Mitchell’s Road to Racine County
The year was 1834. Captain Gilbert Knapp had staked out a claim along the Root River in the Wisconsin Territory. In November, he built a small cabin (near what is now Lake Avenue); thus becoming a permanent resident and one of the founders of what is now the City of Racine.
That same year, one hundred miles to the South, a twenty-four year old immigrant from Scotland settled in Fort Dearborn, Illinois. Henry Mitchell and Margaret, his wife of two years, brought with them a complete set of tools for building wagons. At age 16, Henry had been apprenticed as a wheelwright and spent seven years learning the wagon building trade in his native town of Fifeshire, Scotland.
Fort Dearborn, later to be known as Chicago, had a population of 300. Henry and Margaret stayed for four years before moving north to the Wisconsin Territory to be closer to the large stands of oak and other hardwoods necessary for wagon building.
Southport, later to be known at Kenosha, had the necessary old growth timber lands as well as being a port town. This was a necessity as wagon orders were carried by ship prior to the introduction of railways and functional roads in the area.
Mitchell Wagon Works Founded
Henry remained in Southport for fifteen years (1838-1853). His wagon and farm implement shop gained a reputation for building the sturdiest farm wagons and the sharpest plows in the area. This was the start of what was to become the standard sales philosophy of all Mitchell endeavors: introducing new products and expanding the sales territory.
In 1853, he sold the business to Bain and Quarles (later to be know as the Bain Wagon Works) and stayed on as employee for two years before moving to the city of Racine. Once in the city, he promptly set about building a larger wagon works and expanding his sales territory. Within three years (1857), H. Mitchell Wagons had 30 employees and produced 300 farm wagons, 50 carriages, 200 bob sleighs, 50 cultivators and 500 plows. Sales included orders from Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska.
During the Civil War years, Henry switched from building and repairing assorted farm implements to the exclusive production of wagons. The Mitchell Wagon and its advertising slogan “The Monarch of the Road” remained in production through 1910. At the end of the Civil War, First Lieutenant William Turner Lewis returned to marry Henry’s daughter Mary Isabel Mitchell. The firm H. Mitchell & Company was formed with his son-in-law buying 1/2 ownership. That year 400 wagons were produced.
Mitchell & Lewis
The end of the war was an economic boom for westward expansion and Henry Mitchell’s longtime reputation as a builder of sturdy and durable wagons was a classic example of having the right product at the right place at the right time. Within two years, production had increased to 1,050 wagons. With sales including orders from Iowa to Texas, an outfitting shop was set up in Kansas with the wide track wagons designed specifically for crossing the prairie in the westward trade.
The following year (1867), another son-in-law was brought into the firm. Calvin D. Sinclair, married to daughter Martha, had also been promised a share of the business. The business ownership resulted with each holding 1/3. At this time, the company was renamed the Mitchell & Lewis Company. The Mitchell & Lewis Company continued to produce a quality product, with “customer driven” quality.
Wagon sales and production peaked in 1890 and Lewis was looking to diversify into manufacturing other modes of transportation. A small bicycle company in Racine was purchased and renamed the Wisconsin Wheel Works. The Wheel Works continued building the original wooden frame bicycle as well as tooled up for a steel framed motor bicycle. Their first motor bicycle, with a 1 3/4 engine, was produced the following year. It was a success; designed with the motor on the forward part of the diamond frame and the power went to the rear wheel through a round leather belt. By 1902, it was the best-selling motorcycle in the United States.
The modern and highly overused business term “focus” seems to be the explanation of the demise of the Mitchell Motorcycle. While Harley Davidson and Indian retained their focus on the two-wheeler, the
Lewises put their energies into the newer four wheelers. The Mitchell design did not keep abreast of the competition. Wisconsin Wheel Works was later sold to Great Western Manufacturing of Indiana. From 1903 on, the Mitchell story is about the automobile.
The Highs & Lows
The early years of the Mitchell Motor Car Company were a simple straight forward success story that paralleled that of the Mitchell & Lewis Company with their Monarch of the Road wagon. The first automobiles were lightweight “motorettes,” all 18 of them. In 1903, two models were produced: the Mitchell Junior and the more substantial Mitchell Senior. Both used a single cylinder engine designed by Andrew Pierce and later modified by John W. Bate.
In 1913 with a 2.5 million dollar shortfall in loans due to three years of slow sales and high repairs, the company turned over their common stock to banks in Chicago and New York who took management control of the company. Captain Mitchell “retired” as President. After reorganization, the company rebounded in 1915 and 1916.
Then came another automotive problem of low oil pressure from a “splash lube” system. This, coupled with a minor detail such as WWI, sent the company on an unrecoverable six year slide to bankruptcy. By 1917, both the Lewis and Mitchell families were no longer actively running the company and sued the banks for mismanagement of their interests.
Until 1923 when the company officially declared bankruptcy, several varying automobile designs were tried, including the “Victory Six” and the “White Streak.”
The Mitchell Company survived over 70 years with the ingenuity and spirit that is characteristic of Racine County.
© 2003 Racine Heritage Museum – The Outlook Newsletter