Studying the world of America’s early wagon makers can be full of dead-ends, questions, fake news, and even duplicity. This last point can be particularly troublesome as it can instantly bring confusion into a center stage drama, leaving us with more questions than answers. A good case-in-point is the challenge we sometimes face when looking at the labels painted on the axles or side of a vehicle. Things aren’t always what they appear and the tendency to jump to conclusions can be rife with problems.
Brand names like O’Brien, Whitewater, Fish Bros., Rushford, and Miller are well-known for their early starts and popularity on America’s frontier. Unfortunately, there are other, sometimes lesser known, vehicle companies that used these same names. In these cases, it’s easy to see how misunderstandings, insufficient research, and incorrect vehicle identifications can take place. Even the venerable old title of ‘Bain’ is not immune to these problems. The mark was applied to the sides of wagons from two separate companies headquartered in two different countries. At first glance, that seems like ample division to prevent issues. Unfortunately, when the borders are as close as the U.S. and Canada, there can be a blurring of the lines. Over the years, many Canadian-built wagons have been brought into the U.S. and sold at auction. I’ve even seen a Canadian wagon used as part of a yesteryear display at George Washington’s historic Mount Vernon home near Washington, D.C. It was particularly disappointing to see a clearly labeled, twentieth-century Canadian piece used to convey eighteenth-century U.S. history.
Back to the perplexities of like-named brands... This week, I thought we’d take some time to provide additional details on the Canadian version of the two Bain brands. Hopefully, it can help raise awareness while reducing confusion between both firms.
This old print advertisement shows a Kenosha-built Bain wagon from 1899.
I’ve written before about the Bain brand built in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The company started in 1852 and was an outgrowth of Henry Mitchell’s firm (Mitchell wagons). While Mitchell went on to become a major brand headquartered in Racine, Wisconsin, Edward Bain took the old Mitchell wagon works, grew the distribution, and heavily marketed the new brand. In the U.S., “The Bain” became a legendary name throughout the country and particularly in the West. Later, in the twentieth century, the brand was briefly part of the Pekin Wagon Company and then, finally, it was absorbed by the Springfield Wagon Company in Springfield, Missouri.
The ‘other’ company carrying the Bain label is a Canadian firm. In this case, the international boundary hasn’t kept wagon brands sufficiently separated. Rather, the popularity of antique wooden wagons in the U.S. has led to many Canadian-built vehicles being shipped back over the border. It’s a point that can cause a fair amount of consternation when trying to identify or authenticate a particular set of wheels. It’s especially challenging when the name on the Canadian wagon is the same as a major brand in the U.S.
Cutting directly to the chase, as of this writing, there’s no known connection between the two Bain brands. The only things they appear to have in common are wooden wheels and the brand name. Reinforcing that point, immediately below, I’ve transcribed a 115-year-old article that was written about one of the Canadian company’s founders, John Bain. It was published in 1903 as part of The Newspaper Reference Book of Canada. The historical documentation shows a distinct history wholly separate from Ed Bain’s wagons built in Kenosha, Wisconsin... not to mention the fact that Ed Bain’s company was started three decades earlier.
John Alexander Bain, Woodstock, Ont.
“General Manager and Vice President of one of the most enterprising manufacturing concerns in the Province of Ontario, the Bain Wagon Co., Limited, John Alexander Bain, of the town of Woodstock, is a representative Canadian of a class who, through their own ability and industry, have risen to positions of prominence in the industrial life of their country. The son of John Bain, a native of Keith, Scotland, and a cabinetmaker who came to Canada in the early forties of the last century, and Isabella Robb, his wife, a native of Scotland, he was born in Woodstock, Ont., on the 23rd of September 1852. Educated in the public and grammar schools of his native town until the age of nineteen, he became articled to S. & J. Hext of Brantford, to learn the trade of wagon-making. Upon the completion of his apprenticeship, he went to Milwaukee, in the United States, and worked at his trade for over a year in one of the large factories of that city. Subsequently he worked in several large wagon-making factories at Batavia, Rock Island and Moline, in the State of Illinois. In 1880, learning that wagons were being imported into Canada for the Northwest trade, he decided to establish a business for the manufacture of wagons in his native country. In 1881, with his brother, George A. Bain, under the firm name of the Bain Wagon Company, they began the manufacture of wagons at Woodstock and during the first year turned out about 100 wagons. In 1890 the Bain Wagon Company sold their plant at Woodstock and removed to Brantford, Ont., where the firm continued under the name of Bain Bros. Mfg. Co., until 1893, when they affiliated with the Massey-Harris Company, of Toronto, and removed its manufacturing plant to Woodstock, where they purchased their present large and efficient factory.
The success met with in the manufacture of high-grade farm and freight wagons, log trucks, dump carts, spring lorries, delivery wagons, and bob-sleighs has been large and their sales extensive throughout the civilized world. The Massey-Harris Company, of Toronto, are the sole agents for the output of the Bain Wagon Company, Limited, which can be obtained from any of their agencies throughout the world. The Bain wagon, one of the principal lines of manufacture of the Bain Wagon Company, is used throughout Canada, and in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, South Africa and the Yukon. From an output of 100 wagons in 1881, the business has grown to an output of 8,500 wagons and 4,000 sleighs in 1902. In 1899 the Bain Wagon Company made two shipments of wagons and ambulances to South Africa for the Canadian contingent, which were highly recommended by Lieut.-Col. Steele and others as being the best available wagon for military service in that country. The Bain Wagon Company employs from 250 to 300 in their factory, and is building additional buildings which will give one-third more productive capacity in 1903...”
By the early 1890’s, the Canadian-born Bain Wagon Company became part of the powerful Massey-Harris line of agricultural products.
Clearly, there are different beginnings, owners, histories – and countries – for both Bain Wagon Companies. That said, there are some elements of the two brands that seem a little more than coincidental. One, in particular, stands out to me. They both use the term, “The Bain” on the side of the wagon box. It’s a similarity that makes me wonder if the later-established firm might have deliberately been blurring the lines a bit to trade on the longer, legendary history of its U.S. competitor? Whatever the case may be, the two names continue to cause confusion with collectors, historians, and enthusiasts. Hopefully, this week’s blog will help clear up some of the misunderstandings while allowing each brand to take advantage of its own heritage.
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