If it weren’t for the annual presence of “Woodies” as part of the Memorial Day weekend festivities in Waterloo, probably few area residents would be aware that for many years there was a thriving car body business in Waterloo — a business that was an outgrowth of the Waterloo Wagon Co., famous for its quality wagons and sleighs.
The Waterloo Wagon Co. had its beginnings in 1881, when William L. Pike moved the Pike & Walsh wagon-building company from Tully in Onondaga County. On Oct. 4, 1882, more than 2,000 people attended a Grand Harvest Home Ball, or Grand Opening and Promenade Concert, held at the new building of the Waterloo Wagon Works at Church and Elizabeth streets. At the New York State Fair in Rochester in September 1883, the Waterloo Wagon Co. Ltd. received the highest award of merit for its wagons. Twelve vehicles were sold on the fairgrounds.
As automobiles began to replace horse-driven wagons and carriages, the Waterloo Body Corp. (as it was known starting in 1919) produced many station wagon bodies. Waterloo’s Suburbans were popular. This company survived until 1932 when its Waterloo plant was purchased by Robert Campbell and turned into the Mid-State Body Co., which was soon shipping finished Suburbans and knocked-down van bodies to Hercules-Campbell’s busy Tarrytown assembly plant.
In May 1939, Campbell purchased the car barns, repair shop and local office of the former trolley line (which ran from Geneva to Cayuga Lake Park), located just west of the village of Waterloo, and turned them into a manufacturing facility. The Mid-State Body Co. Inc. and the Hercules-Campbell Body Co. Inc. (headquartered in Tarrytown) manufactured stakes, van and special bodies, and assembled Wayne buses for schools.
Passenger cars with windshields from the Tarrytown Chevrolet plant were shipped on car transport trailers to Waterloo, where their wooden bodies were installed and the assembled cars were then returned to Tarrytown. In 1940, Campbell negotiated a contract with the Chevrolet Division of General Motors to be the exclusive supplier of station wagon bodies. The bodies were completely finished and shipped in freight cars — seven or eight per car — with special racks and tie-downs to all Chevrolet plants, three freight cars per day, five days a week. The contract was canceled after the outbreak of World War II and the Hercules-Campbell plant shifted to wartime production.
Right after World War II, the big car makers were unable to resume full production quickly, so there was great demand for putting station wagon bodies on used car chassis. This meant that business boomed at the Waterloo plant. Car dealers were able to drop off a car or truck at the Tarrytown or Cambridge, Mass., plants of Hercules-Campbell. The vehicle would then come to the Waterloo plant, have the station wagon chassis placed on it and then be driven back to Tarrytown or Cambridge.
Some Waterloo plant employees enjoyed the opportunity to make some extra money by driving the vehicle. The pay was $10 for a single trip and $15 for a round trip, plus $3 for meals and railroad fare if there was no vehicle to be driven back. In order to increase plant productivity, a bonus pay system was initiated for all employees. Everyone received a 50-cent bonus for the fourth vehicle produced daily and another $1 for any above that. For months, most of the employees were making more with bonuses than their regular wages.
A disastrous fire on Dec. 19, 1947, destroyed much of the plant complex, except for the brick building on the east side. The plant operation was rebuilt.
From the late 1940s until 1956, mostly commercial bodies were manufactured to be exported to other companies rather than directly sold to car dealers. These commercial bodies were wooden, with ash body framing and basswood slats, and Philippine mahogany waterproof plywood panels. Hence the name “Woodies” was used to refer to these vehicles. The roof covering was of cotton cloth impregnated with rubber.
In just a few years the used car station wagon business declined and new car makers were changing over to wood-grain decals glued to steel paneling. The Waterloo plant’s demand for wooden station wagons for passenger cars collapsed. The company continued making such bodies only on truck chassis.
After a management change early in 1956, the Waterloo operation went bankrupt in 1957. The Elizabeth Street plant in the village was demolished. The Hercules-Campbell plant just west of the village on Routes 5&20 was leased by Hartman Metal Fabricators Inc. in 1960.
No history of the Waterloo Wagon Co. would be complete without pointing out that many people throughout the United States are avid collectors of the “Woodies” made in Waterloo. Almost 3,000 members belong to the National Woodie Club and there are local clubs in virtually every state.
The late Vern Sessler Sr. of Waterloo acquired his 1942 GMC Woodie in 1998. He grew up near the Elizabeth Street plant and had these memories:
“When I was a kid, …I’d see them being driven by, day after day after day. I’d see them come one way, and all they’d be was the chassis with a windshield and, literally, an orange crate. Then I’d see them coming back the other way with the body on.”
Sessler’s car has a small metal tag documenting that it was body number 6837 built at the Waterloo plant. Sessler was instrumental in initiating the display of Woodies as part of the special Memorial Day weekend festivities in Waterloo. The event helps to keep alive the special memories of several years of operation of the successor businesses to the Waterloo Wagon Co.
Gable is the Seneca County historian.