The Studebaker Wagon & the Birth of an Indiana Auto Icon
By Tim Bean
For over one hundred years, Hoosiers considered the Studebaker Company a cornerstone of Indiana craftsmanship, quality, and style, but increased competition and labor costs closed the South Bend plant just five days before Christmas in 1963, and the other Studebaker assets followed soon after.
All that remains of Studebaker today are its legions of collectors and devotees, a popular South Bend museum (look no further for a fun place to go in Indiana) and the name STUDEBAKER spelled out with 8,000 trees spread over 21 acres in New Carlisle, Indiana.
The Studebaker name found success long before the age of the automobile, combining atalent for wagon-making with the good fortune of being at the right place at the right time. The Studebaker brothers made their fortune off the tide of Western migration both before and after the Civil War, building wheelbarrows during the Gold Rush andthen the thousands of wagons used by the US Army for supplies, transport andambulances.
Soon to be famous Hoosiers, the Studebaker brothers pooled their individual skills and talents into the company, allowing them to control and supervise every step of the business process, from hammering wheel fittings to glad-handing buyers. Sales of wagons supplied to the Union Army during and after the Civil War provided the brothers with over $300,000 a year— roughly $10 million a year today adjusted for inflation.
The location of the company in Indiana is no accident. Indiana is known as the Crossroads of America for a reason: geographically, it stands at the center of the most popular East-West routes in the United States, now and in the 1800s. It was hard NOT to pass through the Hoosier State when headed west. Locating the company in South Bend also gave the company access to waterways and railways for supply and distribution.
After several fires in the mid-1800s, the brothers upscaled the business into a fireproof brick monolith of a factory in South Bend. Sprawled over 20 acres, the Studebaker Factory was the largest wagon/vehicle manufacturing facility of its day. By the turn of the century, the factory would expand to cover almost 100 acres.
Sales exploded. Studebaker wagons excelled on the unpaved, muddy, and nearly impassable roads of 1800s America. Celebrity endorsements helped sales as well, specifically those of several United States presidents. Presidents Lincoln, McKinley, Grant and Harrison all used Studebaker carriages around Washington and abroad. In fact, Lincoln rode in a Studebaker carriage on his way to Ford’s Theatre (and that very carriage now sits in the South Bend Studebaker museum).
Today, the most prominent use of a Studebaker wagon is its being pulled by the celebrated Budweiser Clydesdales, an icon team of draft horses introduced in 1933 to celebrate the end of Prohibition. Several hitches, or teams, of these famous Clydesdales exist, but no matter where they are, they’re always pulling a circa-1900 Studebaker wagon.
Studebaker’s wagon manufacturing didn’t instantly end with the introduction of the automobile. The infrastructure of the United States had to catch up with the early autos, which were expensive, unreliable, and useless on all but the smoothest roads. Until the end of World War I, the company produced as many horse-drawn vehicles as it did automobiles, only ending its legendary line of wagons and carriages in 1919.
Although the Studebaker Company would eventually fade from the ranks of the American auto manufacturing industry, no company would ever equal its prestige in the days of the Civil War and the Western frontier.
(An added note: the Indiana Historical Society sponsors a ‘History on Wheels’ traveling exhibit, a sort of mini-museum that includes a wealth of information on the Studebaker Company. Check HERE to browse its schedule or check with your local historical society).