THROWBACK THURSDAY: Winona wagons carried city’s reputation across the continent

October 11, 2018

A hearse built by the Winona Wagon Co. in the Winona County Historical Society.

For more than 50 years, Winona’s name and reputation was carried across half the continent emblazoned on the dark green wagon box.

Winona wagons hauled corn in Iowa, wheat in North Dakota, potatoes in Idaho, silver ore in Nevada and lumber in California. In 1882, three years after the company set up shop at the junction of the Milwaukee Road and the Chicago & Northwestern, more than a rail car of wagons rolled west every day of the week.

The Winona Wagon Co. wasn’t born in Winona. In 1867, a young man from Massachusetts, A.J. Stevens, settled down in Rushford, about 20 miles from Winona, to engage in the lumber business. A savvy fellow, Stevens was quick to notice that the new settlers were not only in need of lumber to build themselves homes and barns, but rugged wagons to haul the lumber. In 1870, he turned out the first Rushford Wagon, and four years later, organized the Rushford Wagon Co.

His rugged design and quality workmanship gained him a widening market and for five years the business prospered. Then, in 1879, fire leveled the Rushford wagon works.

The Rushford works would not be rebuilt. With river and rail access and a burgeoning work force, Winona possessed advantages for a manufacturer unmatched in the area. And even more important, in the deep pockets of that city’s merchants and industrialists there was the capital Stevens needed to reestablish and expand the enterprise.

So, in association with R.D. Cone, Hannibal Choate and other Winona businessmen, Stevens organized the Winona Wagon Co. in October 1879. The manufacturing works, lumber sheds and blacksmith shops were built on 11½ acres just beyond the western city limits where the Milwaukee Road and the Chicago & Northwestern railroads crossed and where West Fifth Street would eventually cross the Milwaukee tracks.

Stevens threw himself into the project, until, during a two-week business trip through the Pacific Northwest in the spring of 1880, “the cold and exposure so drew upon the vitality of a naturally slight frame as to prostrate him. With great difficulty he reached home and lingered but one short week.”

The designs Stevens developed and the standards of material and workmanship he laid down assured the company’s success. The company boasted that, despite the cost, company buyers purchased only first quality oak and hickory, selected green and naturally seasoned for three to five years before it was crafted into the running gear for a Winona Wagon. Boxes were built from milled long-leaf pine, carefully finished and equipped with the most rugged hardware available.

In its first year in Winona, the company shipped 500 wagons. Eventually the company would ship upwards of 10,000 wagons, built to order in more than 100 different styles every year.

The firm narrowly escaped disaster in 1891 when a spark from a passing switch engine touched off a fire in the spoke shed late in the afternoon of May 27. Fanned by a fierce wind, the fire spread quickly to the shipping rooms and other sheds, reaching the paint shops and lumber piles, despite the best efforts of firefighters and employees. A concentrated effort kept the blaze from the main building, but the damage was severe and blamed, in part, on low water pressure in the city mains.

In the early years of the new century, the underpowered, breakdown-prone horseless carriages appearing with increasing regularity on city streets and country roads seemed to offer little competition to a sturdy, horse-drawn wagon when heavy goods needed to be hauled.

But as trucks replaced buckboards and cars displaced carriages, the pace at the wagon works began to slow. The company tried to carve itself a niche in the automotive market by building “automobile cabs,” but car manufacturers found they could build their own. In May 1925, the Winona Wagon Co. was forced to seek protection from its creditors in bankruptcy court, its plant closed and workforce laid off.

This story first ran in the Aug. 19, 2001, issue of the Daily News.

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