Tuesday, March 3, 2015

John M. Studebaker - His California Years

by Keli Gwyn

Several famous men spent time in my historic town of Placerville, California in the early days. Among them was John M. Studebaker, who went on to help found the Studebaker automobile company. I'm not here to tell you about that part of his life, though. I'm here to tell you how he got his start.


John was born on October 10, 1833 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. His family moved to Ohio in 1836 and on to Indiana in 1851.

Two of John's brothers, Henry and Clem, had started a wagon company. John, too, had learned the trades of wagon building and blacksmithing, but unlike his brothers, he dreamed of mining for gold out in California.

In 1853 John decided to make the trip west. Henry and Clem helped him build a wagon. They completed it in a record ten days. John made a deal with a trail master, trading that wagon for three meals a day during the journey.

En route to California, the wagon train stopped in Council Bluffs, where John engaged in games of Three Card Monte. He lost all but fifty cents of the sixty-five dollars his mother had sewn into his belt.

On August thirty-first, five months and eight days after their party had set out, they arrived in Hangtown (pictured below in 1851), which is what Placerville was called at the time. The weary travelers hardly had time to get a cool drink when a local blacksmith, H.L. Hinds, approached the group asking if there was a wagon maker among them.


John intended to stake a claim and mine for gold, so he said nothing. A wise stranger gave John some advice, telling him that most of the men who'd come seeking gold had found very little and advising him to take the job. John, who had nothing but that measly half dollar in his pocket, reconsidered. He ran after Hines and accepted his offer.


Hinds told John he didn't actually need wagons built. Wheelbarrows were what was in demand. He told John that if he could make twenty-five of them, he would earn ten dollars apiece.

John proceeded to make a wheelbarrow, a task that took him two days. Unfortunately that first wheelbarrow had problems and didn't impress Hinds. John told his new boss that he was a wagon maker, not a wheelbarrow maker but that he would try again and make a better one, which he did. (The photo below shows an actual Studebaker wheelbarrow on display at the El Dorado County Historical Museum.)


That first order led to many more. John's wheelbarrows quickly became famous, earning him the name "Wheelbarrow Johnny."

For five years John worked with Hinds. They repaired mining equipment and wagons and built wheelbarrows. The business flourished. Both men saved their gold and deposited it in the Adams & Co. Express.

Hinds became suspicious. He'd heard that Adams & Co. was having difficulties and that the Placerville office might transfer gold to another branch.

Sure enough, the company failed in 1854. Not willing to lose his twenty-two thousand dollars and John's three thousand, Hinds hid behind the express company's office that night, fully expecting the workers to take off with the money on hand. They did, creeping out at two in the morning.

Hinds followed the men and discovered the location of the safe where they stashed the money. He went to the sheriff to report the removal/theft of the depositers' funds and put an attachment on the money on behalf of himself and John. The owners denied they had hidden the money, but the sheriff found it.

John and Hinds got their money back in full since they'd filed an attachment. John collected the bags of gold and wheeled them up Hangtown's Main Street in one of the wheelbarrows he'd made.

Challenges abounded in those days. In 1856 the smithy was destroyed by the first of two fires to ravage Hangtown that year. However, the citizens were resilient were resilient, and the businesses that had been burned were quickly rebuilt, including Hine's shop. (The photo below shows the plaque marking the site of Hinds' shop, where John got his start.)


In 1857 John received a letter from his brother, Clem. The wagon business back in Indiana wasn't doing well. By that time John, who was now twenty-five, had eight thousand dollars saved. He decided to return and invest in his brothers' business, which he did in the spring of 1858.

And so ends John's adventures in California. He's a local legend. Every year since 1944, the John M. Studebaker International Wheelbarrow Race has been held during our local county fair. (The photos below were taken at the entrance to the fairgrounds.)





Be sure to visit the blog on Friday, March 6, when Ramona Cecil will tell the rest of the story in her upcoming post, "Studebaker - One of Indiana's Own."

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Award-winning author Keli Gwyn, a native Californian, transports readers to the early days of the Golden State. She and her husband live in the heart of California’s Gold Country. Her favorite places to visit are her fictional worlds, historical museums and other Gold Rush-era towns. Keli loves hearing from readers and invites you to visit her Victorian-style cyber home at www.keligwyn.com, where you’ll find her contact information.




20 comments:

  1. Hello Keli. I eenjoyed this post. I just wanted to tell you that my husband owned a Studebaker at one time. It was yellow and black and very popular. Maxie > mac262(at)me(dot)com <

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  2. Maxine, it sounds like you enjoyed your Studebaker. I like the colors. They're the same as those on my first car.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by to read the post, Davalyn. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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  4. Love this story! I had heard that the first Studebaker was a wagon ... didn't know they made wheelbarrows, too!

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    1. Stephanie, I didn't know about John M. Studebaker and his wheelbarrows until I moved to Placerville. He's a local legend in these parts.

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  5. Fascinating storie, Keli. Who'd have thought there'd be so much money in wheelbarrows? It's the perfect example of seeing a need and meeting it. I bet those wheelbarrow races are a hoot to watch.

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    1. Vickie, the man who counseled John when he arrived in Placerville told him most miners didn't make much money; the merchants did. I haven't been to a Studebaker race, but that's on my to-do list. The link at the bottom of the post goes to a site that includes a fun YouTube video from a race in the 50s.

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  6. Thanks, Keli! I loved learning the story about John M.'s years in California! I was especially interested to learn of H.L. Hinds' importance in the Studebaker story. If he hadn't helped to protect John's earnings, the Studebaker story might have died. Because it didn't, there is much more to tell, which I will attempt to do in my post this Friday. :-)

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    1. Ramona, I'm looking forward to your post on Friday when we'll learn the rest of the Studebaker story. Who knew that wheelbarrows played such a part in a car company's history?

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  7. Very interesting, Keli. Kind of a funny history. Thanks for sharing!

    Amber Schamel

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    1. Amber, some of the stories I learn about real people in the past when I do my research are every bit as interesting and sometimes funnier than those in the novels I read. The early days of Placerville are a source of inspiration. =)

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  8. Enjoyed your post, Keli. Wheelbarrows to cars...now I have to read Ramona's post to get the "rest of the story."
    Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Marilyn, I, too, am impressed that the money John earned making wheelbarrows is what gave the family business the infusion of capital needed to become the international success it was. Ramona's post is awesome! Great info and lots of wonderful pictures.

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  9. I always enjoy your posts, Keli, and love sharing them with my children! Thank you for another great history lesson. I look forward to Ramona's post on Friday.

    texaggs2000 at gmail dot com

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Britney. I love history. If I'm not careful, I can lose track of the time when I'm researching my stories. :-)

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  10. Loved that post and I like the wheelbarrow he made- so simple. Sm. wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

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    1. Sharon, sometimes simple things can be just the ticket. I like the fact that even though John's first attempt at building a wheelbarrow produced one that was terrible he didn't let that stop him. He just tried again--and succeeded. Those wheelbarrows of his played a big part in the history of our area.

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  11. Keli, I respect the amount of research you put into your posts, along with the fact that you bring me into your world and show me the past in a way that's easy to remember. Of course it seems so plausible that the man who started making Studebakers would have started in a trade where wheels were the main event, but where I've known other wagon makers who went on to develop vehicles, John is special to have started with a wheel barrow.
    Thanks so much for posting this.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words, Anita. They mean a great deal to me.

      I find the story of how John got his start fascinating. What really speaks to me is the fact that he took that man's advice and accepted the job with Hinds. Had he not done so, he could well have ended up like so many of the miners did--discouraged, broke and in bad health.

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