Well over a decade ago, I wrote a feature article on the American Wagon Company. It was a unique firm with distinctive products utilized by both the horse-drawn wagon and early automobile industries. I don't recall ever posting this story to my blog or website so, I thought I’d share it this week along with a little more info that I’ve come across. Enjoy!
“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” It’s an often-heard phrase associated with the rewards of true ingenuity and hard work. To that point, in the early 1900’s, the American Wagon Company was one of several firms testing out that philosophy by offering a new twist on an old design. Wagon boxes, the cargo-hauling portion of a horse-drawn wagon, were the company’s specialty. Believing necessity to really be the mother of invention, American was perfecting some of the most visibly significant changes to farm wagons in close to a half-century. Between 1905 and 1909, multiple patents were secured on the new creations. Internal enthusiasm and faith in the product’s success was high. But, in just over a decade, the wheels of progress would take a hard turn.
The folding box designs from the American Wagon Company enabled farmers, ranchers, and business owners to optimize their time and financial investments.
Locating themselves in Dixon, Illinois in 1911, American brought a promise of greater prosperity to the local area. Sales offices were maintained in nearby Chicago and catalog rhetoric indicated that more manufacturing sites were being contemplated to meet the growing demand. According to period accounts in the “Dixon Evening Telegraph,” the old Grand Detour wagon plant was unoccupied and had been re-modeled to meet the needs of the newly-arrived company. After celebrating the nation’s 135th birthday, the factory officially began manufacturing in Dixon on July 5, 1911.
The American Wagon Company name seems to imply that the firm was involved in full-scale wagon production. However, the box, often called the bed, was the only part of the wagon that the organization actually manufactured. But the box was far from ordinary and, in many ways, typical of the agricultural inventive genius prevalent during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Farmers, ranchers, and businesses of the day needed different wagon beds to haul different types of payloads. Most wagons met this requirement with designs that allowed the box to be lifted off of the running gear and replaced with a different rack or bed as the need arose. For some, though, this type of traditional wagon design offered a less-than-adequate solution to hauling multiple varieties of cargo.
At issue was the added time, money, and manpower involved in adjusting the wagon to meet every need. In order to help customers avoid the difficult and costly exercise of buying or building different beds and frequently changing them, the American Wagon Company marketed just one box that satisfied more than a dozen common uses. So, whether the farmer needed a hay rack to bring in loose hay from the field, a stock rack for hauling livestock, a corn wagon with built-in bang boards, a flax-tight grain wagon, an enclosed box for transporting poultry, or even a custom rig with ladder-back seats to carry a couple dozen folks to a Sunday afternoon church picnic, these quick-changing boxes catered to almost every need a rural farmer, rancher, and businessman could encounter.
Custom built for many different uses, the Melrose wagon box was much more versatile than traditional wagon beds.
Early print ads and catalogs went to extraordinary detail in explaining the value and benefits of American’s ‘Melrose’ brand convertible wagon bed. The ads warned against confusing their unique designs with cheaper, heavier, and more crude imitations. Some of the designs that American competed against could be found in the pages of Montgomery Ward’s discount catalogues as well as among a few other makers and independent dealers. American Wagon Company’s morphing design was touted as a time and money saver. They also boasted greater durability, capacity, flexibility, and efficiency… all for about the same cost as a “first-class, single-purpose bed.”
Even though the concept had been on the market for several years, a 1912 full-page print ad describes the wagon bed as a “new farm invention.” Specific advantages included a “15-wagon-beds-in-one” design… a no tools, easy changeover configuration… strong, warp-free construction… and a 5-year guarantee. To get an idea of just how strong this pledge was, it’s important to note that typical horse drawn wagon warranties were limited to just one year of coverage. Additionally, the box came with a free 30-day trial. The American Wagon Company even paid the freight. We may be accustomed to these types of incentives vying for our attention today but it was truly innovative marketing a century ago.
The boxes were offered in widths of 38” and 42”. Lengths of 9 ½’, 12’, 14’, and 16’ were available and the boxes were said to hold as much as 100 bushels of shelled corn, 4800 pounds of hay, or two full-sized cows/bulls. A 12’ Melrose bed from the American Wagon Company cost $30 in their 1911 catalog. While the 12’ bed weighed 75 pounds more than the average wagon box, it was also a foot and a half longer.
American was proud of the fact that no nails were used anywhere in the bed. Instead of hardwood supports that might break or warp, they used steel sills to strengthen the bottom of the bed. Telescoping side braces were integrated with the hinged metalwork to fold the entire length of the box into its multitude of shapes. End rods were double galvanized for extra protection against rusting and all metal parts were made from cold rolled steel. Sales catalogs proclaimed the wood to be long leaf pine, free from knots, and double kiln-dried. With superior quality and real functional value as their watchwords, American worked hard to gain consumer confidence and make the buying process as simple as possible. Compared to the planned obsolescence of many products today, American stated that, “In building this bed our whole aim is permanency.”
American’s five-year warranty provided a huge marketing advantage, especially since virtually all other boxes were limited to a one-year guarantee.
By 1918, times were changing and the company had begun producing cabs, beds, and other wooden parts for motorized vehicles. Like many others in the wagon-making trade, they were compelled to branch out into additional lines of business once the automotive industry gained a foothold. Following virtually the same production plan now with truck bodies, the company built at least four variations of truck beds. The convertible motor-truck bodies included 8-in-1, 4-in-1, 3-in-1, and 2-in-1 designs. Applications ranged from grain bodies to hog, stock, flat, poultry, basket, and flared racks. Years ago, I came across a fine example of one of the motor truck beds in a private vehicle collection in Bolivar, Missouri. The 8-in-1 American folding bed was mounted on a 1918 motor-truck. More than just a good-looking fit to the truck, the combination offered its original owner a great deal of hauling options.
Whatever the reasons - whether it was the consumers’ reluctance to accept change, a limited distribution system, weak financial capital, or simply a casualty of transitioning times - there is no evidence to suggest that the convertible wagon beds ever grabbed a strong hold on either the automotive or farm wagon market. Even with an ingenious design and strong marketing principles, the wagon company disappeared from city directories after 1922. Ironically, the firm noted for such a highly adaptable product couldn’t quite adapt itself to the rapidly changing times.
Interestingly, among the directors of the American Wagon Company were John Ringling of Ringling Bros. Circus as well as H.H. Windsor who was the president, founder, and first editor of Popular Mechanics magazine. The man that started the American Wagon company was Ellsworth B. Overshiner, president of the Swedish-American Telephone Company. In 1910, Overshiner worked hard to jump start the wagon box company’s capital with editorialized ads in publications like The Railroad Telegrapher and Locomotive Engineers’ Monthly Journal. The ads were strongly worded with promises like, “A new Million Dollar corporation which I am heavily interested in and President and Director of, will be one of the greatest and best paying Industrial Corporations in the United States and its stock will advance many times in value.” Overshiner ratcheted up the hype with comments like, “I want to, and will make every railroad man that joins me in this new enterprise, some real money in sums worth while and on an investment of only fifty dollars and five months to pay it in... Come along and get in on the ground floor.” It was a lot to live up to and, unfortunately, the firm never came close to those expectations.
In addition to their offerings for horse-drawn wagons, American's folding beds also brought quality, versatility, and convenience to those using motor trucks.
One hundred years ago, it was fairly easy to avail yourself of one of the ‘all-in-one’ wagon box designs. Today, the story is much different. Finding the rarest of rare artifacts has become a challenge as many race to rescue the most significant parts of our past before they’re gone. After all, it’s these pieces that are the proverbial needle in a haystack – ultra rare history that adds real intrigue to a quality collection while helping preserve a valued portion of America’s farming, ranching, and transportation legacy.
With just over a decade of production, the Melrose convertible box is one of those genuinely hard-to-find pieces. By the company’s own admission, the boxes were built to last. So, while the whereabouts of most of these pieces isn’t known, somewhere another American Melrose box is undoubtedly waiting to be discovered and its creative dreams passed on to future generations.
The American Wagon Company worked to overcome product stereotypes by offering unique, patented wagon box designs.
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