By Alton Pryor
Nineteen-year-old John joined a wagon train and came west to search for gold. Instead, he made wheelbarrows.
When the young man arrived at Old Dry Diggings (now Placerville), it was the last day of August 1853.
Placerville, at the time, was one of the more important towns in California, and was bidding to be the state’s capital, in competition with others, including Sacramento, San Francisco, and Chinese Camp.
Placerville was well known throughout the nation during the gold rush, and was far ahead of some of the other towns such as Poker Flat, Red Dog, You Bet, Whiskey Town, Petticoat Slide, Rough and Ready, Skunk Gulch, and Angel’s Camp.
For one thing, Placerville was strategically located on the main transcontinental trail.
John arrived in Placerville driving a wagon he had built in his father’s wagon shop back home in South Bend, Indiana.
His bankroll consisted of a pitiful fifty cents. He had lost his original bankroll of $68 to a card shark during a stopover in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
As the wagon train arrived at Placerville, local citizens quickly gathered around. One man asked aloud repeatedly, “Is there a wagon maker among you?”
Several men in the wagon train pointed to young Studebaker and the wagon he had built for the trip west.
“My name is H.L. Hinds,” the man said. “I’m the blacksmith and I have a good job for a man who wants work. Want the job?” he asked John.
Young John hesitated. “I came to California to dig gold,” he said. Hinds walked away.
It was then a man who had heard the conversation said to John. “I don’t know you from Adam, but I can’t help giving you a piece of advice. Take that job and take it quick. You’ll have plenty of time to look for gold. There are hundreds of disappointed gold seekers for every one who strikes pay dirt. They haven’t a penny. Some of them are hungry. You’re lucky to be offered a job five minutes after you get here. Grab it, boy.”
To John, the directness of the advice was compelling. He hurried after the disappearing Hinds and told him he had reconsidered and would like the job after all.
The work at the blacksmith shop consisted of repairing miners’ picks and pans as well as considerable stagecoach repairing. The big demand, however, was for wheelbarrows.
“Can you make a wheelbarrow,” Hinds asked.
“I sure can,” replied John. “That is—I can try.”
John’s first wheelbarrow was a dismal failure. It was rickety, clumsy, and made of green pitch pine. It had taken him two days to build it. When he had finished, his employer laughed, and said, “That’s a hell of a wheelbarrow. Try again.”
John’s second attempt produced a much better product. By the time he had produced a third one, he had found the knack of producing a sturdy and rugged wheelbarrow. He soon was given the name, “Wheelbarrow Johnny.”
By 1855, John sold his wheelbarrows for $10 each and had saved $3,000. To fulfill his original desire to be a gold miner, he staked a claim.
It was not profitable, but he was able to glean a few pieces of gold to show his family in Indiana. By continuing to work at making wheelbarrows, by the fall of 1857 John’s savings had increased to $7,000.
John then received a letter from his 26-year-old brother Clem, who was making wagons with his brother Henry in South Bend.
Clem wrote Johnny, saying their company could only turn out a dozen wagons a year because the brothers had to do all the work themselves. Neither could they buy supplies in large lots because of a lack of money.
Clem told John that while they were doing all right, they could do so much more if they had the capital.
Instead of only building a dozen wagons a year, Clem envisioned building 100 or even 200 wagons each year.
A sound thinker, John knew that South Bend was the perfect town in which to build wagons.
The young wheel-barrow maker made a decision. He would work right there in Hangtown until the next spring, saving all the money he could.
He would then be able to return to South Bend with $8,000 in his pocket. This he would put into H. & C. Studebaker.
During a stopover in New York on his way back to South Bend, young John Studebaker saw carriages in Central Park. He made a mental note that while the West would need heavy-duty wagons, light buggies might also be needed in Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Denver, or Sacramento.
In 1868, the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company was organized, and by 1875, it was the largest wagon builder in the world, with over $1,000,000 in sales.
The Studebaker Corporation produced an electric horseless carriage in 1902, followed by the manufacture of a gasoline-powered automobile in 1904. At the head of the corporation was J.M Studebaker, formerly known as “Wheelbarrow Johnny.”