Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Studebaker, best in the West

Some of the more intriguing people in Indiana had little to do with the Whitewater Valley, though their footprint was difficult to ignore.

Take, for example, the Studebaker brothers. It isn't a stretch to believe that George Loper knew the Studebakers, so we have that to work with.

In a nutshell, the erstwhile Studebaker autos and trucks were built in South Bend, and their vehicles were considered a staple in Europe during World War II.

Otherwise, they made the Lark.

Studebakers were still being produced into the 1960s though they had been leveraged out of competition. The most familiar 'Studey' is the one with the airplane propeller front.

Now to the more ancient parts of the Studebaker story.

The family came to America from Germany in the early 1800s and old John Studebaker was building high-quality wagons in Pennsylvania by 1818. Blacksmithing at that time was a highly lucrative business. Apparently he was also adroit at making something else that was particularly useful -- wheelbarrows.

Soon his son Clement took up the business but eventually grew antsy for the newly opened Indiana frontier. He landed in South Bend, home of various native tribes and a few hundred French fur trappers.

Clement began teaching school.

As the book, "Biography of Indiana" describes it, South Bend "was even then a progressive place."

Fair enough.

It's not clear how this happened, but somehow Clement and older brother Henry decided to set up a wagon-blacksmith shop in South Bend in 1852.

"From this humble beginning, the present extensive works of the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company originated."

The brothers, according to the biography, had 68 dollars in investment capital, or about a tankful of gasoline for some of our SUVs.

John M.
The business was slow-going, and they built two wagons the first year. But the future was bright for the diligent, hardworking Studebaker brothers.

The biography is clear about what happened next. "Events were occurring in the history of the country at this time which tended to open up a wide field for American enterprise in the great northwest, and which proved an auspicious turning point in the history of the Studebakers."

Actually, it was unconnected events that would probably have happened with or without them.

California coughed up gold. The railroad replaced the canal system. States were being admitted to the union and Chicago became a central trading location along the Great Lakes.

And the native Indians were being booted out of Indiana.

As the West grew and needed populating and taming, wagons were needed to tote the pioneers and soldiers westward. Studebaker just happened to be making those things.

In 1857, "the firm of H. & C. Studebaker was fortunate enough to secure a contract for building a large number of wagons and equally fortunate in being able to execute it to the satisfaction of the government."

They built 100 units within three months, which evidently was a remarkable feat given the need for labor and timber as well as black-smithing.

Eventually other Studebaker kinfolk joined the business -- Peter, George and Jacob.

In 1887, the company offered stock and anchored itself as a leading Indiana business. "Each succeeding year showed a marked and substantial growth, until the company ultimately became what is at the present day (1895), the largest establishment in the world for the manufacture of wagons and carriages."

The 1895 biography describes in glowing terms the size and scope of the Studebaker manufacturing operation and its South Bend offices. "The South Bend factories alone afford employment for an army of men, including skilled mechanics in all the departments.

"The factories are themselves a miniature world. Here are found every device and machine necessary for shaping wood and iron in the construction of wagons and carriages."

Sometime prior to 1895, the company shifted some of its factory work to Chicago as a way of tapping that market and profiting from the abundant railroad lines that had sprung up all over America and connected in Chicago.

Studebaker followed its work there and built a large office building to handle those affairs before gradually shifting all its corporate offices to Chicago.

As well, they had offices in New York, San Francisco, Kansas City and Portland, Oregon.

The biography describes a few tough times, including a fire at South Bend in 1872 and another two years later that destroyed large sections of their factories.

George Studebaker, who oversaw most of the growth after 1886, was a global icon, serving as U.S. representative at the 1878 Paris world's fair. He ran with the big dogs.

His own home was destroyed and his wife badly injured by a fire in 1890.

The story of the family is compelling and tends to intertwine with the events of the day. Each brother seemed to feed off each other's success and skill.

In summary, despite all the naysayers who believed they would fail in their 1857 contract with the Army:

"They at once acquired distinction as manufacturers, and from that day to the present, the name of Studebaker has been foremost in connection with this branch of American industry."

See how easy it is?

The 1951 Studebaker was unforgettable.
Studebaker went to war. The Soviets even drove Studebaker trucks.

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