From the late 1800s through the 1930s Des Moines had a vibrant automotive industry.
Automobiles were designed and manufactured here by a number of companies. From early electric carriages (yes, electric cars have been around for that long) to gas-powered luxury cars, Des Moines was a happening place when it came to automobiles. We even had a Ford manufacturing plant! According to Iowa’s Automobiles: An Entertaining and Enlightening History, by Bill Jepsen, Iowa was number one in the nation in automobiles per capita in 1916.
William Morrison embarked on one of the earlier efforts with his Morrison Electric Buggy. The buggy made its debut on September 4, 1890, during the Seni Om Sed (Des Moines spelled backward) grand parade. There were a total of twelve buggies made including the original.
Two automobile makes that made their debut before 1910, but were not very successful, were the Hawkeye and the Monarch. The Hawkeye was a high-wheeled carriage produced by the Lagerquist Automobile Company that sold for $2,000. The Monarch, produced by the Monarch Machine Company, came in two varieties, the thrifty $300 “Model C” and the four passenger “Model D Road King” that sold for $750. There are no known survivors of any of the Hawkeye or Monarch vehicles.
The Mason (later known as the Maytag Mason produced in Waterloo) was probably the best-known automobile to come out of Des Moines. The first Mason was designed by Fred Duesenberg and made its debut on August 16, 1906, at a cost of $1,350. In 1909 Fred L. Maytag of Newton bought a controlling interest in the company and the manufacturing of the newly named Maytag-Masons was moved to Waterloo by 1910. Eventually the Mason name was dropped and the automobile was known as the Maytag. On September 15, 1915, the Waterloo factory was sold, marking the end of the Maytag-Mason automobile.
A company associated with the early Masons was the Des Moines Cabinet Company (later known as the Clemens Automobile Company) operated by Ross and Ashton Clemens. The company made wood auto bodies for the Duesenberg and Mason Car Company. In 1917 the Clemenses built a six-story building at 200 Tenth Street in Des Moines.
The Ford Assembly Plant, located on Grand Avenue, was completed in 1920 at a cost of $420,000. The plant was producing up to 200 cars a day in 1923 and 1924. The plant was sold to the Solar Aircraft Company before World War II and was sold to the Des Moines Public School District after the war. It is now home to Central Campus, part of the Des Moines Public Schools.
Jepsen, Bill. Iowa’s Automobiles: Made in Iowa : An Entertaining and Enlightening History. Boone, Iowa: B. Jepsen, 2007.
City of Des Moines. Des Moines’ Auto Row: Take an Architectural Ride Through the Birthplace of Des moines’ Auto History.1900-1925. Des Moines, Iowa. 1995.
Republished from the DMPL website.
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