The Old Reliable: the History of the Springfield Wagon Company, 1872-1952
Date of Graduation
Master of Arts in History
Long before the day of automobiles, trucks, and improved highways, Americans were a people on wheels; wooden wheels. The great demand for wagons spurred the development of a tremendous wagon manufacturing industry and of gigantic wagon companies. Some of the larger wagon manufacturers eventually enjoyed annual sales approaching a million dollars. Wagon building became big business during the late 1800's, and, as such, it was subject to all the evils as well as the benefits resulting from that period of rapid industrial expansion. The men who built and operated the nation's largest wagon companies battled each other as furiously as did the railroad magnates and industrial barons of the same period. The wagon manufacturing industry, in many ways, was a forerunner of the present automobile industry. It is surprising therefore, that only one extensive history of a large wagon manufacturing company has been written; that being A Century on Wheels : The Story of Studebaker by Stephen Longstreet. It has been the great fortune of this author to have gained access to the early business papers of the Springfield Wagon Company. These papers, still in their original form and largely intact, provide great insight into the daily workings of the largest wagon company west of the Mississippi River. They also reflect the long, often bitter competition between the great manufacturers ; a struggle from which the Springfield Wagon Company finally emerged victorious. This is the story of the Springfield Wagon Company, one of the pioneer transportation industries of the trans-Mississippi West. It was founded in the 1870's, soon after the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad reached Springfield, Missouri. The Springfield Wagon Company soon established itself as the city's leading industry and the largest manufacturer of freight and farm wagons west of the Mississippi River. As the company grew, the Springfield wagon became nationally known as "the Old Reliable" and was recognized as the standard of excellence in the wagon industry. The company survived several disasters and built during periods of prosperity, always guarding its reputation for quality and craftsmanship. The firm and its wagons kept that reputation through eighty years of operation. While the Springfield Wagon Company faced many of the same problems as its competitors, its history is not typical of other wagon companies. It survived and gradually absorbed or outlasted all of its competitors. After nearly a century of successful enterprise, it finally ceased operations ; not because it had failed in business competition, but because there was no longer a demand for its products. This fact distinguishes it from all other wagon companies and makes it a worthwhile subject for historical research.
© Steven Lee Stepp
Stepp, Steven Lee, "The Old Reliable: the History of the Springfield Wagon Company, 1872-1952" (1972). MSU Graduate Theses. 23.