Born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, from time to time I have featured its historic industries on this blog, including the Buckeye Brewery and Libby Glass, the latter a place I briefly worked. Recently I have become interested in the story of the Milburn Wagon Company, a manufacturer located in Toledo that grew from a small shop in Indiana to the largest wagon maker in the world. This American industrial success story was fueled, at least in part, by the colorful trade cards Milburn used to advertise its products.
An excellent example is the multicolor lithographed trade above that shows two spirited, high stepping horses horses pulling a Milburn wagon within a bucolic rural scene featuring mountains in the distance. Note that the driver is seated well back from the front of the wagon.
Contrast that seating with the Milburn card shown above. This vehicle looks much more like a Western buckboard, the seat being located at the extreme front. Although most company sales were east of the Mississippi, Milburn has been credited for its contributed on opening up the West for pioneers. One trade publication in 1888 commented that: “…They are shipping business wagons to almost every city east of the Rocky Mountains, and have a fine trade in the Mountains from Deadwood to Denver.”
Capitalizing on the Western image, Milburn provided its dealers with a wall sign showing a settler, with his wife and baby aboard, holding off at pistol point a group of three raiders intent on stealing his wagon and horses. The label on the sign tells the story: “The Demand for the Milburn Wagon.” The company also used this image, slightly altered, in its newspaper advertising.
By this time the largest manufacturer of wagons in America, with worldwide sales, Milburn Wagon had begun modestly, the endeavor of a British immigrant to the U.S. named George Milburn who tried farming and other pursuits before in 1867 investing in and later taking over an existing wagon works in Mishawaka, Indiana. As business thrived, Milburn asked the town fathers to help defray the cost of building a railroad siding to his plant. When they refused, he looked for a place to move.
Toledo, always on the lookout for new businesses, proposed a stock offering that raised $300,000 from locals and offered a discounted piece of land located adjacent to a railroad for the factory. Consequently in 1873 the Milburn Wagon Co. opened in Toledo. A trade card like the one above might have a line drawing of the factory on its flip side.
Before long Milburn Wagon Works were the largest wagon makers on the globe, with sales offices in nine American cities from Albany, New York, to San Antonio, Texas, and a customer base from Europe to Australia. The manufacturing process was completely mechanized. requiring workers only to operate machines. The average number of men employed at the factory ranged from 550 to 600. By the mid-1800s Milburn was producing about 600 wagons a week in its Toledo plant, the equivalent of one finished wagon almost every 10 minutes— pre-dating the Detroit auto assembly lines.
Moreover, the firm had pioneered in hollow axles that while still as strong as solid ones allowed them to term their wagons as “the lightest running in the world.” That claim was backed up by a trade card of bevy of frisky young women drawing one.
The company also had patented an improved type of wagon wheel that was lighter but strong. Although most Milburn illustrations showed two horses pulling their rigs, the company also made a one-horse wagon. Like others it is painted in a characteristic green with the Milburn name prominent on the side.
Another Milburn patent covered its braking system that allowed for easy parking of the wagon. It was operated by the right hand of the driver who activated it by pulling foward on the rear level and released it with the front lever. Well-built and simple in construction, these sturdy wagons could be purchased for as little a $150. Little wonder that so many heading West did so on a Milburn.
Featured is a trade card that states: “45 years, building nothing but wagons, hadn’t we ought to know how?” This was not entirely true; as the years went by. Milburn in Toledo began to build buggies and carriages. Nor did the company miss a step when the automotive age meant the end of horse-drawn vehicles. Between 1915 and 1923, the company made 4,000 electric cars as well as auto-bodies for other Midwest manufacturers. In 1923 the Milburn era ended when its works were purchased by General Motors for its Buick division.
An entire book could be written about the history of the Milburn Wagon Company, As a Toledo boy who arrived long after the firm’s demise, however, I want to remember the company as the source of innovative multi-hued advertising that continues to remind us of an America when things were a lot simpler.
Note: This is not the first time I have displayed my penchant for wagons. On October 12, 2013, on this blog I posted an article entitled, “Circle the Wagons” (Under Glass) that featured a group of ten glass paperweights with a variety of wagon images on them.