Toledo, Ohio’s Milburn Wagon Co. is best-known today as the manufacturer of the Milburn ‘Light Electric’ automobile, one of a handful of electrics that experienced marginal success (Milburn produced approximately 4,000 cars between 1915 and 1923) in the years leading up to the First World War. Although the electric brought them prestige - President Woodrow Wilson's Secret Service agents had a small fleet of them - it was the firm’s production automobile body-building activities that created most of the firm’s profits.
As early as 1909 Milburn began constructing automobile bodies for regional manufacturers which included Ford, Ohio Electric, Oldsmobile, Overland, Pope and Willys, and during the early teens they marketed their own line of aftermarket Ford commercial bodies when Ford Motor Co. abandoned the commercial trades. Milburn continued to manufacture production bodies into 1923 when the firm’s factory was purchased by General Motors, who planned to utilize it for their Buick subsidiary. Constructed in 1873, Milburn’s Toledo plant was one of the first wagon factories to be completely mechanized, and for the next 35 years were one of the largest wagon builders in the country.
The firm’s founder, George Milburn (#1) (1820-1883) was born in Alston, England on June 3, 1820, to Thomas and Nancy Ann (Dickinson) Milburn. Immediately following his father’s July 7, 1835 death he emigrated to Canada with the remainder of the family, which included his mother and older brother John. They remained in Ontario, but George took a position in the United States, relocating to Goshen, Indiana where he went to work for a local dry goods merchant.
On an 1838 train trip to Chicago to further his employment opportunities, Milburn met Waterford, Indiana merchant Cephas Hawks Sr. who, impressed with his person, hired him as his bookkeeper. For the next several years he remained in the employ of Mr. Hawks, and a subsequent partnership, Hawks & Ballentine, and on April 8, 1841, was united in marriage to Barbara Ann Stouffer (b.1821-d.1910), the daughter of John Stauffer of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
The newlyweds moved to Bone Prairie in Kosciusko County, Indiana and engaged in farming on a small scale. In 1846, they moved to a farm in St. Joseph County, about three miles southeast of Mishawaka, Indiana. In 1847, Milburn brought his family to Mishawaka, Indiana. To the blessed union were born six children: Henry M. (b.1842-d.1908); Ann (b.1842-d.1916 - m. Harper & m. Studebaker); John Joseph (b.1847-d.1928); Mary (b.1849-d1922); James K. (b.1851-d1927) and Charles F. (b.1854-d.1927) Milburn.
In 1849 Milburn and family moved to Mishawaka and entered into business with Adoniram B. Judson, a merchant, first as a clerk and then as a junior partner in A.B. Judson & Co., a prosperous general store located at the corner of Main and Vistula Streets.
In 1853 Milburn purchased an interest in A. Eberhart & Co., (Adolphus Eberhardt b.1824-d.1893) which was commonly known as the Mishawaka Wagon Works, after which it conducted business in the style of Milburn, Eberhart & Beatty. Eberhardt’s factory was located on the south bank of the St. Joseph River, approximately where Riverfront Park resides today. Milburn’s 1867 investment in the Mishawaka Hydraulic Co. helped ensure that the wagon works continued to receive a portion of the motive power generated by the dam located just downstream from the factory.
G. W. Hawes' Indiana State Gazetteer and Business Directory for 1858 & 1859 continued to list the two firms as separate entities:
In 1858 Milburn bought out Eberhart & Beatty and reorganized as George Milburn & Co., and on August 23, 1869, incorporated the Milburn Wagon Company for$100,000. The incorporators were: George Milburn, Thomas H. Milburn and John Milburn.
During the short-lived Mormon Rebellion Milburn was awarded a large number of wagons for the United States Government, at which time firm’s employees numbered 100. Unable to fulfill the entire contract in the specified time Milburn turned to a fledgling South Bend, Indiana firm to help complete it.
The South Bend wagon builder dated to 1852 when brothers Henry and Clement Studebaker started a blacksmith shop in South Bend. In 1857 their younger brother John Mohler bought out Henry’s share in the business which was subsequently reorganized as C. & J.M. Studebaker.
Midway through 1857 the Studebakers became a subcontractor to Milburn after the latter firm was awarded a contract to supply the US government with wagons to be used in the Army’s war against Mormon settlers in the Utah Territory which took place between May 1857 and July 1858. Unable to complete the order on time, Milburn enlisted the Studebakers to complete the additional 150 wagons needed to fulfill the order.
The profits derived from the Milburn subcontract materially accelerated the growth of the Studebaker Bros. and in 1858 they constructed their first brick manufactory in South Bend. Further contracts were awarded both Milburn and Studebaker and by the end of the Civil War, the two firms were the largest employers in the South Bend-Mishawaka area.
Coincidentally George Milburn’s eldest daughter Anna had recently become infatuated with one of the Studebakers. Following the untimely passing of Clement Studebaker’s first wife, Charity M. Bratt (1831-1863), he became acquainted with George Milburn’s eldest daughter, Anna (Milburn) Harper (1842-1916) who also had recently lost her 23-yo husband, J.W. Harper, and on September 13, 1864 Clement Studebaker and Anna (Milburn) Harper were married.
As a teenager George Milburn’s nephew and namesake, George Milburn (#2 - born in Ontario, Canada, May 13, 1839 to his brother, John Milburn and his wife Martha [Rose] Milburn), went to work at his uncle’s Mishawaka dry goods. He remained with his uncle after the purchase of the wagon works, and acquired a partial interest in the firm during the Civil War – remaining until 1876 when he disposed of his interests in the firm and relocated to Bristol, Indiana where he invested in an orchard and became a well-known fruit vendor. From 1890-1895 he served as Elkhart County auditor, and was likewise a member of the village board of Bristol for a number of years and was treasurer of the school board for nine years.
In 1867 George Milburn (I) invested money in the Mishawaka Hydraulic Co. (estab. 1867) whose incorporation was to "keep up the dam, water power, races, banks and other matters connected with the power, and to sell and dispose of water power to other manufactures", and was also a stockholder in the Oliver Plow Works and Mishawaka’s Milburn House, one of the ‘best conducted hotels between Detroit and Chicago’.
On March 4, 1871, George Milburn, William A. Lewis and William Moffitt organized the Hollow Axle Manufacturing Company, a $20,000 firm organized to produce Lewis’ patented hollow axles for railway cars, wagons and trucks.
During the following year Milburn asked the city fathers to help pay for a railroad siding that would connect the plant to the main line of the Lake Shore Railroad. Milburn felt that without it he would be unable to compete with his competition, which were - for the most part – all located or built adjacent to a railroad.
Milburn’s proposal was defeated, and he began a regional search for more suitable quarters for his growing business. On September 5, 1872 a large fire destroyed 32 buildings in Mishawaka’s business district causing over $80,000 worth of damage, further hastening Milburn’s resolve to move.
Several proposals were entertained, and Milburn eventually accepted a proposal from a group of Toledo, Ohio businessmen who included W. J. Wells, F. J. King and C. P. Griffith. A stock offering was proposed and within the year a reported $300,000 was pledged by Toledo’s citizens.
A company was organized, June 14, 1873, consisting of George Milburn, John Milburn, George R. Hudson, J. H. Whitaker, W.W. Griffith, A. L. Kelsey and William Baker, all of whom were directors. The original officers of the company were: George Milburn, president; J. H. Whitaker, vice-president; G. R. Hudson, secretary and treasurer.
On June 24, 1873 the city of Toledo offered a 32-acre parcel to the new enterprise in Auburndale, a newly established western suburb just west of the city line. Purchased for a discounted $30,000, the Monroe Street property was located adjacent to the Detroit branch of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad, and a groundbreaking ceremony took place on September 9, 1873.
The firm’s growth suffered two setbacks at the end of 1873 that postponed the opening of the plant by an entire year. The first was a devastating storm that struck Toledo on December 4, 1873 that caused a collapse of a large portion of the new plant, entailing a loss of over $20,000.
The second was the ‘Panic of 1873’, a major depression connected to the September, 18, 1873 failure of Jay Cooke & Co., the largest banking house in the United States. Wages and prices dropped dramatically during the next several months resulting in the failure of 23,000 businesses which caused 3,000,000 Americans to join the ranks of the unemployed.
Although the Milburn Works finished the year ending July 1, 1873, with $446,652 in sales, the next fiscal year’s profits were almost non-existent as order for new wagons seemingly ground to a halt. Milburn cut production in half and tightened the belt wherever they could, and by the spring of 1875, business had recovered to pre-Panic levels and the new plant in Toledo was 100% operational.
May 13, 1875 Goshen Times:
October 9, 1875 Scientific American:
The 1876 Toledo Directory lists Milburn as follows:
In September of 1876 Milburn opened an official factory branch in Nashville, Tennessee at 368 and 370 Front Street to handle the firm’s growing business south of the Mason Dixon Line.
On September 29, 1876 a massive fire destroyed the factory’s main building, causing a loss of $168,000, of which only $84,000 was covered by insurance. A second fire struck a portion of the very same building in December of 1877, causing significantly less damage. Thankfully the lessons learned in the preceding calamities made fire prevention a priority, and the wagon works would remain conflagration-free for most of the next half century.
The Wagon works listing in the 1877 Toledo Directory follows:
Up to the year 1877, the company manufactured only wagons for farm use, but in that year buggies and spring wagons were added and during the next quarter century the line expanded to include farm wagons and carts, log-trucks, heavy city teaming gears, dump wagons, delivery wagons, drays of all kinds, and in the early 20th Century automobile bodies. Once source stated Milburn’s output in 1910 exceeded 30,000 vehicles, which included several thousand automobile bodies.
The 1879 Toledo Directory lists Milburn as follows:
During the year the Tubular Axle Co. had relocated from Mishawaka to Toledo setting up shop in a new facility located right across the street from the Wagon plant.
The two firm’s listings in the 1882 Toledo Directory follows:
Failing health caused the firm’s founder to retire from business in 1880, and he removed to Johnson county, Kansas, where he passed away on January 31, 1883. Milburn’s obituary appeared in the February 3, 1883 edition of the Goshen Independent:
A short synopsis of his life appeared in the February 8, 1883 issue of the Goshen Times:
By the end of the century Milburn had established branch houses in Albany, N.Y.; Nashville, Tenn.; Memphis, Tenn.; Batavia, N.Y., and Harrisburg, Pa. They also owned an Arkansas saw mill which furnished the vast majority of the lumber used by the factory.
Charles F. Milburn was born in Mishawaka, Indiana on May 5, 1854 to George and Barbara Ann (Stouffer) Milburn and his siblings included Henry M., Anna (Mrs. Clem Studebaker), John J., Mary J. (Foster), and James K. Milburn.
The youngest of the family, Charles was educated chiefly in the Pennsylvania Military College at Chester, and at the age of seventeen went to work as an apprentice wagonmaker in the shops of the Milburn Wagon Co. which by that time had removed itself from Mishawaka to Toledo, Ohio. He was made a partner in 1878 and superintendent of the works in 1880. When his father retired Charles remained at Toledo as superintendent of the factory and in 1888 was elected president of the firm.
He retired/resigned in 1896 and moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee were he became associated with W.J. Bass in the Milburn-Bass Wagon Company, which in 1898 was reorganized as the Chattanooga Wagon Company.
The firm won several lucrative contracts to manufacture wagons for the US Army during the Spanish-American War and its annual output of wagons was reported as upwards of 7,000.
On October 18, 1892, at Racine, Wisconsin, Charles F. Milburn married Miss Katharine Knapp, a daughter of Frederick and Catherine Knapp of that city. To the blessed union was born a son, Knapp Milburn, who, like his father, attended the Pennsylvania Military College eventually becoming a professional roadway engineer.
When Milburn President Charles F. Milburn and its Treasurer, George Hudson, resigned/retired in 1896, control of the firm was conveyed to Frank D. Suydam, a wealthy Toledo chair manufacturer and longtime Milburn director and shareholder. The news announced to the trade in the April 1896 issue of Engineering Mechanics:
Frank D. Suydam was born in Lebanon, Ohio, July 30, 1845, the son of Simon and Sarah (Dunlevy) Suydam. His earlier years were spent in Lebanon, Ohio, and his secondary education was acquired at Dennison University, in Granville, Ohio. He moved to Toledo, Ohio after leaving college in 1867 and became interested in the business of manufacturing chairs. In 1869 Suydam was elected president of the Toledo Bending Co., which position he held until his death.
Suydam acquired a substantial financial interest in the Milburn Wagon Co. when it moved to Toledo in 1873 and in 1876 was elected secretary, and in 1894 president of the firm, which office he held until his untimely death on April 17, 1911 after which his son, Horace W. Suydam (b.1872-d.1932) assumed Milburn’s presidency.
Just prior to Frank D. Suydam’s passing, Milburn’s capitalization was stated at $700,000, its officers: F. D. Suydam, president; T. W. Childs, vice-president; H. W. Suydam, secretary; and Frank Hafer, treasurer. The average number of men employed at the factory at the time ranged from 550 to 600.
Horace W. Suydam was born in Toledo, Ohio on September 26, 1872 to Frank D. and Mary W. Suydam. He graduated from Toledo’s Central High in 1890 and received a degree of electrical engineer from the University of Michigan in 1894. Upon his return to Toledo he joined the Toledo Bending Co. as its secretary and in 1896 became secretary of the Milburn Wagon Co., serving in that capacity until 1911, when he was elected president. It was under his term as president that Milburn entered the electric automobile manufacturing business.
Very little mention was made in the trades concerning Milburn’s automobile body building activities, the first mention appearing in the July 30, 1910 issue of Automobile Topics:
In addition to its production bodies for Overland, Pope and other regional manufacturers Milburn also produced bodies for the Toledo-based Ohio Electric Car Co. Two Toledo-based brothers, F.H. (Frederick Holmes) and H.P. (Henry P.) Dodge, were financially involved with both Milburn and Ohio Electric, with H.P. Dodge serving as Milburn’s treasurer and F.H. Dodge serving as Ohio Electric Co.’s president.
In 1910, the directors of both firms entered into negotiations to join forces in the production of a single brand electric car. The planned automobile did not materialize and Milburn vowed to produce its own electric automobile, however its debut was put on hold due to increased demand for the firm’s motor bodies.
In 1911 the firm received a substantial order from the Ford Motor Co. for enclosed delivery truck bodies for the upcoming 1912 Model T delivery truck – an order which was shared by the O.J. Beaudette Co. of Pontiac, Michigan. The Model T delivery van was not the sales success that Ford had hoped for and was discontinued after the 1912 model year.
Unbeknownst to many, the Ford Motor Company relied upon outside suppliers for most of its coachwork during its first quarter century. It’s hard to determine who made Ford’s first automobile bodies but soon after the Model T was introduced the names of various Michigan-based sheet-metal, millwork and body-building firms begin to appear on Ford’s supplier list.
Initially most of the Model T’s bodies were supplied by Ford's existing auto body suppliers C.R. Wilson (1903) and Everitt Brothers (1908). O.J. Beaudette (1910), Kelsey-Herbert Co. (1910), American Body Co. (1911), Hayes Mfg. Co.(1911) Milburn Wagon Co. (1911), Fisher Body Co.(1912), and the Kahler Co. (1915). Wm. Gray & Sons supplied Henry Ford’s Windsor assembly plant with automobile bodies from 1906-1912. Regardless of their origin, all of the Model T’s bodies were interchangeable; however the individual parts in a body would not necessarily fit a similar-looking body if it was made by a different manufacturer.
However, Milburn’s executives were perfectly happy selling the delivery truck bodies to third parties, namely the nation’s ever-expanding number of Ford dealers, and the firm placed a series of display ads in the auto trades – the following display advertisement appeared in the February, 1912 issue of the Cycle And Automobile Trade Journal:
A number of follow-up advertisements appeared thereafter, the following was placed in the August, 1913 issue of Cycle And Automobile Trade Journal:
Milburn’s electric car project became a priority at the start of 1914, and the firm hired a young freelance engineer named Karl Probst* (b.1883-d.1963) to handle the particulars.
After many months of testing, the Milburn Electric was announced to the trade in the September 30, 1914 issue of The Horseless Age:
Production of the Milburn commenced in early 1915, the January 21, 1915 issue of the Automobile reporting:
The Milburn was the lowest-priced electric of the time and much lighter than its competition. The most popular model was the closed doctor’s coupe which accounted for the majority of the 2,500 cars produced during its first two years on the market (1,000 cars in 1915 and 1,500 in 1916).
Two new models, the $1,685 Brougham, and the $1,995 Town Car, were introduced between late 1916 and early 1917. Like the coupe, the steering in the Brougham was controlled via a hinged tiller that dropped onto the driver’s lap from the left side of the interior. The Roadster and the Sedan had traditional steering wheels, while the Town Car owner could operate the vehicle via the steering wheel in the open front compartment or by using the tonneau-mounted tiller in the rear.
The August 1, 1917 issue of the Automobile Trade Journal introduced both models to the trade:
Early Milburns only had a useful range of 60 to 75 miles, a situation they hoped to rectify by the addition of easily replaceable battery packs, 1918 literature advertising ‘the batteries are now on rollers that operate on tracks, simply roll out the discharged ones and roll in the freshly charged set.’
Also introduced for 1918, was the Milburn Sedan which offered a more conventional look, a top speed of 30 mph and a range of up to 100 miles. It also marked the final appearance of the slow-selling $985 Milburn Light Delivery Truck.
President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith Bolling Galt, was an early proponent of electric vehicles and helped influence his purchase of a 1918 Milburn Electric as his personal transportation in and around the White House grounds. Her influence also extended to the Secret Service who added a number of Milburns to their motor pool during his second term in office.
For 1919, Milburn’s model lineup was streamlined, and the Light Brougham became the firm’s standard model. However the firm’s automobile body business continued to bring in the majority of its profits, and a 40,000 sq. ft. addition was constructed midway through 1919, the August 15, 1919 issue of the Commercial Car Journal reporting:
In late 1919 a massive fire destroyed a large portion of the Milburn factory, with losses amounting to $900,000, which included 30 completed electrics and hundreds of automobile bodies in various stages of construction. Production was transferred to a building on Grand Avenue, owned by Toledo University, which had been recently used to train Motor Transport Corps recruits during the First World War.
The Model 33 Taxicab was added to the all-electric Milburn lineup in 1920 as was the model 27D ¼-ton light delivery truck. A handful of Milburn Taxicabs were sold to Chicago and St. Louis liveries, but for all intents and purposes the age of the electric car had passed.
George H. Woodfield, Milburn’s chief body engineer resigned midway through the years, the July 1920 issue of the SAE Journal reporting:
Woodfield began his automotive career in 1904 as an apprentice at Burr & Company, coach builders at 209 W. 48th Street, New York City. He graduated from the Mechanics' Institute in New York as a carriage draftsman, and soon became engineer and floor manager for Burr & Company. While there, he designed custom bodies on imported car chassis for such notables as Diamond Jim Brady and Isidor Straus, the Macy magnate. He subsequently took a position with the New Haven Carriage Co., and from there went to Milburn where he assisted in the adoption of mass-production techniques to the manufactured of production automobile bodies. His contribution to the firm included one of the first window-lifts and an adjustable driver's seat. Woodfield left the employ of Hale & Kilburn in 1923 to take a position as body-engineer with Buffalo, New York’s Brunn & Co.
To help finance the reconstruction of the firm’s main factory, Milburn increased its capitalization to $1 million in 1921. 600 of the firm’s 800-man workforce were employed in the manufactured of automobile bodies, the remaining 200 were tasked with constructing Milburn Electrics. The news was announced in the June 18, 1921 issue of Automobile Topics:
Milburn hoped that a reintroduction of their electric ½ and 1-ton commercial vehicles might bring in more business, an article in the January 12, 1922 issue of The Automobile stating:
Further details were included in the February 16, 1922 issue of the same publication (The Automobile):
The firm’s new modern body plant soon drew the attention of Milburn’s largest customer, and early in 1923 Milburn’s directors accepted an offer to sell it to General Motors Corporation, the February 8, 1923 issue of Automotive Industries providing the details:
Evidently, the extra capacity wasn't needed as GM offered the Milburn factory for sale just months after in August of 1923.
Meanwhile, Milburn's remaining Grand Avenue operations continued to produce small numbers of trucks and a few remaining Model 27L Broughams with parts on hand. A lack of orders for the firm’s obsolete electric vehicles caused the firm to withdraw from business at the end of 1923.
However, a Milburn subsidiary, called the Dura Mechanical Hardware Co. survives today as a subsidiary of Magna International. Formed in 1911 to create hardware for use by Milburn's automobile body building operations, they shared the same officers and address (3140 Monroe Ave.) as Milburn. Its early products consisted of window lifts, window regulators and their related hardware.
The firm's window lifts proved popular with other manufacturers and were soon adopted by Dodge, Ford, Hudson, Hupmobile, Jordan, Moon, Nash, Packard, Studebaker and Willys-Overland. It's product line mirrored that of the Ternstedt Mfg. Co., which was organized by General Motors in 1917 to supply its various divisions with interior hardware.
In April of 1922, the Dura Mechanical Hardware Co. was reorganzied as the Dura Co. and the firm branched out into the manufacture of a wide range of automobile interior hardware and fixtures which included lamps, clocks, handles and door pulls, although window regulators continued to be their main product.
The firm also offered a line of home funishing accessories and industrial designer Helen Dryden worked as the firm's chief stylist, being replaced by future Ford stylist George Walker in 1929.
In 1936, Dura was purchased by the Detroit Harvestor Co. who reorgnaized it as the Detroit Dura Co. and during the next decade a satellite facility was built in Adrian, Michigan. The firm added convertible top mechanisms to its product line and the firm was reorganized as the Dura Corp. whose Dura Convertible Systems subsidiary manufactured convertible tops for Chrysler (Lebaron), Dodge (Viper), Ford (Mustang) and Chevrolet (Corvette).
Dura eventually relocated its manufacturing facilites to Aguascalientes, Mexico, and its plants in Toledo, Ohio and Adrian, Michigan were shut down. In 2007 , its main competitor, Magna International, purchased the Dura operation and merged it with its CTS (Car Top Systems) subsidiary. The firm continues to manufacture convertible tops for Notrh American Automakers in Mexico.
Milburn Wagon Co.’s plant at 3134 Monroe St., Toledo, Ohio was eventually raised and the property is now the home of Lucas County’s Dept. of Job and Family Services.
© 2013 Mark Theobald for Coachbuilt.com