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The workers of Springfield Wagon Co. in the late 1800s beat tough conditions to make the company nationally known.
The workers of Springfield Wagon Co. in the late 1800s beat tough conditions to make the company nationally known.

After 5: The Age of Ag and Industry

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Recession is top of mind today, and it was in the 1870s, too.

A walk through Springfield’s history on the third floor of old City Hall reveals that there was a powerful recession – called “The Panic of 1873” – that nearly brought Springfield’s most powerful company to its knees.

Springfield Wagon Co. stood as tall as local companies could stand on a national level, and that recession gave a jolt that almost ended in bankruptcy. The company rebounded, though, and in 1876 beat its Indiana-based national competitor in what was dubbed “the Studebaker challenge.”

The Studebaker wagon team didn’t show for an agreed upon test of endurance. Wagon works was the area’s second largest industry next to the railroad 1872–1941, when Springfield Wagon – then Springfield Trailiner Co. – sold.

Just a few years before “The Panic,” the oldest continuously operating company in Springfield was founded. Springfield Grocer Co. got its start in dry goods in 1865, and it hasn’t missed a beat since, most notably creating the Yellow Bonnet brand of coffee.

These and plenty of other factoids and pictures cover the walls of the History Museum for Springfield-Greene County in old City Hall, which itself gets a historic nod for being built in 1894 with local limestone from Phenix Quarry. The exhibit, “Made in Springfield: When industry and agriculture reigned,” runs through Nov. 13.

Well-preserved historic photos give glimpses of the powerful businesses lining Springfield’s – and North Springfield’s – streets. Some are shown in then-and-now fashion.

For instance, the site of The Creamery Arts Center was originally Anthony Tobacco Co., a leader in the $10,500 local tobacco industry that employed 24 in 1870. The Producers Produce Co. sign is still visible today on its 501 N. Main Ave. building most recently used by Willow Brook Foods for poultry processing.

From one beverage maker to another, Nehi Corp.’s building on North Benton now houses Ozarks Coca-Cola Dr Pepper’s service department.

In the agriculture industry, the $41,000 grain and milling segment was the largest, according to the 1870 Census. Tomato canning was strong, too, and survived well into the 1960s before giving way to cattle grazing.

One of the larger farms belonged to A.L. Campbell. His 210 acres out on East Sunshine Street contained 100 acres of fruit trees – 4,720 of them of the apple variety.

The local agriculture industry declined, however, with the rise of national cooperatives and improvements in shipping and refrigeration.

Pictures of company employees are perhaps the most striking because they give a snapshot of
the culture and show the surprising number of people who worked for a single plant.

“What few machines there were, it took two or three people to work them,” says museum Executive Director John E. Sellars. “There was no automation.”

The exhibit is by no means flashy, but that captures the essence of the time perfectly.

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