Prime Focus

Wisconsin Wagon Company

JANESVILLE label/classic designs/superior quality

Story and interview by Teresa Nguyen

November, 2019

"There's not another wagon that can keep up with the Janesville."

~ From a 1919 newspaper ad 

Janesville Made

 

Many cities cannot boast businesses with ties to an original business from over 100 years ago, but Janesville certainly can! Before we get to the story of Wisconsin Wagon Company, let's go back to the beginning.

 

During the late 1800’s, there were two competing companies called the Janesville Carriage Works and Wisconsin Carriage Company. Janesville dominated carriage and wagon manufacturing and our city was well-known as a center for the carriage and harness industry.

Janesville Carriage Works


By 1876, Hodge and Buchholz was the largest horse-drawn vehicle manufacturer in Janesville, employing between 15 and 20 workers. 

In 1886, after Hodge's death, Buchholz continued as president, constructing a larger, three-story factory building at 201-203 East  Milwaukee St.


The business became the Janesville Carriage Works in  1893, manufacturing carriages, omnibuses, wagonettes and even hearses! They also built custom milk, bakery and other specialty wagons that were sold throughout the United States, in Germany, Scotland and India! 

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A Carriage Mural on the wall of the old Janesville Carriage Works building on the corner of E. Milwaukee and Parker Dr.. Photo by Pat Sparling

In the year 1919, General Motors Corporation purchased Janesville Carriage Works and, for a time, Samson Tractor engineering occupied the factory building. 


The Buchholz family remained in the carriage manufacturing business for another 15 years. 

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Though that carriage business is long gone, the stately downtown, brick building on the corner of East Milwaukee and North Parker Drive remains and houses various professional offices such as SASid Insurance Development and Baird Financial Advisors.


Another Janesville made company, the popular Rock County Brewing Company, moved into the building in January of 2017.

Wisconsin Carriage Company


A business competitor, the Lawrence Carriage Top Company, was established in 1885 and by the early 1890’s the business was known as the Wisconsin Carriage Top Company.

 

Originally, the company manufactured carriage tops, cushions, backs, and upholstery for buggies, wagons, and carriages. They began to manufacture a complete line of horse-drawn vehicles and changed the name to the Wisconsin Carriage Company.

The factory on Wall Street was destroyed by fire, so the Wisconsin Carriage Company built a new four-story factory at 600 W. Milwaukee St. 

 
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Lawrence Carriage Top Company established in 1885
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Around 1900, a large warehouse was built on Center Avenue and another factory building was constructed at 601-611 W. Milwaukee St., near the five points intersection.


By 1915, automobile manufacturing was pushing in. The company then began manufacturing coaster wagons, "skudder" cars and other sidewalk toys.

 

The skudder car was steered like a bike and you would rock back and forth with your feet to propel the wheels forward. 

Wisconsin Carriage Company on West Milwaukee Street

This business was renamed Janesville Products Company.

 

Their toys were advertised regularly in such national publications such as the "Saturday Evening Post".

 

In 1921, the company switched from manufacturing the older spoke wheels, which had been a replica of the larger, carriage wheels, to the newer metal wheels for durability.

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Workers in the Wisconsin Carriage Company
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An ad from 1919 promoting the Skudder Car and the Janesville Ball Bearing Coaster Wagon

Janesville Product Company remained in operation until 1941 or 1942, shortly after the U.S. involvement in World War II.

Wisconsin Wagon Company

The newspaper ad is certainly a reflection of the sexism of the times. Back in 1919, most women were expected to be dutiful housewives, carrying out their traditional roles of tending to domestic chores, cooking, housekeeping such as laundry, dishes and other light maintenance and with devoting the rest of their hours to raising the children. The men were the income providers working outside the home, often referred to as the "breadwinners".

In the ad is the line, "Ask Dad Now!" implying that only with the father's approval (and money) would a child be able to have a Janesville toy. One can also see in the photo of the ad that the girls are on the sidelines, simply watching and cheering on the boys as only the boys enjoy these fast, fun toys. Unlike today, girls were discouraged from playing with anything that could pose a danger of injury. It was thought girls should be protected and was also seen as socially unacceptable. 

Prices for a coaster wagon in the 1930's ranged from ten to twelve dollars. That was a lot back then! Several of the original wagons remain in use today and many are seen as a treasured collector’s item.

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A boy from a Janesville Coaster Wagon ad 
 A 1930's photo of local children in a Janesville wagon with the metal wheels
 
 

Fast forward to 1978 when a local, retired businessman, Albert Hough, wanted something special for his grandchild. Albert was a WWII veteran and had retired from his career at Hough Manufacturing Corporation, which became Hufcor, Inc.  He and his wife Lois, decided to recreate that little wagon with “Janesville” painted in red on the side. 

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Current location of Wisconsin Wagon Company at 507 Laurel Ave.

He researched the make, found an old wagon in someone’s garage and built an exact replica. In 1979 Albert and Lois founded the Wisconsin Wagon Company, naming his company after the Wisconsin Carriage Company. It ran as a small manufacturer of handcrafted coaster wagons and other wooden toys, which they ran for twenty-two years.  


The building, where Wisconsin Wagon Company ended up, had originally been listed on a map as a passenger depot in 1901. Between 1905 and 1926, it was used as a tobacco warehouse and had been raised to two stories. The brick addition was built in 1910. The Houghs brought their toy wagon business to this building around 1980. 

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The Grafft family owned the building. The business passed through a few other owners. Then, in 2009, Jim Grafft wanted to purchase the business keep this historical, local company alive. Wisconsin Wagon Company is owned by parent company, Certified Parts Corporation. 


Britten Langfoss, the Wisconsin Wagon Company’s General Manager, leads visitors on tours around this current Wisconsin Wagon Co. building on 507 Laurel Ave in Janesville. 


Britten describes the few minor changes that have been made over the years, but reassures customers that the quality and nostalgia remain. Delightful wagons and numerous other wooden toys are still manufactured here.

Wisconsin Wagon Co. General Manager, Britten Langfoss

A fun piece of trivia - the curved, red “Janesville” on the sides of the wagons and toys is actually a registered trademark!

Ball Bearing Technology

The purpose of a ball bearing is to reduce rotational friction and support radial and axial loads. The technology of ball bearings was was made popular by Jules Suriray, a Parisian bicycle mechanic, who designed the first radial style ball bearing in 1869.

 

The wheels of the Janesville wagons are still quality with ball bearing technology and are advertised as such. They are extremely easy to pull, one of the things for which they are famous!

A video of Britten demonstrating the ball bearing technology on Janesville wagons
 
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One of Wisconsin Wagon Company’s employees, Barney, had worked as a small engine repairman. After his retirement, he enjoyed woodworking as a hobby.

 

He started working at Wisconsin Wagon Company a couple of years ago. Barney works carefully and meticulously on each product and truly enjoys the work.

Today's Products

From horse drawn carriages to beloved wooden wagons, the story of our wagon making history is a fascinating chapter in our Janesville history! The Wisconsin Wagon Company has continually expanded their line of products with new and creative designs.

Employee, Barney, loves making Janesville products
 
Janesville wagons being ferried out to Fire Island, New York
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These unique and beautiful toys can be ordered online at wisconsinwagon.com or by calling the company at (608) 754-0026.   

 

Visitors can enjoy a guided one-hour tour for $5 per person. Tours are available weekdays by appointment only. To schedule a tour, contact the Wisconsin Wagon Company by phone at (608) 754-0026. 

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Sources:  www.wisconsinwagon.com and State of Wisconsin Digital Collections