US Body & Forging is best known for the thousands of Dodge and Plymouth station wagons built by the firm in their Frankfort and Tell City, Indiana factories through 1950.
US Body & Forging was more accurately a trade name used by the USHCO Mfg Co. a Buffalo, New York truck body builder that was formed in 1902 as the U.S. Hame Co. U.S. Hame was the result of a consolidation of two 19th century hame and saddlery manufacturers, the United Hame Co. of Buffalo, New York and the Consolidated Hame Co. of Andover, New Hampshire.
A hame is one of the two curved wooden or metal pieces of a harness that fits around the neck of a horse of other draft animal to which the traces of the reins are attached, and US Hame and its antecedents manufactured hundreds of thousands of them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Clarence Edgar Carr (1853-1931) graduated from Dartmouth College in 1875 with a law degree and, following a number of years in practice, formed the Consolidated Hame Co. with his brother in 1883. The firm’s factory was located in Carr’s home town of Andover, New Hampshire, and ran its own mill in Sunapee, NH.
When Consolidated merged with United Hame Co. in July of 1902, Carr remained in charge of the Andover operations. Carr was a life long Democrat and ran for Governor in 1908 & 1910, followed by an unsuccessful bid for the US Senate in 1912. He retired from US Hame Co. in 1912 and devoted the rest of his life to local causes such as civil defense, railroad consolidation and tax reform.
United Hame Co. the manufacturer of “Buffalo Wood Hames”, was headed by O.P. Letchworth, a relative of the Buffalo millionaire environmentalist, William Pryor Letchworth, who co-founded Pratt & Letchworth, a large Buffalo-based manufacturer of saddlery hardware, rings, buckles, trees, and hames.
O.P. was also an avid yachting enthusiast and operated his own steam yacht, the Alcina along the Niagara River. He was also a major stockholder in the Great Lakes Engineering Co., one of the nation’s largest ship builders.
According to a January 27th, 1872 article in the New York Times; “Pratt & Letchworth were… “the largest manufacturers of saddlery hardware in the United States. The business is mainly confined to the making of saddlery hardware, rings, buckles, trees, hames, & c.”
Pratt & Letchworth are best remembered today as the manufacturers of a line of highly detailed cast-iron horse-drawn military toys produced in the late 1890s. Pristine examples have been known to fetch as much as $100,000.
Following Pratt & Letchworth’s takeover of Buffalo Malleable Steel in 1890, O.P. Letchworth created United Hame Co. to focus attention on the firm’s successful line of horse collars, hames and other saddlery hardware. By the turn of the century, O.P. was running both Pratt & Letchworth and United Hame.
United Hame built a new factory at 100 Tonawanda St. in 1900 and merged with Clarence Edgar Carr’s Consolidated Hame, two years later, forming the U.S. Hame Co.
A satellite hickory mill and factory was established in Tell City, a small southern Indiana town built along the northern bank of the Ohio River.
In its early years, U.S. Hame prospered, but during the mid-teens, sales of carriage-related hardware began a precipitous decline resulting in the 1918 closure and sale of its Sunapee and Andover, New Hampshire operations.
Another Buffalo firm, the American Body Co. was enjoying some success in the automobile body business so the firm’s partners followed their example, although they elected to follow the lead of Hercules Mfg Co., and manufacture bodies for light trucks, specifically the new Ford and Chevrolet ½- and 1-ton truck chassis.
Although some very early Ford trucks were sold with commercial bodies, Ford discontinued the program in 1913; leaving the field wide open for enterprising commercial body builders through 1924 when the first factory-built Ford Model T pick-ups were introduced.
Early catalogs and advertisements boasted: “USHCO Bodies – Made of Hickory, Bound with Steel”. Sales took of slowly at first but within a few short years a sales office and installation station was leased at 2935 Dunn Rd in Detroit, Michigan.
In the late 20s, US Hame Co. reorganized as USHCo Mfg. Co. with Robert U. Carr as president. A wholly-owned subsidiary, U.S. Body & Forging Co. Inc. was created to market the bodies across the country as USHCo no longer wished to be associated with their horse-drawn beginnings. For a good number of years, the firm was alternately known as USHCo, U.S. Body & Forging or sometimes both, so from this point on they shall be referred to as USHCo/USB&F. In addition to truck bodies the firm also manufactured drop-forged hand tools in their Buffalo factory during the 1920s. A popular item at the time was their 8”, 10”, 12” and 14” adjustable pipe wrenches that were built using Gottfrid C. Lawson’s patent.
USCHo/USB&F continued to market their commercial bodies in specialty catalogs that would be sent out to regional tuck dealers. the firm produced separate catalogs for Chevrolet and Ford light truck bodies during the twenties and thirties. Specialized ads for Chevrolet, Dodge Bros., Ford and Willys-Overland truck bodies also appeared in the Commercial Car Journal and other truck dealer-oriented publications.
Depot hacks, canopy express and station wagon bodies had been available from USCHo/USB&F since the late teens, and following the success of Ford's Model A station wagon program, salesmen from their Detroit sales office let it be known that USCHo/USB&F was interested in participating in any similar programs currently under consideration at other automakers.
Dodge’s first official woodie appeared in 1931, and was built by J.T. Cantrell of Huntington, Long Island on the Series DH commercial chassis. The vehicle returned for the 1932 model year but in 1933 USCHo/USB&F was awarded the contract to build the firm’s wooden station wagon bodies on the Dodge 1/2 ton light truck chassis.
The 1933 Dodge Westchester Semi-Sedan Suburban was one of the first station wagons to include roll-up windows in the front doors at no additional cost. PE cowl and chassis equipped with heavy duty springs were shipped from Detroit to Tell City where they were mated to assembled bodies then shipped to their final destination, or driven away by regional dealers.
The car’s sheet-metal was painted black which contrasted nicely with the white ash frame and cottonwood paneling. Three rows - the last two detachable - of leather-covered seats were mounted to the solid oak floors. An attractive red gumwood belt molding created the finishing touch for the rather pricey ($825 fob Tell City) vehicle.
The wagon returned the following year, although its name was shortened to "Westchester Suburban" in the 1934 Commercial chassis catalog. The versatile vehicle proved popular with country gentlemen, small businesses, hotels and resorts as well as the US Army.
Plymouth introduced their first USCHo/USB&F-built wagon in 1934. Built on the Model PE automobile chassis it was also called the Westchester Semi-Sedan Suburban and factory records indicate that only 35 examples were built. Plymouth continued to utilize the firm’s station wagon bodies on their 1935 and 1936 PJ-based Westchester Suburbans.
In 1937 Plymouth introduced their own commercial chassis which was designated the PT50 chassis. An USCHo/USB&F station wagon was available, and it shared the Westchester moniker that was common to the rest of Chrysler Corp.’s station wagons offerings. Side curtains came as standard equipment although glass windows could be ordered at extra cost. Three types of rear doors were available, a folding tailgate/upper lift gate, a folding tailgate with two side-hinged upper lift gates, or two side-hinged doors like those typically found on commercial van bodies. The following year the wagon went back to using a chassis from a Plymouth sedan, although it remained a commercial offering. Save for minor sheet metal changes, the Plymouth wagon remained basically unchanged for the 1939 model year although it was now known simply as the Suburban.
Plymouth’s 1940 Suburban was made part of their regular passenger car offerings where it would remain through 1950, when it adopted an all-steel body.
Although the Ohio River gave businesses in Tell City, Indiana easy access to a plentiful supply of water and shipping, it also created occasional catastrophes. The flood of January 29th, 1937 was the worst ever recorded, and many homes and businesses were destroyed, including USCHo/USB&F’s mill and body plant. The firm’s directors decided to relocate the plant to higher ground 235 miles away in Frankfort, Indiana, a small industrial city northwest of Indianapolis. Production was temporarily relocated to USCHo/USB&F s Buffalo facility.
Work on Studebaker’s K5 pickup-based 1937 Suburban Car had already commenced, so whatever millwork that could be salvaged from the Tell City plant was shipped to Buffalo where many of the Studebaker's bodies were assembled.
Although Baker-Raulang built Hudson’s first woodie, the 1936 Commercial Series 61 station wagon, the automaker contracted with USCHo/USB&F to produce all of the firm’s wagons from 1937-1939. USCHo/USB&F built the following models: 1937 Terraplane Commercial 70 Station Wagon, 1938 Terraplane Commercial 80 Station Wagon and the 1939 Hudson Commercial 90 Station Wagon. The contract was then taken over by J.T Cantrel, who built all of the firm’s wagons between 1940-1942.
In 1938, Dodge discontinued their truck-based station wagon and introduced a new automobile-based Westchester Suburban. Sales were disappointing and the wagon was discontinued the following year. Plymouth remained a customer through early 1942 when the USCHo/USB&F plants were converted to war work.
In the early 40s USCHo/USB&F built a small run of station wagon bodies for Willys. Five examples were built on the Model 440 chassis in 1940, and a second group of five in on 1941’s Model 441 chassis. All Willys Town & Country wagons featured a single door on the driver’s side and the beltline on the 1941 models differed from that of those built in 1940. At least one Mifflinburg-bodied 1941 Model 441 wagon is known to have been produced, but it was a one-off and not part of the official Willys wagon program.
In 1941, the Chrysler Division introduced their own station wagon, the legendary Town & Country. However, USCHo/USB&F would not build the vehicle nor supply the millwork used in its construction.
Following the war, USHCo/USB&F resumed production on Plymouth’s station wagons which were built through 1949. The arrival of Plymouth’s all-steel 1950 station wagon ended the firm’s long association with Chrysler Corp. and the firm withdrew from business during 1950.
Chrysler’s president, David A. Wallace was not attracted to the generic look of the USHCo/USB&F wagons and wanted to create a more luxurious and streamlined vehicle more befitting the prestigious Chrysler brand.
The Town & Country name had previously been used on an aerodynamic station wagon proposal submitted to Chrysler in 1939 by Boyertown Body’s Paul Hafer. Chrysler elected to build the body in-house, but liked the name and appropriated it for the new Chrysler wagons. Clearly influenced by Hafer’s submission, Chrysler’s designers came up with a striking fastback (aka barrelback) with a tapered steel roof and a unique clam-shell tailgate, paneled in Honduras mahogany surrounded by a frame of white ash.
A small Chrysler-controlled sawmill located in Helena, Arkansas called Pekin Wood Products - not Boyertown or USHCo/USB&F - was selected to provide the vehicle’s wooden components which were mated to a Chrysler Windsor chassis at Chrysler’s Jefferson Ave. plant in Detroit.
Pekin Wood Products was a West Helena, Arkansas lumber mill and factory dating from the 1920s that furnished Chrysler Corp. with wood boxes, crates and milled components. A controlling interest in the firm was purchase by Chrysler in the late 30s and along with USHCo/USB&F, the firm supplied wooden components for Plymouth’s 1939 and 1940 wagons. While USHCo/USB&F’s bodies were shipped completely assembled, Pekin supplied knocked down wagon bodies that were crated and shipped by rail to Plymouth’s Lynch Rd assembly plant in Detroit for final assembly.
During World War II, Pekin supplied Chrysler Corp.’s Mound Road truck plant with forty car loads of knocked-down wood boxes that were used to crate components destined for the European and Southeast Asian theatres.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com