John Studebaker was 20 when he left South Bend, Indiana, in 1853, heading for the California Trail head at Independence. Of course, he was not planning on staying long in Missouri because his idea was to seek his fortune in the California Gold country.
And succeed he did, though not by panning for gold. He prospered instead by making wheelbarrows for miners. Studebaker had learned carpentry and smithing back in South Bend working for his two brothers in their fledgling wagon building shop. Though short on money, the Studebaker brothers were honest, hard working craftsmen. Receiving word that his brothers could use his help, John hastily returned from California in 1857, with $8,000 from wheelbarrow sales to invest in the business. His timing was just right.
When the Civil War broke out, the Studebaker Brothers were awarded large government contracts to build wagons, caissons, meat and ammunition carriages, and even beer wagons for the Union troops.
At the wars end in 1865, the firm continued to prosper. Studebaker wagons were favorites among the vehicles of the surging westward migration. By 1876, Studebakers were selling from coast to coast with a second factory in Kansas City and a dealership on the Independence Square. By the time the automobile came along, the Studebaker Wagon was a million dollar a year industry and it was only natural for them to merge into the new fashion of travel. Their company remained in business for more than 100 years and was the only wagon maker to make a successful transition from horse-drawn wagons to the streamlined Studebaker automobile. Studebaker became the world’s biggest wagon- maker. It was only the appearance of Henry Ford’s Model T that another American vehicle would enjoy a huge success.