Friday, May 20, 2011

Studebaker's Shop

El Dorado County August 29, 1993

For $10 apiece, young ‘Wheelbarrow Johnny’ (1833-1917) built his innovative versions on contract for the guys that owned the blacksmith shop here on Main Street, and they were popular. Like most everyone that was making good profit in business, he deposited his money with Adams & Co. Word of their financial collapse got to him and rather than take it lying down, he laid in wait in the dark of a Placerville night and sure enough, he caught the bankers wheeling gold out the back of their building, most likely in one of his wheelbarrows. At gunpoint Studebaker got his $3000 back and saved himself from the panic of 1854 that rocked California.

With the knowledge of how to build a better wagon for westward travel, he moved back to his native Indiana and went into business with his brothers by 1858…just in time for the civil war and the government contracts that followed. Before ever making a car, they produced 750,000 vehicles. He returned for a visit to Placerville to a hero’s welcome and great fanfare, garlands of flowers, and banners reading ‘Glad Your Back.’ Today, you can still put your entry in the John M. Studebaker International Wheelbarrow Races at the El Dorado County Fair.

Sometimes a song will just about write itself, as if it was already there. It would be nice if they all came about like that. The concept of generations with different Studebaker vehicles came from a Saudi saying my grandfather picked up while there that ‘My father drove a camel, I drive a Cadillac, my son drives an airplane, and my grandson will drive a camel’…or something to that effect. The melody is loosely based on a traditional fiddle song called ‘The Ways of the World’. 

STUDEBAKER                     © Radio Flier Music

I’m a 49’er in Hangtown
Here for a day or two
Need a wheelbarrow to push around
The dirt I’m a-diggin’ through

Well there’s a wheelbarrow
That’s the best by far they say
Make’s ‘em deep and narrow
The wheelbarrow Johnny way

Chorus) And I’ll push my Studebaker
Up and down the hills
Push my Studebaker
From the mine to the ten stamp mill
Push my Studebaker
From the ten stamp mill
Push my Studebaker
Full of gold to Placerville

He moved back to Indiana
And he’s makin’ wagons fine
For the trip to California
Got a whole assembly line

Well my son is a-movin’ west
Needs the best dang wagon made
Son, there’s one that makes the test
The wheelbarrow Johnny way

And he’ll ride that Studebaker
Up and down the hills
Ride that Studebaker
No finer wagon built

Old John, he did make her
No wagon built as well
Ride that Studebaker
All the way to Placerville

My grandson is a-comin’ north
And wants to take the wheel
To visit me he’ll set forth
In a brand new automobile

Well grandson, what you need
The best car that is made
Its agreed no car exceeds
The wheelbarrow Johnny way

And he’ll drive that Studebaker
Up and down the hills
Drive that Studebaker
No finer car is built
Old John he did make her
No car is built as well
Drive that Studebaker
All the way to Placerville

Formerly on the wall of a building that is no longer around, the marker now sits in the corner of a Starbucks patio

Plaque inscription: NO. 142 STUDEBAKER'S SHOP (SITE OF) - This shop was built in the early 1850s. The front part housed a blacksmith shop operated by Ollis and Hinds, and John Mohler Studebaker rented a part of the rear. Here he had a bench and sort of woodworking shop where he repaired and worked on wagon wheels and the like. A little later he began to make wheelbarrows for the miners' use. He became engaged in the making of ammunition wagons for the Union Army - from that grew his extensive wagon and carriage business and, eventually, the automobile business.
Location: 543 Main St, Placerville
Google maps: 38.729313,-120.7953

Note: After being taught by ‘Uncle Dave’ Frey (of the song, Moonlight Motor Inn fame) to drive in Idyllwild, California at age eleven, a 1947 Studebaker flatbed truck was this writer’s first ride. His motive was that by baiting me with the opportunity to drive a real vehicle, all that had to be done was drive it down the road about a half mile and fill the flatbed with sand, and then bring it back. The magic of solo control and wind-in-the-face speeds of 20 miles per hour through the split and levered windshield wore off quickly.

Then there was the Chicken Hawk. In 1953, Studebaker came out with a landmark aerodynamically styled car that remains contemporary even today. They were called ‘Champion’ ‘Starliner’ and ‘Starlight’, and evolved through the fifties as ‘Silver Hawk’, ‘Power Hawk’, and ‘Golden Hawk’, till they finally piled so much chrome and goofy add-ons to it that it became pretty ugly. Around 1965, and in the heart of this writer’s life in the drag racing world, a friend of a friend associate had taken one of these and developed what may remain one of the most unique single purpose vehicles ever concocted. This black primered pre rat rod special Studebaker had welded to its frame a two foot extension beyond the front bumper with a heavy six inch pipe that sat low to the ground and served as ram, with the sole purpose of making 60 mph runs at free standing shopping carts, strategically placed like a goldfish in an Oscar tank. In perspective it worked like a pitching wedge hitting a golf ball. Every couple of months or so a call would come in that the Chicken Hawk would be making a night run with details of time and place. Gotta admit, though certainly a destructive act, there was nothing quite like witnessing the precision of a Chicken Hawk v. shopping cart event, as the tossed cart flipped skyward with the Chicken Hawk slipping underneath and evaporating into the darkness.

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