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  Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Wagons vehicles of West

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
Today, when we hear the word "Studebaker," most recall the pointy-nosed car that you couldn't tell whether it was coming or going. The automobile chapter of the Studebaker Co. is long and interesting but not near as interesting as the earlier wagon chapter.

In 1736, the Staudenbecker clan of Solingen, Germany, where they were known as "blade makers" for the cutlery trade, emigrated to America, settling in the English Colonies. Some of the clan began building wagons in their blacksmith shops and are given credit for designing and building the famous Conestoga Wagon.

Others in the clan moved west into Ohio, changed the spelling of the name and established the Studebaker Wagon Co. John Studebaker traveled west to California to participate in the gold rush. After arriving, he discovered the good claims were taken, and he could make more money serving the miners.

He used his wagon-making experience to design and build sturdy wheelbarrows used in digging gold. This earned him the nickname "Wheelbarrow Johnny" and a small fortune. When the gold rush waned, he moved back to Ohio, bought out a brother's interests in wagon making, established the Studebaker Wagon Corp. and began building wagons on a large scale.

When offered government contracts to build wagons for military use, John designed extremely durable and reliable units, earning the company a legendary status in the effort. In spite of three major fires, factories were rebuilt and improved, and the company continued to grow.

In 1898, the company built 500 wagons in a 36-hour span for the Spanish-American War. In 1914, as World War I began, the company contracted 3,000 units for England and thousands more for France and Russia.

By 1920, as the automobile age arrived, all manufacturing of horse-drawn equipment was halted with the factories refitted to build automobiles.

Interestingly, a direct tie between the Texas Panhandle and the Studebaker Wagon Corp. is found when Charles Goodnight, the first rancher in the Panhandle, invented and built the first "kitchen on wheels," or chuck wagon, to be used on roundups and trail drives.

Goodnight chose a military version Studebaker ambulance wagon as a base for his chuck wagon because it had steel axles, iron springs and other metal fixtures designed for rugged use. He added a wooden water barrel to one side and a wooden chuck box on the rear with a fold-down lid used as a table.

A "boot" was added below the food box to carry the cast-iron Dutch ovens, and a dried cowhide was slung below the wagon box to carry firewood and cow chips. The chuck wagon became the most famous conveyance in the history of the West

Much lesser-known descriptions by witnesses and observers of the time tell how this first model of Goodnight's was built so "hell-for-stout" and heavy, four horses could not pull it along the trails. Instead, six big oxen were required, and they moved so slow the rangy, long-legged Longhorn steers outpaced the wagon so far it did not catch the sleeping herd until midnight.

Later models were so successful, wagon makers offered a "roundup design" with a metal, dust-proof food storage.

Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" March 27, 2008 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.
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