubiquitously-applied term that it was similar to calling every facial tissue a ‘Kleenex.’  Others, in different parts of the country, can likely make similar statements about horse-drawn vehicle brands from their own area.  In fact, regional popularity of some vehicle makes was so strong that other brands found it difficult to effectively compete in those places.  Such was often the case with the Springfield brand.  Even so, the early days of the firm were not so easy.  Today, numerous examples of Springfield wagons have survived and can be found throughout the U.S.  As a nod to the roughly 70-year history of the firm and in recognition of the 145th anniversary of its founding, we thought we’d share a bit of background on the company.  The remainder of this blog is drawn from a story I had posted on our website years ago and subsequently shared with the American Chuck Wagon Association... 

This portion of an early 1870’s map of Springfield, Missouri shows the location of the city’s wagon factory and plow works between Mill street and Wilson’s Creek.

A crossroads to territories west, Springfield, Missouri was part of the historic Butterfield Overland Mail route.  During the Civil War, the area was the scene of several heavy battlefield engagements. The location also lays claim to what was easily one of the few true, one-on-one, fast-draw gunfights in the entire Old West.  It took place in 1865 between Wild Bill Hickok and Davis (Little Dave) Tutt from Arkansas.  Into this heritage-rich western backdrop, in 1872, the Springfield Wagon Company hung out its shingle and announced its entrance into the wagon building industry.  Surrounded by quality hardwood forests, the region was a ready-made market for quality farm, freight, ranch, log, and business wagons. 

From the start, the going was anything but easy.  Floods, fires, economic depressions, banking scares, and distribution challenges were regular obstacles.  True to the area’s convention, though, Springfield was as stubborn as a Missouri mule and never gave up.  Their gradual successes caught the serious attention of numerous competitors, including the Studebaker Brothers of South Bend, Indiana.  In spite of price wars and public challenges by the larger manufacturers bent on running Springfield out of business, the company struggled on.  In 1883, the firm was hit especially hard as it suffered the ravages of a massive fire.  Through the sobering reality of charred remains, the company picked up the pieces and carried on.  At the end of the day, the investors were in too deep for failure to be an option.  Even so, this would not be the last of the brand's hardships.  Legal battles for technology and construction features flared up from time to time and after the turn of the 20th century continuous pressure from the motorized farm and transportation industry began to take the heaviest toll.

Like many other major brands, Springfield often emblazoned its name on the end gates, axles, sideboards, spring seats, and even some hardware.

By the mid 1930’s, during the twilight of its most successful years, the Springfield Wagon Company had outlasted most all of its major competitors while also becoming the sole remaining source for replacement parts to many of the most recognized names in the history of western transportation.  Legendary icons like Peter Schuttler, Fish Bros., Bain, Pekin, Smith, and Ebbert all eventually found a home inside the powerful and resilient Springfield brand.  In a bid to gain even more business and market share, Springfield branded wagons, boxes, and running gears under a variety of trade names including Springfield, Ozark, Missouri Mule, Ironmaster, Jack Rabbit, Acorn, and even Bain and Schuttler.  Often the only difference between the vehicles was the painted name.  As a result, and in spite of the fact that a Springfield wagon has numerous unique construction features, if the paint has disappeared on a later model Springfield farm wagon, it’s possible that what might be thought of as a Springfield today, might actually have been originally built and branded as a “Schuttler.” 

As with many other early vehicle brands, the design makeup of a Springfield wagon did change over the years.  One of the places where some of these evolutionary adjustments can be seen is in the design of the standards (bolster stakes).  While most of the earlier Springfield farm wagons used rings in the standards, later models used multiple variations of metal bands serving as pocket stakes in the standards. 

How many Springfield wagons have survived?  It’s hard to say.  But, after building hundreds of thousands of both wood-wheeled and (later) rubber-tired wagons during its near seventy-year history, those that do remain are certainly part of an elite minority.  Some were even part of America’s war efforts.  True historical icons, these rare wheels stand as a lasting tribute to a time when steady resolve and patient persistence paved the way to the survival of the fittest. 

Additional information on Springfield wagons can be found in the book, “The Old Reliable, The History of the Springfield Wagon Company,” by Steven Stepp.  This book as well as a reproduction copy of the company’s 1915 catalog are also available through our website.

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