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Encyclopedia Dubuque

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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.




COOPER WAGON WORKS

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The front building on Main was later renovated into apartments and two restaurants. The rear building was demolished and in 2017 was a parking lot. Illustration courtesy: Larry Friedman
Billing form.
COOPER WAGON WORKS. Augustin A. COOPER, once an apprentice and blacksmith for Dubuque wagon makers Newman and Duffee, bought out Duffee's interest in the business on March 1, 1850, one month after completing his apprenticeship. This formed the company of NEWMAN AND COOPER. (1) The company, primarily involved with wagon repairing, began as a one-story 30- by 40-foot shop on the corner of Locust and Second STREETS. A new 20- by 30-foot addition was added within six months. As word spread of the quality workmanship of Newman and Cooper, orders streamed in for wagons known as the "Prairie," "Farmer" and "Freight." (2)

A new one-story building was added across the street one year later. Cooper bought out Newman's interest in 1862 for one hundred dollars when the latter chose to sell due to poor health. He was left with a workforce of eight or nine men.

Image courtesy: Diane Harris
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Advertisement from Dubuque Trade Journal September 20, 1882. Photo Courtesy: Bob Reding

Cooper relocated his business prior to 1867. In July of that year, Thomas Hill opened the Novelty Carriage and Wagon Factory in the building. Although Cooper had owned the building for several years, Hill referred to the structure as formerly belonging to Newman--ignoring Cooper, a competitor in business, completely. (3)

By 1875, when the factory was producing nearly three thousand wagons annually, ninety workmen were employed with the average monthly payroll being $4,000. Orders came in so quickly in 1877 that employees worked twelve hour days. (4) In 1897 the company employed 300 men who worked thirteen to fourteen hour days to keep up with demand. (5) In 1910 the company's six hundred workers took home an annual payroll of a quarter of a million dollars. (6) "Old Reliable" as the Cooper wagons were known, were praised for their dependability. (7) Cooper learned from his apprenticeship of the superiority of naturally seasoned over kiln-dried woods and required that all wood used in his wagons be seasoned up to seven years. (8)

Photo courtesy: Dubuque Coin and Antique
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It is said that Cooper wagons were sold in every civilized nation in the world. The Dubuque Herald on May 22, 1874 stated that an order from the Emperor of China would be filled within a week. In July 1880 a shipment of five hundred was shipped out of Dubuque for Texas. (9) In 1897 a shipment of 750 wagons filling eighteen furniture railroad cars left Dubuque for Arizona and New Mexico. (10) One type of wagon was manufactured exclusively for the American Southwest. The rims of these wagons used a type of wood which grew only in parts of Oklahoma and was known as "Bois d'Arc." Dry and brittle and prone to chip, the wood with iron tires over it "wore like steel." (11) The company maintained agencies in Salt Lake City, Utah; Portland, Oregon; and Dallas, Texas. (12) In 1891 four railroad cars loaded with Cooper wagons were shipped to Mexico. (13)

In 1857 a one-horse wagon sold for $65. In 1860 a new buggy and a two-horse timber wagon cost $125.00 and $65.00 respectively. Cooper also manufactured buggies, cutters, commercial wagons, and bobsleds. The company accepted old buggies and wagons as trade-ins leading to a brisk "used market." (14) Street sprinklers for the City of Dubuque were manufactured in 1902. (15) The bill for the six machines was $2,340. (16)

All was not work with the Cooper employees. In 1880 A. A. Cooper's blacksmith baseball team traveled to "Brow's Settlement" to play the "Stars" and came home with a victory of 31-7. (17)

Many small articles in the Dubuque Herald kept readers generally appraised of the wagon works success. On October 15, 1880, however, an unusually specific article stated that although the company was manufacturing one hundred wagons each week, the company was fifty carloads behind orders. (18)

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Cooper trade card-front
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The skill needed to manufacture a wheel. Photo courtesy: Lincoln's New Salem, Illinois

In February 1892 the frame portion of the factory on the corner of Third and Locust was torn down. It was to be replaced with a four-story brick building into which machinery would be moved to improve efficiency. (19)

On April 2, 1904 Dubuque's famed wagon works was incorporated as the A. A. Cooper Wagon and Buggy Works with capital stock of $100,000. The officers were A. A Cooper, president; Will F. Cooper, vice-president; and A. A. Cooper, Jr., secretary and treasurer. The three also constituted the board of directors (20)

By 1905 the A. A. Cooper and Buggy Company may have covered as much as twenty-seven acres. (21) This included the levee warehouse and lumberyards, property at 199 and 331 Iowa Streets, the main building on Third and Main, the factory on the corner of Third and Locust, and a factory south of this on Locust Street. Another warehouse covered five acres. The firm also employed twenty traveling salesmen. (22)

1907 Advertisement. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald
Cooper's factories suffered fires. What finally caused the end to the Cooper manufacturing heritage, however, may have been his unwillingness to change. It is believed that Henry Ford came to Dubuque in an effort to convince Cooper to build chassis for automobiles. (23) Cooper declined. This was despite the fact that his friend and competitor Thomas CONNOLLY was by 1903 in the business of manufacturing chassis for ADAMS-FARWELL AUTOMOBILES. It may have been in a bit of pique that Cooper advertised "Automobile Top" buggies in 1907. (See advertisement)

In 1917 a fire at the company's Jones Street warehouse resulted in a loss of $300,000. Stock stored in the building included buggies, sleds, and awnings. Nearly $100,000 worth of wagons intended for the European war zone were also destroyed. (24) The cost of the five fires that struck the wagon works from 1867 to 1917 totaled at estimated $756,561 or more than $20 million in 2016 dollars. (25) The last Cooper wagons were produced for the United States Army during WORLD WAR I. (26)

Cooper's once thriving business closed one year after his death in 1919. (27)

On April 28, 1925 a spark from a welder's torch set fire to the warehouse Cooper had constructed in 1885. (28) Cooper's sons William and A. A. Cooper, Jr. decided to enter other businesses after the fire. They owned the HOTEL JULIEN for several years in the 1930s. A. A. Cooper, Jr. moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana and purchased another hotel. (29) William chose to live in the GREYSTONE with his sister and niece. (30)

In 1995 Main Street programs in northeastern Iowa received awards from Governor Terry Branstad. DUBUQUE MAIN STREET, LTD. was the winner in the best facade renovation over $5,000 category when the Cooper Wagon Works building was owned by Paula and Roger Stenlund. (31) The building had originally served as a showroom, office, and warehouse. (32)

Postcard (front)
Postcard (back)
Bricktown bottle

In 2001 the former Cooper Wagon Works building was purchased by developers Greg Prehm and Scott Neuwoehner. In May of that year, the city council approved on a 7-0 vote a $300,000 revitalization loan to the business. (33) About two million dollars was spent renovating the building while keeping its historic nature. The nightclubs in the lower level opened in late 2001 and the rest of the complex including a restaurant was completed in 2002. Bricktown, was an anchor project for the renaissance of Lower Main Street. It was also one of the first major rehabilitation projects in the downtown area. In December, 2009, however, due to the difficult economic times, the building and its businesses were closed. (34)

The restaurant reopened as "The Crust," while upper floors of the building were converted into The Cooper Wagon Works Apartments in November 2010. The restaurant closed on February 27, 2016 when the owner, Sarah Thilgen, accepted work in the food and beverage industry in Chicago. (35)


The 1867 Dubuque City Directory gave the address for this business, carriage manufacturer, as the south side of 3rd west of Main.

The 1884-1884 Dubuque City Directory through 1922 telephone directory listed the corner of 3rd and Main as the address.

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Source:

1. Oldt, Franklin T., History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Chicago: Western Historical Association, 1880. Online: http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/franklin-t-oldt/history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl/page-15-history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl.shtml (Number 15)

2. First National Bank calendar (1967). Courtesy of: Diane Harris

3. "Novelty Carriage and Wagon Factory," Dubuque Herald, July 11, 1867, p. 1

4. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, November 6, 1877, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18771106&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

5. "Big Wagon Train," Dubuque Sunday Herald, Nov. 21, 1897, p. 3. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=UStBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=q6gMAAAAIBAJ&pg=2266,6736686&dq=cooper+wagons+dubuque&hl=en

6. "When City Was a 'Detroit,' Telegraph Herald, March 29, 1960, p. 16

7. "Cooper Wagon Famous Since '49; Owner Still Robust," Telegraph Herald, Feb. 2, 1910, p. 1. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=GilCAAAAIBAJ&sjid=gKoMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3149,1139660&dq=cooper+wagons+dubuque&hl=en

8. "Your Next Buggy! Let It Be a Cooper." (advertisement) Telegraph Herald, Apr. 9, 1911, p. 22. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=2fBCAAAAIBAJ&sjid=4asMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3568,7652064&dq=cooper+wagons+dubuque&hl=en

9 "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, July 16, 1880, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18800716&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

10. "Big Wagon Train."

11. "Cooper Wagon Famous Since '49

12. Ibid.

13. "Municipal Molecules," Dubuque Herald, February 22, 1891, p. 8

14. "Extra! Extra! Extra!," (advertisement). Telegraph Herald, Mar. 26, 1911, p. 25. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=y_BCAAAAIBAJ&sjid=4asMAAAAIBAJ&pg=4908,5954661&dq=cooper+wagons+dubuque&hl=en

15. "Discuss Alleys," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, May 6, 1902, p. 3. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=oGhBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=MqkMAAAAIBAJ&pg=1776,4812739&dq=cooper+wagon+works&hl=en

16. "A Quiet Session," Dubuque Telegraph Herald, June 13, 1902, p. 3. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=yGpBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=NKkMAAAAIBAJ&pg=5234,332555& dq=cooper+wagon+works&hl=en

17. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, August 10, 1880, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18800810&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

18. "Cooper Wagons," Dubuque Herald, October 15, 1880, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18801015&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

19. "Municipal Molecules," Dubuque Daily Herald, February 27, 1892 p. 4

20. "The Coopers Incorporate," Dubuque Herald, April 3, 1900, p. 3

21. Blocker, Sue. "Too Bad Cooper Didn't Listen to Ford's Advice," Telegraph Herald, July 7,1985, p. 4. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=YiFRAAAAIBAJ&sjid=09sMAAAAIBAJ&pg=6738,544395&dq=aa+cooper+dubuque&hl=en

22. "Cooper Wagons Famous Since '49..."

23. "Dodds Building Once Cooper Plant," Telegraph Herald, Jan. 29, 1963, p. 4. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=XY9FAAAAIBAJ&sjid=5bwMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3360,2976512&dq=cooper+wagons+dubuque&hl=en

24. "Ruins of Cooper Warehouse Destroyed Thursday Night," Telegraph Herald, February 13, 1916, p. 4

25. Friedman, Larry and Fischer, Katherine. A. A. Cooper: Reinventing the Wheel, River City Press, 2016, p. 90

26. "Woman, 90, Has Vivid Memories of Dubuque," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, December 21, 1941, p. 21

27 Hendricks, Mike. "Cooper: A Proud Family Now Gone," Telegraph Herald, Dec. 7, 1981, p. 1. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=LOlFAAAAIBAJ&sjid=wPwMAAAAIBAJ&pg=4428,854051&dq=aa+cooper+dubuque&hl=en

28. Glindinning, Mary. "Family Tours City to Discover More About Inventor's Life," Telegraph Herald, June 19, 1993, p. 2. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=NF5FAAAAIBAJ&sjid=B7wMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3163,4145406&dq=aa+cooper+dubuque&hl=en

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. Bergstrom, Kathy. "Iowa Main Street Programs Win Applause," Telegraph Herald, Apr. 3, 1995, p. 3. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=8X5jAAAAIBAJ&sjid=nXkNAAAAIBAJ&pg=6555,505366&dq=cooper+wagon+works&hl=en

32."Wagon Factory Renovation Begins," Telegraph Herald, April 15, 1985, p. 2. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=hCFRAAAAIBAJ&sjid=9dMMAAAAIBAJ&pg=6519,1733560&dq=redstone+dubuque&hl=en

33. Coyle, Erin. "Revitalization Loans Approved," Telegraph Herald, Mar. 20, 2001, p. 1. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=PghaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=WEsNAAAAIBAJ&pg=6216,3547298&dq=cooper+wagon+works&hl=en

34. Piper, Andy. "Bricktown Shuts Down," Telegraph Herald, Dec. 2, 2009, p. 1 Online: http://nl.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?p_product=DQ&p_theme=dq&p_action=search&p_maxdocs=200&p_topdoc=1&p_text_direct-0=12C5CFAE39C12800&p_field_direct-0=document_id&p_perpage=10&p_sort=YMD_date:D&s_trackval=GooglePM

35. Montgomery, Jeff. "Crust's Closing to Leave Downtown Void," Telegraph Herald, February 27, 2016, p. 1



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