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Wagon renaissance: horse-drawn history draws a crowd in Alabama town.

Not many visible clues remain of the Florence Wagon Co. factory at the end of South Richards Street in Florence, Ala. The company opened in 1889 and at one time claimed to be North America's second largest wagon maker, producing 15,000 horse-drawn wagons a year.

Today, though, the dilapidated walls of the factory are crumbling down to the vegetation-covered ground, and railroad tracks that once connected the firm to the rest of the world are abandoned and barely visible. The factory is gone -- but not forgotten.

The Florence Wagon Co. has undergone a renaissance of attention in recent years. Much of the renewed interest is the result of a book written by Florence resident and local historian Jane Johnson Hamm and titled Florence Wagon Co. Memories & More. The book chronicles the history and memories of the firm and its employees, and has inspired the formation of the Florence Wagon Club, the Florence Wagon Works Celebration parade and the establishment of the local South's Wagon Shop, where wagons are actually restored.

Willard South is owner and operator of South's Wagon Shop. "There aren't that many people restoring wagons and not many of these steel-wheeled wagons are left," Willard says. "We might be the only ones in the country restoring Florence wagons; as a hobby, there's few people out there doing what we do." Of the 15 wagons that Willard has restored so far, seven have been Florences. He's also helped his brother John "Buck" South do two, and his cousin Rufus do one.

The restoration process for the wagons usually requires total reconstruction of all the wood parts and likely some of the metal fittings as well. Unlike metal on tractors, the wood on wagons quickly rots away, so finding pre-existing parts simply may not be possible. New wood must be cut from patterns taken from the few wagons that are found in fairly good condition. On some wagons, figuring out the correct pattern is a challenge because many old-time brands do not have identifying model numbers cast into the axle.

Florence wagons are an exception. Willard says they have "Flo." cast on each axle plate, along with "2 3/4" or "3," which identifies the size in inches of the wagon axle skein -- a thimble-like covering on the end of each axle that protects the axle-wheel connection.

Iron axles and other metal parts are sandblasted, primed and painted. "In some cases," Willard says, "some of the iron you have to make because that is missing also. It's hard work, but I enjoy it." Then, the wagons are reassembled from scratch.

The 1923 company catalog shows a variety of wagon styles, all termed "light running," as well as a number of accessories. The term "light running" is explained: "Why the Florence Wagon Runs Light: It is made mechanically correct, with just the proper 'tuck' and 'gather,' which insures a perfect track and light draft. This gives it the loud 'cluck' so dear to the good teamster."

Styles listed include one- and two-horse road wagons, farm, lumber and log wagons, and combinations of several of the above. There were plantation and railroad dump carts, and cut-under drays, which were bigger than the road wagons and used for heavier hauling. And according to a 1974 newspaper report included in Hamm's book, small replicas of the original wagons, designed to be pulled by goats, also were sold.

Among the wagons Willard has restored to date is a Florence road wagon, which he bought from 78-yearold Ed Haraway of Rogersville, Ala. Ed told him he was 5 years old when his father bought the wagon new from the Bettenfield Hardware Store in Rogersville.

The elder Haraway used the wagon until he died, then Ed used it until he gave up fanning. When he contacted Willard, after reading about Willard's restoration work in a newspaper report, he was ready to sell.

"The wagon was in pretty bad shape," Willard recalls, "but we bought it and restored it." All the wood had to be newly made, but the iron was all there; it just needed to be cleaned up and painted. Willard sent out for the wheels: "We get the Amish people in Ethridge, Tenn., to build our wheels because they build them like people used to do." Once the wagon was all back together, Willard painted it in its original colors, based on old Florence advertisements.

As he continued to restore wagons, he says, more people heard about what he was doing and called, like Ed, offering to sell their wagons. "Sometimes, people would call us and want to give us an old wagon just because they wanted to see it restored."

Willard is a founding member of the Florence Wagon Club, which now has about 30 members who collect and help restore these old wagons. He says all together, he thinks the club has saved about 25 wagons; no one has any idea how many of the original wagons still exist.

The group puts on an annual wagon parade and celebration the third Saturday in May, which attracts wagons and people of all types. The five-year-old parade has grown every year, says Jane Hamm, who also is a member of the club. "The parade travels for five miles through town and then there is an awards ceremony, where ribbons and plaques are given out for categories such as 'best restoration' and 'most original, unrestored wagon'." Last year, 52 wagons were entered, 12 of them Florences.

"A lot of people who own these wagons don't have any idea that they are so important to this area," Jane says. "Sometimes they are tucked in a barn, or somewhere on the farm just rotting away. These wagons put this town on the map and that's historical."

For more information about the Florence Wagon Co., contact Jane Johnson Hamm at 210 Knight Bridge Road, Florence, AL 35630; (205) 764-8370, or Willard South, South's Wagon Shop, 2073 County Road 154, Florence, AL 35633; (256) 766-6476.

RELATED ARTICLE: New business comes to town

The Florence Wagon Co. opened in 1889 in Florence, Ala., when owner A.D. Bellamy moved his Atlanta Wagon Works to town. Capital stock was sold to investors and a wagon manufacturing facility was constructed on the south bank of the Tennessee River in east Florence. There, the company was easily accessible to both boats and trains, which allowed iron and raw timber to be shipped in, and finished products to be shipped out to major national markets and even abroad, including to France during World War I.

Florence wagons were of high-quality craftsmanship. According to a May 21, 1958, Florence Times newspaper, to own a new Florence wagon in the old days, with its green bed and red wheels, was equivalent to driving the swankiest automobile in the 1950s.

By 1904, wagon sales were soaring, and the company employed 175 people. Peak annual production of 15,000 wagons ranked the company first in the United States and second in North America, behind Canada's Studebaker Wagon Works.

The company's success was due primarily to the popularity of the "light running" quality of its wagons, according to a U.S. Department of the Interior National Register of Historic Places document. Company catalogs detail the different models and various combinations of parts and accessories.

At its height, the company owned its own light plant and water tower, and had equipped its own fire brigade, reportedly "able to quench a fire in about one and a half minutes after the alarm sounded," according to Clifford S. Hallman, a former employee, as quoted in Florence Wagon Co. Memories & More.

Wagon production continued strong into the 1930s, when the internal combustible engine became the wagon company's undoing. Mass-produced, motorized trucks and tractors replaced horse-drawn wagons, and the Florence company's sales dropped off. In an attempt to remain competitive, the company switched its production to lawn chairs and swings, and by 1941, the operation moved to Hickory, N.C., but it never reopened there.

If you write it, they will come

Much of what is known about the history and the popularity of the Florence Wagon Co. is the result of research done by Jane Johnson Hamm for her book, Florence Wagon Co. Memories & More. Looking to preserve the memory and history of the company's aging former employees, Jane chronicled their memories in the book and did additional research on the town of Florence, and how its growth paralleled that of the wagon company.

First published in 1997 and stocked at Young's Welding Supply in Florence, "the book sold like hotcakes," Jane recalls, "and everyone took an interest in the Florence Wagon Co." Four hundred copies were gone in just days, and in time, a second edition was published, too.

"That's how I got started in the hobby," Florence resident Willard South says. "I never paid attention to wagons until I read that book. Then after I read it, I started restoring wagons." Willard's decision to start restoring wagons was an important one because as his work got under way, other people joined him to help. Soon, the Florence Wagon Club was formed, and Terry Young, a club member, wagon restorer and the owner of Young's Welding Supply, suggested an annual parade. Today, that event, called the Florence Wagon Works Celebration, is going into its sixth year, and club members are seeking out more old wagons of all types to preserve, restore -- and parade.
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Title Annotation:South Wagon Shop owner Willard South restores farm wagons in Florence, Alabama
Author:Hollis, Scott
Publication:Farm Collector
Geographic Code:1U6AL
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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