John Studebaker didn’t spend a lot of time in what’s now Council Bluffs, but after achieving prominence in the automobile industry he cited those lessons learned in this city in his younger years as the keys to that success.
In 1853, the gold rush was in full swing, the stream of immigrants was running strong, and 19-year-old John Mohler Studebaker joined the west bound throngs in South Bend, Indiana by securing passage with a California bound company in exchange for building them a sturdy new wagon.
Between Indiana and California laid many obstacles. What proved to be the most formidable wasn’t the mountains, extreme weather, or crossing treacherous rivers but rather the “city” of Kanesville (now Council Bluffs). Studebaker started West with $65, a bible, and three homemade suits. After visiting Kanesville — and playing his first and last game of three-card monte — he continued the journey with just one shirt and .50. Council Bluffs, he observed, was a rather “rough and tumble town” at that time, but the lessons learned lasted a lifetime.
The traveling party did fine until Kanesville where they were besieged with gamblers ready to fleece migrants. Accomplices called “cappers” circulated among the travelers giving glowing descriptions of how they were winning money everyday from the town’s helpless gamblers. “Why go to California when you can win all the gold you want right here?” they would say, showing handfuls of money. The cappers invited a boy from the crowd (also an accomplice) to come in and watch a game. The boy returned and explained in whispered tones to the excited group that he picked up on the winning system as he watched. “Follow my lead and we’ll break the bank!” he explained.
Studebaker went in with the rest and for a time just watched. Other fellows (who he later learned to be more cappers) were raking in the money so fast he was worried the gamblers would go broke before he could get his share. He entered the game as quickly as he could get his money out. In minutes his money was gone.
The next morning Studebaker started a business to replenish his lost capital. Omaha was just a small trading post at that time, and the only way to cross the river was by means of a slow ferry.
Studebaker found he could earn money by swimming across the Missouri River to the Nebraska side with a rope around his waist, cutting grass, tying it in bundles, and attaching it to the rope. A friend on the other side would pull the rope and grass back and sell it to migrants to feed their cattle, as the grass had become very scarce on the Iowa side.
Studebaker eventually made California but, with his Council Bluffs lessons fresh in mind, he wasn’t ready to gamble by going to the gold fields.
Instead, he took a job making wheelbarrows to sell to the miners. While most of the miners quickly went broke, Studebaker was able to save some money which he invested in the family wagon shop back home. After a few years, he left California and returned to the family business in Indiana.
The family business flourished and the company became one of the largest vehicle manufacturing concerns in the country. The Studebakers’ company became the only one successful in making the transition from horse drawn to gasoline powered vehicles.
Their automobile line started with an electric car in 1902, impressing Thomas Edison, who purchased the second one to be manufactured. They introduced gasoline powered cars in 1904, but kept on producing horse-drawn wagons as well. Studebaker merged with Packard in 1954 and experienced continued ups and downs in the automobile marketplace. The 1966 Cruiser marked the end of 114 years of Studebaker vehicle production.
John Studebaker lived to see his family business thrive in automobile production. In his senior years he often reflected back on his early days, citing those experiences “out on the frontier” in Kanesville as one of the keys to his success.
— Historical and Preservation Society of Pottawattamie Countycan be reached at information@TheHistoricalSociety.org.