By Jared Olar
Students of the bygone days of Pekin will readily recognize the name of the T. & H. Smith Wagon Company of Pekin as one of the most prominent and successful businesses in Pekin’s history. Those who would like to learn more about this company, which operated a large factory at the corner of Third and Margaret streets along the railroad track as well as a bank at 331 Court St., may consult a number of historical sources in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room.
One of those sources, James A. Velde’s historical essay, “A Sensational Criminal Trial in Central Illinois,” was the subject of a previous Local History Room column published in the Aug. 30, 2014 Pekin Daily Times. Velde’s essay tells the story of the scandal that led to the collapse of the Teis Smith Bank on April 2, 1906.
For a general overview of the Smith Wagon Company’s history, though, interested researchers can consult “Catalog No. 10 of the Smith Wagon Company of Pekin, Ill.,” a document from the beginning of the 20th century that was spared the ravages of time by being preserved in the Pekin Public Library’s 1902 cornerstone time capsule.
Most of the pages of the Smith Wagon catalog, of course, are taken up with drawings, specifications, and prices of the company’s wagons and trucks. These details provide a window onto a lost and all-but-forgotten past, when farm work and transportation required literal horsepower. Also, on page 5 of the Smith Wagon Co. catalog is a page-length essay on the history of the company and its various offshoots in Pekin.
The company began as a blacksmith and woodworking shop that was established by a family of German immigrants who came to Pekin in 1849. The founders were the brothers Teis, Henry, and Fred Smith, and their brother-in-law Luppe Luppen, who started their business the same location where they later would build their wagon-making plant. Later, their youngest brother D. C. Smith and their cousin Habbe Velde joined as partners.
“Soon their own hands were unequal to the task of supplying their growing trade, which at first demanded extra help, then more room and finally separate factories, stores and warehouses,” the catalog essay says. “Starting with the manufacture of farm wagons, buggies, carriages, plows and agricultural implements, the business gradually took on also banking, dealing in grain and general merchandising. As the business grew it was found advisable to separate the different departments and the banking house of Teis Smith & Co. was established with D. C. Smith as its present manager, the grain business became known as the Smith-Hippen Co., and the implement part was taken up by Pekin Plow Co., with Luppe Luppen as its president and D. C. Smith as vice president and manager at the present time. The manufacture of plows was commenced in 1870 in a separate factory and with separate office force, the manufacture of buggies and carriages was gradually discontinued and the merchandising given over to other hands. The parent company, T. & H. Smith & Co., with Habbe Velde as its president, retains the same name and location it has had since the beginning and is now engaged exclusively in the manufacture of farm and spring wagons.”
A fire destroyed the company’s plant in 1899 and a new factory was built in its place in 1900. That setback contributed to the collapse of the Teis Smith Bank and liquidation of the wagon works a few years later.