The basis of the future Mitchell-Lewis Motor Company began with Henry Mitchell’s original learned trade: wheel-making. He was the first man in Chicago to build wagons for consumers. He brought his trade to Southport (now Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Lewis was born) and then Racine, building the foundation for the wagon company to prosper and eventually evolve into an automobile manufacturing titan.
The year 1834 saw the launch of Henry Mitchell’s first wagon venture in Chicago. As the city had only been established a short while before his arrival, it was easy for him to be the only wagon builder, but to be the first person to build a complete wagon is another distinction entirely. By 1837, Mitchell and his family had moved to Southport, Wisconsin, where a chance meeting with Joseph Quarles would lead to a prosperous business partnership. The two men formed the firm Mitchell & Quarles, and opened up the first Mitchell Wagon Works. Over 15 years later, Mitchell and Quarles went their separate ways, with Mitchell relocating once again, this time to Racine, Wisconsin, after selling the Southport plant to Edward Bain. His new company in Racine would be named The Mitchell Wagon Company and its success made the Mitchell name recognizable not only across the United States, but all over the world.
The wagons that were made at The Mitchell Wagon Company were made out of local Wisconsin hardwoods. However, eventually Mitchell decided that he wanted a higher quality for the hubs, spokes, and axles. This was to ensure that the highest quality of wagon was being built for his customers. The company began shipping in oak and hickory timber from the Ozarks in Arkansas and Missouri. The oak and hickory timber proved to be more resilient against wear and tear, allowing Mitchell to sell the wagons with a 12-month warranty! Because of this, The Mitchell Wagon Company was met with a huge demand for the highest quality wagons from travelers migrating out to the west, many of them soldiers who had fought in the Civil War and were looking for a new beginning in a new land. Mitchell’s factory constructed the finest product, even after a fire burned the factory down in 1880. By 1890, the factory and its employees were churning out 100 wagons a day, all the way until the turn of the century, even shipping internationally to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Mexico and Canada!
There were three main categories of wagons that were built by The Mitchell Wagon Company: farm wagons, rural wagons, and urban wagons. Within these categories, Mitchell differentiated the wagons by their intended geographic destination and also their intended function.
There was great diversity among the Farm Wagons produced because of the various terrains and climates where the wagons would be utilized. A few examples of farm wagon styles were the “California Stake Style,” the “Oregon Style,” and the “Utah Style.” Farm wagons were mainly used for local projects that a family might have maintaining their own farm.
The Rural Wagon styles could be used for more specific occupations. Some styles of the rural wagon include the “Ohio Boot Bed Wagons,” the “Logging Wagons,” the “Coal Hauling Wagons,” and the “Georgia Cotton Bale Wagons.” These could also be built to the specifications of their intended terrain.
The Urban Wagons would have been used when Henry Mitchell first began in Chicago, and probably shipped there later in his career when The Mitchell Wagon Company became even more successful. “Milk Wagons,” “Laundry Wagons,” and “Funeral Wagons” are just some of the Urban Wagon styles, which also included very large wagons for hauling beer or pianos. Some were built so elaborately that they were enclosed with sides, a roof, and even etched glass windows!