Keener wagons, buggies, and Studebakers

Leiterwagen (hay wagon) in Germany. By Franzfoto — Own work (Wikipedia).
“And my car back then, a Studebaker as I recall, was powered, as are most of all means of transportation and other machinery today, and electric power plants and furnaces, by the most abused, addictive, and destructive drugs of all: fossil fuels.” — Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country (2005)

Most people are familiar with the German roots of the best made and best-selling luxury automobiles in the world today. Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (Bavarian Motor Works) was founded in 1916, but another famous automaker with German roots was founded in South Bend, Indiana on February 16, 1852. The Studebaker family arrived in Philadelphia in 1736 (Erskine, 1918), two years before my sixth great-grandfather — Casper — arrived with his wife. John Studebaker was apparently a blacksmith and wagonmaker who taught his five sons how to make wagons. Later the Studebakers would build keener automobiles through a process of testing at the first model test facility for an American automobile company (Wikipedia).

The original Studebaker wagon shop would eventually expand to help meet the needs of both the California Gold Rush and the American Civil War. The Studebakers were Dunkard Brethren (conservative German Baptists) who were anti-war, and one of the five sons (Henry) would return to farming before the other brothers expanded distribution in 1860 to meet the needs of the Union Army. My own family — while certainly not famous or even successful in the transportation industry in the long run — also has a connection to wagons in the Civil War, but on the side of the Confederacy.

As discussed in my eBook, Alexander Keener (another descendant of Casper) served with the “Catawba Braves.” He was on detached duty as an ambulance driver for several years before being captured at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run (Virginia) and confined for several months at Point Lookout (Maryland) before returning home to his young wife Ruth. Alexander would later serve as one of the first commissioners of my home town.

A Civil War Ambulance. By Discerning History (YouTube).

In his first volume on the history of Catawba County, Gary Freeze includes some of the correspondence between Alexander and Ruth during the war. For example, in January 1864 he wrote to her: “I hope this miserable war will soon close.” And then in early 1865, from Petersburg: “[T]imes is very gloomy” (page 185). Ruth repeatedly urged her husband to dessert, but he always declined — while once adding: “I shall go one day or the other before long.” But as Freeze, notes, he never did (page 192).

Six years after the Studebaker wagon shop opened in South Bend, my great-grandfather — George Washington (GW) Keener — was born. According to an account by John Carpenter, GW also worked with buggies and wagons. My father used to take me to see Mr. Carpenter when I was young. He would tell us about our family history and show us gold nuggets from local mines. I wish I had taken notes. 😟

Mr. George Keener ran the Livery Stable and made available buggies and horses for rent, or you could also hire a driver. The freight was also hauled by teams and wagons owned by Mr. Keener. The going prices for a trip to Newton in a buggy with a driver was $1.00. Mr. Keener started the business at his residence on West Boyd St. and later built a fairly large building on the lot where Mauney Insurance now stands.” — John F. Carpenter
Snip: The Newton Observer, February 23, 1917 — via

According to Mr. Carpenter, GW was apparently interested in an even keener means of transportation and almost went into the aviation business after two brothers, also of German (and Swiss) ancestry, named Orville and Wilbur conducted their famous experiments at Kitty Hawk. Unfortunately my immediate family has no photos of GW or his livery stable, or any other artifacts from the time, but hopefully some of my relatives still do and will let me make copies for the second edition of my book (hint, hint…)? 😉

“Mr. [Barney] Spratt was very interested in aviation along with Mr. D.M. Carpenter. So they decided to buy some ashen lumber, and get Mr. Keener to process it, and they together would go into the aviation business. Unfortunately, when the wood, piano wire, turn buckles, etc. were all on hand, and stored at Mr. Keener’s business, a fire hit the business and among other things, destroyed the material for the aviation project. Needless to say that was the end of aviation venture. — John F. Carpenter
Snip: The Newton Enterprise, August 3, 1915 — via

On the topic of keener methods of transportation, I should also mention another famous German-American and former member of the Nazi Party and the SS who built the rocket that took us to the moon. He was recruited to the United States after the war along with over a thousand other German scientists, engineers, and technicians as part of Operation Paperclip. Wernher von Braun would become religious later in his life and met both Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr, but prior to coming to Amerika, he had — apparently reluctantly — made a Faustian bargain with the Nazis and built rockets for Germany with the help of slave labor (Wikipedia).

“It is hellish. My spontaneous reaction was to talk to one of the SS guards, only to be told with unmistakable harshness that I should mind my own business, or find myself in the same striped fatigues! … I realized that any attempt of reasoning on humane grounds would be utterly futile.” — Wernher von Braun (Stuhlinger and Ordway, 1994)

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