Television commercials in the 1950s called the Studebaker “275 horsepower of poetry in motion.”
Ken West, who owned a 1939 Studebaker when he was a teen in college at the University of Kansas, needed a good highway car because he was dating his future wife in St. Joseph. He found one in a brown 1939 Studebaker Commander he bought for $50.
“The thing I loved about that car was that in town, you could hear the tappets rattle and rattle and rattle. But it had an overdrive a higher gear than normal high. And when you put it in overdrive, just on the highway, it was smooth and you couldn’t hear it,” West said.
After he graduated from college, West said he had to buy another car. He married the girl he drove to see every week and not long afterward, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
“By that time I had to buy another car, but I loved that Studebaker,” West said.
The history of Studebaker begins in South Bend, Indiana, and travels through St. Joseph, where brothers John, Clement and Peter Studebaker opened a wagon shop near Fourth and Edmond streets. From here, they would supply wagons for settlers headed west, said Gary Chilcote, director of the Patee House Museum.
“St. Joseph was a jumping-off point for people who were headed out west toward California, and they traveled by wagons. And so the Studebaker brothers started making wagons,” Chilcote said.
The Studebakers stayed in St. Joseph for about 35 years before moving back to Indiana, where they began to make cars in 1900.
The Studebakers eventually dropped production of all horse-drawn vehicles and went into car-making by 1920. The last Studebaker came off the line in 1966.
Their St. Joseph Studebaker shop was next door to the Buffalo Saloon at Fifth and Edmond streets, just as the display is next to the re-created Buffalo Saloon inside the Patee House. The whole history of the Studebaker and the 1927 presidential model is on display inside the museum.
The interesting part here in St. Joseph was the fact that Peter’s son Wilbur married the daughter of Rev. E.S. Dulin, who also was the principal at the women’s college at the Patee House. The wedding was held at First Baptist Church, but the reception was held in the grand ballroom on the second floor of the Patee House.
Peter Studebaker himself roomed at the Patee House so regularly that he was listed in the 1871 city directory.
So anytime you happen to see a Studebaker on the road or on display somewhere today, know that part of its history was here in St. Joseph.