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Wheels Keep on Turning By Barbara Sisney Daniel

The Springfield Wagon Co. industry that operated in Springfield, Missouri between the Civil War and World War II began as a business in 1870. It was reorganized by Homer Fellows as a principal stockholder in 1875, remained in the family and in Springfield until 1941 when it was sold to a lumber company in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The Springfield Wagon Company was one of two of the  most important industries in Springfield, MO, second only to the Frisco Railroad. Both businesses connected to the trade system reaching west and to the river boats.

Wheels were rolling and the country changing rapidly with men looking for new territory to settle.

The Springfield Wagon brought durability to its finished product unequal to any sold in the state. The workmanship was warranted with special attention paid to repairs which were done promptly.

A Kerr family came from Tennessee and settled in Greene County in 1838, in an area that would later would be known to the family as Republic, Missouri. From that family was a William James Kerr. Born in Missouri in 1845. The 1870 census listed him as a blacksmith, a very important trade to any community.

William James Kerr was also an inventor. His skills would contribute two inventions that were important to the Springfield Wagons and to corn planting. He invented the brakes used on thousands of Springfield Wagons. The brake could  be used to slow the wagon so it wouldn’t push against the horses and harness and to keep the wagon from rolling when parked on an incline. Over time, the Springfield Wagon Co. produced thousands of wagons with braking systems invented by William James Kerr.

My dad shopped for cow feed in Ava. I heard him when he came home one day all excited and told my mother he was going to buy a Springfield Wagon. The next time he went to Ava, he came home with the new wagon. We were so proud of it with its pretty John Deere green spring seat across the front and a strong built frame bed setting on four beautiful wooden spoked, iron-rimmed wheels.

Kerr’s other invention essential to the early settlers of the Ozarks was the hand made corn planter.

Corn was a vital part of life to the early settlers of the Ozark farms. It was food for their table and to feed their animals. The newly invented corn planter meant a better and more efficient way to plant corn. Instead of having to squat and bury a kernel of corn every foot or so in rows which took longer and was more strenuous on a hot day, the new invention made their job easier and faster. With this simple new corn planter, the farmer could double the amount of rows he could plant in a day.

I can remember both wagon and corn planter. My parents planted corn with the corn planter. We planted after dad plowed the field in the spring and gathered the corn at harvest time. They would pick the ears of corn and throw them into the Springfield Wagon bed. I remember the sounds of dried ears of corn hitting the wagon bed with the rapid rhythmic regularity. Then the corn would be hauled to the barn and thrown in the corn crib built at the end of the barn.

Dad had a nice wagon shed built to cover the Springfield Wagon and to protect it from the weather. My brother and sister would play inside the wagon during the hot summer days.

One time, someone gave us an umbrella. One day when the wind was blowing a nice gale, I thought to myself how nice it would be to take the umbrella and fly away. I took Billy and Shirley and headed to the wagon shed. We crawled into the wagon chattering in our child voices and our child imaginings. I had control of the umbrella. I crawled up onto the roof of the wagon shed and yelled down at my siblings to watch me fly. The umbrella popped open and the wind caught it and turned it wrong side out. I came flying down to the ground with disappointment written all over my face. My brother and sister laughing at me made the pain from the fall worse. The umbrella and my dream of flying were now gone with the wind.

The next time I flew, my husband and I took a plane to Seattle, Washington. It was a beautiful experience to be up above the mountains and fly through the clouds. When we were in the Seattle area, we visited a lovely seaport town named Sequim where the animals were trained for movies.

My umbrella flight was a long time before the flying nun played by Sally Fields became a favorite television series. And the Springfield Wagon was replaced by a truck. Springfield Wagons are now on the collectors’ lists. A few months back someone had a sale out toward Aurora, Missouri. Listed for sale, some like-new Springfield Wagons! They had been in storage for years. We couldn’t attend the sale, but we hoped Louis Allen was there. Louis lives at Rockaway Beach Missouri. He is a skilled carpenter and has a passion for building a replica of the Springfield Wagon. He is always on the search for wagon hardware.

If he can find the parts he needs, his dream is to build a road-worthy Springfield Wagon to recreate a portion of the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s trip to Mansfield, MO.

Times have changed. We no longer see the dust flying down the old wagon trails. Nor do we hear the sound of the wheels turning.

Early one morning when I was a little girl on my way to Whites Creek School, I heard a wagon coming and a man was singing an old gospel hymn. I went behind a bush to hide and wanted to see who the man was. It was our neighbor, Jess Brown, in his Springfield Wagon driving his team of horses at a slow gait.

Jess Brown was caught up in the beauty of the morning and singing “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder, I’ll Be There.” The wagon moved along and Jess never knew I had hid from him. Jess Brown was like family to us. One thing for sure, I believe Jess passed roll call and sailed right through the gates of Heaven escorted by the angels’ band.