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Thursday, February 23, 2012

"The Mitchell Wagon"

Story by Roger Edison 

The Mitchell Wagon has often been referred to as one of the oldest wagon companies in America. While other companies in the east held earlier dates of establishment, the roots of the Mitchell wagon, begins in 1834.  Like other firms, Mitchell suffered its own series of financial hardships and growing pains in the early years, but ultimately triumphed into a major western vehicle competitor. Mitchell built an array of vehicles including farm, freight, stage, and spring wagons as well as buckboards, delivery wagons, hitch wagons and buggies. They even marketed their own line of wagon grease.  Some of the Mitchell farm and freight wagons were even converted by consumers used as Chuckwagons along the cattle drives that followed after the civil war.

Mitchell's history not only covers the majority of the development of the old west, but it also played a significant role in the transition from horse drawn vehicles to the early automobiles at the turn of the century.  Mitchell Wagon Company was purchased by the John Deere Company in 1917 and marketed for several more decades before ceasing operations. Although, while Henry Mitchell sold off the long establish Racine, Wisconsin Wagon factory, it was not due to lack of demand for his wagon's, but more because the nation was industrializing and the automobile was the future.

Born in Fifeshire, Scotland, in 1810, Henry would receive much of schooling at night while working as a youth to aid his father in support of the large family.  His father operated a transportation business which allowed young Henry the opportunity to study the carriages where he displayed a strong knack for mechanics while efficiently displaying the skill of drafting. This landed him a job working as a wheelwright apprentice by age 15.  Over the coarse of the next seven years, Henry worked with the large Edinburgh shop and acted as a foreman for nearly two of those years.

In 1834, Henry left the Edinburgh shop sailing to New York with his recent bride Margaret. Soon after arriving in the United States, they move west settling in the Chicago.  Henry took a contract in connection with the building of the Illinois canal, additionally; he began manufacturing his first wagons. They would be the first built in Chicago.  

His wife, Margaret gave birth to their first child while living in Chicago. A daughter they name Margaret after her mother. Due to complications, the child died, though the young couple would have a total of eight children.  Son, William H., who became a resident of Portland, Oregon; Elizabeth A. who later married T. O. Wallis, of Racine; another daughter they again named Margaret, who died in Kenosha; Mary I., the wife of William T. Lewis; Martha A., the wife of C. D. Sinclair; sons Henry G., and Frank L. who later would assume the business with son in law, William Lewis. 

Not liking Chicago, Henry sold his business in 1838 and moved to Kenosha, Wisconsin. There, Henry opened a wagon shop, continuing in business in connection with a partner until 1853, when they sold the plant to Edward Bain, known as "The Man who Never Sleeps" who would change the business name to BAIN Wagon Company.

Advertisement Mitchell Wagon Works
Henry and his wife settled in Racine, Wisconsin, in 1855. Two years later, he began wagon making in Racine. Establishing a modest plant, his business gradually grew.  In 1864 he was joined by his son-in-law, William T. Lewis, under the firm name of H. Mitchell & Company and alter the name two years later to "Mitchell, Lewis & Company."   It was from this small beginning that Racine's notable wagon industry grew. After the Civil war, many of the soldiers purchased government lands in the western states and the demand for farm implements, such as wagons and plows, rapidly increased, and it was then that Henry Mitchell, along with son in laws W. T. Lewis and C. D. Sinclair decided to push the production of farm wagons as fast as their capital would permit.  Expansion covered over twenty acres devoted to the manufacture of wagons and lighter vehicles, which sold extensively throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and South America.  They even contracted an advertisement painting which showed their wagons taming the wild west. The growth of the business soon topped any similar enterprise in the state of Wisconsin.  

In 1880 the plant was destroyed by fire, but was immediately rebuilt and in 1884 the business was incorporated as the Mitchell & Lewis Company with Henry Mitchell as president; W. T. Lewis, vice president; Frank L. Mitchell, secretary; son in law C. D. Sinclair, treasurer and Henry G. Mitchell, superintendent. 

Henry also devoted his interest in other adventures including organizing the Artesian Well Company which furnishing the city water supply. He likewise became a director of the Manufacturers ' National Bank. He also was an alderman who politically fought the further extension of slavery into northern states.   As one of the early manufacturers of Racine he contributed in large measure to the development and up-building of the city as well as to the promotion of individual success, his efforts being at all times of a character that promoted public prosperity. 

He reached the age of eighty-three years and passed away in 1893, while his wife died in 1896.  By 1900 the capital and surplus amounted to one million eight hundred thousand dollars and the capacity of the factory had grown from three hundred farm wagons per year in 1866 to twenty-five thousand per year in 1900.  

The Mitchell-Lewis Motor Company was established under its present form in 1903 by W. T. and W. M. Lewis, who began the manufacture of automobiles, using the motor invented by John W. Bate.  The Mitchell & Lewis Company, wagon manufacturers, had continued in business and developed a mammoth enterprise.  

Lewis and his son, William Mitchell Lewis, bought Beebe Wheel Works and changed the name to Wisconsin Wheel Works. The company made bicycles and motorcycles in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Additionally, the two founded the Racine Rubber Company.   In 1910 the automobile and the wagon businesses were incorporated as one company, known as the Mitchell Motor Company, and William T. Lewis was the principal owner and actively engaged in the conduct of its affairs up to the time of his death.  Henry's son Henry G. Mitchell was VP and son Frank L Mitchell treasurer. Frank also was the President of First National Bank of Racine and the stock value showed the Mitchell Motor Company valued over 10 Million U.S. Dollars.

Building some of the most attractive cars in America early into the 20th century, the Mitchell Wagon Company was and competing against Detroit. By 1911, they were Racine's largest employer, employing 2,000 workers to build the company's fashionable touring cars.  The Mitchell Wagon Company was purchased by the John Deere Company in 1917 and marketed for several more decades before ceasing operations. Although, while the Mitchell-Lewis Motor Company sold off their interest in the long establish Racine, Wisconsin Wagon factory, it was not due to lack of demand for his wagon's, but more because the nation was industrializing and the automobile was the future.

The company was later bought by another Wisconsin auto-maker, the Nash Motor Company, in 1925 two years after the death of William T. Lewis. While Mitchell Manufacturing did not survived with time, their products long out lived the manufacture and the Mitchell Wagon surely is a credit of taming the west. It was build strong, able to carry 3,000 pound payloads with ease and remains a legacy that paved the way through the American frontier. 

Cowgirl Poet - Teresa Burleson of Weatherford, Texas with her husband restored this attractive 1898 Mitchell Wagon.  Originally a three board freight wagon, Teresa's husband remove the top side board and built the pan boot adding the chuckbox and seat.  The two use the wagon today for Chuckwagon Competitions, winning 2009 Grand Champion Chuckwagon at Parker County Ranch Rodeo.  Teresa also is the director of  Stockyards Museum, Fort Worth Texas and has been award the Academy of Western Artists 2010 Cowgirl Poet of the Year and Western Music Association, Top 10 Female Poet 2009.  You can view more information about Teresa and her poetry at

The Mitchell Motor Company 1910

Mitchell Wagon converted as Chuck Wagon
Restored Mitchell Wagon - Chuck Wagon Conversion

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