The Fabulous Studebaker Boys

I recently found an old book called A Century On Wheels, The Story of Studebaker which was written by Stephen Longstreet for the Studebaker centennial.  Here’s the kicker, it was written in 1952.  In 1952, Studebaker had already been around for 100 years!  The maker of the iconic bullet nose not only started out making wagons, it dominated the world in wagon making.  The Studebaker story is a fascinating one about a group of brothers who were able to transition from building wagons to manufacturing automobiles using a business model predicated on smart business practices, hard work, and fair dealing.

In 1736, three brothers named Studebecker arrived in Philadelphia from Frefeld, Germany.  They Americanized their name, as many did, and became known as Studebaker.  One of their descendants, John, moved to a place called Getty’s Town and, as more Germans settled there, it became known as Gettysburg.  John worked as a blacksmith and had five sons, Henry, Clem, John Mohler, Peter and Jacob.

The family eventually settled in South Bend, Indiana (by way of Ohio) and Henry and Clem started a blacksmithing business in 1852 with only $68 in capital.  They wanted to build wagons, but business was slow. John Mohler (J.M.) traded one of these wagons to a wagon train for passage to California.  He intended to mine for gold and ended up in a town called Hangtown with 50 cents in his pocket.  The official name of the town was Old Dry Diggens, but it was called Hangtown because of the local, and rather enthusiastic, vigilante activity.

As soon as J.M. arrived, a man named Joe Hinds began asking the group if there was a wagon maker in their midst.  Everyone pointed at J. M. and Hinds offered him a job.  At first, he declined, because he was there to look for gold, but reconsidered after receiving some good advice from a local citizen.  He went to work repairing stagecoaches and making pick axes and wheelbarrows.  He made so many of those he became known as Wheelbarrow Johnny.

J.M. stayed in Hangtown (which eventually became Placerville) from 1853 to 1858.  His brothers, Henry and Clem, were still in business but they desperately needed capital.  Due to his hard work in the gold fields of California, J.M. now had $8,000 and he was ready to return home and turn that capital into something historic.

Henry wanted to be a farmer, so J.M. bought him out.  In 1862, the Union came calling, needing all types of wagons for northern troops to use in fighting the Civil War.  They even ordered a beer wagon for the German troops!  All of this business required expansion, so their brother Peter, who had been operating a general store, joined them and their company became Studebaker Brothers.

The Studebakers were smart and effective salesmen.  Instead of waiting for farmers to come to their factory to buy wagons, they would take them directly out to the farms. After the war, when there was a western expansion, the Studebakers erected a 75×60’ showroom for their wagons at St. Joseph, Missouri, a gateway for those headed west.  Next to the showroom they developed a camping ground so their customer base had a place to stay while looking over their wagons.  Clever strategies like these, along with effective newspaper advertising and great slogans like “Our house is founded on the farmer” helped fuel additional expansion.  By 1874, the company had 500 employees and built over 11,000 vehicles.  The youngest son, Jacob joined the firm.

Studebaker was everywhere.  The firm supplied most of the wagons for army posts in the west.  When General Custer met his demise at Little Big Horn, he had been separated from his supply train of Studebakers.  During the Spanish American War, the government wanted 500 wagons within 36 hours, and Studebaker delivered within 24!  Orders for Studebakers poured in from around the world and were used in the Boxer Rebellion and the Boer War.  Winston Churchill was even sleeping in a Studebaker when he was captured by the Boers.  The world was changing, however, and Studebaker had to change with it.

To be continued . . . . .

Studebaker wagon

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