Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Davenport Wagon Company

I’ve shared several John Deere-related blogs over the past few months.  With connections to Fort Smith, Moline, Mitchell, Old Hickory, Deere & Webber, Cyclone, and more wagon brands, the depth of Deere’s early involvement in wagon sales was truly amazing.

Soon after the turn of the 20th century, Deere determined to acquire its own wagon factories and began purchasing some of the best-known brands.  One of the makes Deere secured in 1911 was the Davenport Wagon Company.  Headquartered in Davenport, Iowa – just minutes across the Mississippi River from Moline, Illinois – the brand was among the more unique and uncommon firms because of the design of their gears.  These undercarriages were made entirely of metal and were promoted as being “built like a bridge.”  Other features such as roller bearings, a reinforced tongue and reach, and the use of linch pins instead of wheel nuts helped these workhorses stand out from other, potentially less reliable vehicles.

The excerpt below is from a 1912 catalog; possibly the first feature-length brochure about the brand as it was produced under the new John Deere ownership.

“The Davenport Wagon, with steel gearing, steel wheels, and roller-bearings, after the most severe and thorough tests, has easily proven far superior to the old style farm wagon… Because of the scarcity and inferior grade of wood the old style wagon is not, today, of as good quality as it was years ago… Particularly about the farm do we notice advance and improvement in everything excepting the wagon.  The implements are practically all steel.  The steel wheel is used almost entirely on implements, the wooden wheel is rarely seen.  The farmer appreciates the roller-bearing, its use is constantly increasing on farm equipment of all kinds…”

All of these statements supporting Davenport’s steel gears and wheels are especially interesting when one considers that – at the same time – other John Deere-owned wagon brands were singing their separate, yet equally self-indulgent praises of wood-wheeled superiority.  Clearly, the company was working to optimize wagon sales in every corner of the market.  When it came to the foundation of a Davenport gear, they were known for using steel I-beams, C channel steel, and angle irons – much like many quality trailer and equipment manufacturers still do today. 

Benefits of the steel wheels and gear weren’t limited to strength and durability.  Quietness and ease of maintenance were joined by the incorporation of steel roller bearing pins; promoted as helping to reduce the draft of the load by as much as 30 to 50 per cent.  Compared to traditional wooden wheels – which were more prevalent in the industry – the company pointed out that these steel wheels were not affected by temperature and moisture, so the dish always remained the same, allowing the wheel to run on the full face of the tire.  The system was advertised as one which allowed the gear to maintain truer tracking with plumb spokes and noticeably less wear to the wheel.  Lubrication of the wheels was accomplished through “oil cups” positioned on the hubs, allowing each wheel to be cared for without a need to jack up the wagon and wheels.

While Davenport Wagon Company’s beginnings date to 1904, the idea for metal wagons originates much earlier.  Patents for an iron wagon gear in the U.S. were issued as early as the time of America’s Civil War.  Nonetheless, even with its advantages, it was an idea that had trouble gaining traction.  Deere’s vast distribution network and strong marketing budgets helped draw even more attention – and profits – to the design.

Among the Davenport brand offerings were standard farm wagons, mountain wagons, cut-under wagons, lumber wagons, teaming gears, and even trail wagon equipment utilizing a horn and bumper.  Boxes on the wagons were made of wood but were touted as being heavily ironed and using additional hardwood cross sills, larger self-centering box rods, anti-spreader chains, and three sets of straddler cleats.  Even though the Davenport wagon brand ceased production nearly a century ago in 1917, the foundation for steel gears and wheels was laid and the combination would be used for decades more on the farm – long after the company closed.  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Electric Wheel Company - The Next Generation

The majority of what I’ve written in my blog posts over the last few years has dealt with what took place while wagon and western vehicle manufacturers were still building and selling wooden wagons.  That said, not all of these companies ceased doing business when the market for these products finally ran its course.  Of those that survived, some evolved into the furniture business.  Others began building trailers.  Some went into the auto body and accessory trade.  Still others went back to their roots.

Such is the case with a company still headquartered in the city where it began nearly 125 years ago.  Known for building a host of agricultural equipment during the 19th and 20th centuries, the Electric Wheel Company (EWC) of Quincy, Illinois carved out a broad product line and rich history after its incorporation in April of 1890.  Beginning with a capital stock of $25,000 to manufacture steel wheels†, the firm has grown well beyond its enthusiastic beginnings.  While the name – Electric Wheel – may sound strange today, when the business was started, electricity as a welding source was cutting edge technology.  The term had a similar impact as words/phrases like ‘digital’, ‘LED’, ‘touch screen’, and ‘wireless' often have today.  Hence, the use of the name ‘Electric’ drew attention to the firm as an innovative and trusted leader known for its commitment to quality.  As you’ll see, it’s a legacy deeply rooted in this organization.

This rare, circa 1900 image shows a very early “Handy” wagon from EWC.  The company's early literature shared their role as the originators of this type of vehicle.  It was lower to the ground, making it more stable and easier to work off of than wagons with high wheels.  

From their earliest days through the 1950’s, the company patented and produced a wide variety of products.  Included within that list are steel wheels, tractors, wagons, truck bodies, crawlers, trailers, front end loaders, semi-trailer fifth wheels, house movers, circular saws, surge brakes, scoop boards, short-turning trailers, and much more.  The company was also involved in fulfilling military contracts during World War II.  In 1957, the business was acquired by Firestone and the product line shifted a bit to include recreational trailers for products like snowmobiles and boats. 

Today, the firm is known as Titan International of Quincy, Illinois.  While under a different name, incredibly, the business is still focused on the product categories that gave it its start in 1890.  After building so many metal wheels, wagons, tractors, crawlers, and other equipment in its early days, the business has significantly grown; taking on a worldwide leadership role in the manufacture of tires and wheels for the most demanding of industries.  In fact, as shared on their website, Titan is the only company who designs, tests and manufactures both wheels and tires for agriculture, construction, forestry and mining.  Building tires and wheels for well-known mega-brands like John Deere, Case, New Holland, Kubota, AGCO, and Goodyear farm tires, Titan also makes trailer components like brakes, hubs, couplers, and actuators for numerous other manufacturers.

Our Wheels That Won The West® collection of materials related to the Electric Wheel Company spans almost three-quarters of a century.

Recently, our extensive collection of early EWC literature and history was tapped by Titan to help share the rich heritage of the firm.  Celebrating their 125th anniversary in 2015, Titan International is making plans for an interpretive center with highlights of early products, innovations, and promotional efforts.  Individually and collectively, the pieces outline their legendary and innovative role in the manufacture of quality tires and wheels.  So, the next time you run across an “Electric” wagon, gear, or other product, consider the rarity of the piece as well as the foundation it laid for one of today’s most recognized leaders at the farm, forest, field, trail, and mine. Their slogan, ‘Titan Moves The World’ is reinforced by the video link below. 

† “The Electric World”, Vol 15, no. 18, p.306, April 26, 1890  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Logging Wheels

During the eighteen and early nineteen hundreds, removing large quantities of timber from remote forests carried a lot of challenges.  Nevertheless, heavy vehicle makers from those days built numerous designs just for that purpose.  Eight wheel logging wagons, heavy-duty logging gears, carts, and even sleds were utilized within this specialized industry. 

An early logging wagon with solid wood wheels on display at
Furnace Creek in Death Valley.

Years ago, I wrote an article for our Wheels That Won The West® website outlining the origins of a giant two-wheeled design referred to in a number of ways.  The vehicle name often varied depending on the region of the country but some of the titles it held included “Logging Wheels,” “High Wheels,” and “Big Wheels.”  

These massive logging carts were engineered to transport large logs over demanding and difficult terrain.  With wheel heights ranging from six to twelve feet, these lumbering giants worked the woods throughout the U.S.  Over the last few years, our archives have acquired a number of 19th century materials highlighting these rare pieces.  One of the makers in this group of promotional resources is the Gestring (pronounced ‘Guess –string’) Wagon Company of St. Louis, Missouri.  I wrote a fairly lengthy set of articles for Farm Collector magazine on this company back in 2010.  A few of the other makers in this trove of ephemera are the Wilson-Childs Wagon Works of Philadelpha, Pennsylvania… Studebaker Bros. of South Bend, Indiana… Electric Wheel Company of Quincy, Illinois… Manning, Maxwell and Moore of New York… and perhaps the most legendary of all – Silas Overpak of Manistee, Michigan.

With most of the images and ephemera dating to well over a century ago, these original promotional pieces highlight differences between a variety of offerings.  Features like Georgia rigging, ratchet lifts, and screw rigging with dogs (hooks) for holding the logs to be lifted were among the variety of designs shown.  Tire widths could be as wide as eight inches, tongue configurations changed depending on whether the vehicle was used by horses or oxen, and wholesale prices could range from $110 to over $200 in the late 1890’s.  As time progressed, some of these Big Wheels were also drawn by steam traction engines.

Weight of a single 7 foot tall wheel with 5 inch tire is listed by one builder as being around 600 pounds.  Total weight of the entire design could easily register a ton or more.  Other specifications from this literature include the notation that many High Wheel designs were engineered to carry from 100 to 4,000 feet of logs in a single load.  The timber could range in length from 12-100 feet.  As shown in the photo above, in a trip to Death Valley last year, we were able to get a firsthand look at an original set of High Wheels.  Like America, itself, the massive size of these wheels is a reminder of the challenges, opportunities, and potential rewards for those willing to roll up their sleeves and join the free enterprise system.

By the way…  If you haven’t signed up to receive this weekly blog via email, just type in your address in the “Follow By Email” section above.  You’ll receive a confirmation email that you’ll need to verify before you’re officially on board.  Please don’t hesitate to let us know if we can be of assistance.  We’re looking forward to your visits each week. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Last Week’s Quiz

Okay.  How’d you do in last week’s quiz on wagon company catchphrases?  Folks often have favorites when it comes to specific brands so some of the taglines may have been more familiar and, therefore, easier to match than others.  It’s also worth noting that some of the mottos used by different firms did occasionally change.  Take a look below and compare your answers with the brands most commonly associated with each of the slogans and songs… 

·         The Monarch of the Road – Mitchell Wagons
·         King of All – Weber Wagons (also used by the Lion Buggy Company of Cincinnati, Ohio)
·         Good Timber & Bone Dry – Winona Wagons
·         The Pride of St. Louis – Linstroth Wagons
·         The Wagon of Quality – Birdsell Wagons
·         Light Running & Durable – Moline Wagons
·         We Tower Above All – Luedinghaus/Espenschied Wagons
·         Best Material.  Best Made.  Best Finished on Earth. – Ionia Wagons
·         No Wagon is as Good – Milburn Wagons
·         The Farmer’s Favorite – Coquillard & Studebaker Wagons
·         A-Very Good Wagon – Avery Wagons
·         The Wooden Shoe Line – Buerkens Wagons
·         The Old Reliable – used by Pekin, Springfield, Schuttler, & Olds Wagons
·         The Only Original and Genuine – Fish Bros. Wagons (Racine)
·         Wait for the Wagon (song) – Studebaker Wagons & Jackson Wagons

A few other taglines include Hickman-Ebbert Wagon Company’s “Best At The Price & Always The Same” as well as Hackney Wagon’s “For Style, Durability, and Light Running – No Wagon Surpasses.”  Sometimes these sayings were accompanied with visual supports such as elephants in wagons (Jackson & Moline), rabbits pulling wagons (Harrison), oversized loads demonstrating strength (Owensboro, Newton, Fish Bros. and many more), axles cut away under loads (Winona), a peacock with fanned feathers (Linstroth), and a running greyhound (Moline).

The primary point we can take from these images is that sales successes of individual brands not only required a quality, relevant product with a strong distribution system, but also a significant commitment to marketing and advertising.  Each part of this mix was – and is – crucial to any national and international business achievement.  Likewise, each has proven to be undaunted by the passage of time.  How relevant were the lessons learned in America’s first transportation industry? Well, they were substantial enough that many of the fundamentals are still practiced today.  In fact, the next time you see the dealer name affixed to the car in front of you, remember that the origins of that simple advertisement began with the wood-wheeled wagon makers.  As the old saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Promotional Power of Stories, Slogans, and Songs

Okay, I’m going to show my age with this blog.  I’ll venture a guess, though, that I’m far from the only one that instantly recognizes some of the early expressions connected to many of the world’s best known brands.  I’m talking about the promotional power of brand stories, slogans, and songs.  Many will remember the popular jingle, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” from 1971.  Likewise, you probably have the Timex watch slogan, “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking,” well entrenched in your memory bank.  Or, how about M & M’s “Melts in your mouth – not in your hands” tagline?  Believe it or not, both the Timex and M & M’s ads originated in the 1950’s.  Feeling old yet? 

Moving a bit farther back in history – say three quarters of a century or so – you’ll come across the first mention of “M’m  M’m  Good” as the Campbell’s Soup slogan.  Stepping back even farther – Maxwell House Coffee’s “Good to the last drop” goes back to 1926.  There are countless others and too many good ones to mention here.  The main reason I’ve listed these more ‘modern’ maxims is to help introduce a few phrases from wagon manufacturers that were also well known in their day.  Each of these was designed to do at least two things – First, draw a line of separation between a specific brand and its competitors and… Second, be so memorable and trusted that the first purpose of separation is continually reinforced.

With that as this week’s backdrop, let’s see how well you can match up a campaign slogan with a particular brand.  Take a look at the mottos below.  Can you name the wagon company(s) most often associated with each?

  • The Monarch of the Road
  • King of All
  • Good Timber & Bone Dry
  • The Pride of St. Louis
  • The Wagon of Quality
  •  Light Running & Durable
  • We Tower Above All
  • Best Material.  Best Made.  Best Finished on Earth.
  • No Wagon is as Good
  •  The Farmer’s Favorite
  •  A-Very Good Wagon
  •  The Wooden Shoe Line
  • The Old Reliable
  • The Only Original and Genuine
  • Wait for the Wagon (song)

While some of these phrases were occasionally used by more than one brand, most of the expressions became commonly associated with a single firm.  Each is a solid example of how even the earliest wagon makers made use of advertising methods still considered to be essential marketing tools today.  It’s one more reminder of the competitive sophistication employed every day within America’s first transportation industry.  We’ll re-visit these points next week, sharing the companies typically associated with the individual phrases. 

Coming up in the next few weeks, we have plans to share even more details on a number of subjects including specialized vehicles used within the logging industry, an earlier look at the legendary 20 Mule Team, snapshots of wagon company survivors today, and another incredible discovery tied to the 1876 Centennial Exposition (1st World’s Fair) in Philadelphia.  Stay tuned.  The Wheels That Won The West® Archives continue to grow, shedding new light on America’s wood-wheeled beginnings.