|Travel down the historic brick streets that still
remain in South Bend, and you can’t help but notice street names and places that harken back
to the earliest inhabitants of our city – names like Miami and Potawatomi, the Native
Americans who occupied the land. Or names of explorers, merchants and fur traders who
traveled the St. Joseph River: Lafayette, LaSalle, Navarre and Coquillard.
By the late 1830s, South Bend has its first industries, glass factories. Sorry to say,
the glass quality was poor, and the companies failed. From those humble beginnings, however,
came a strong entrepreneurial spirit that produced products that eventually became nationally
and internationally known and became the foundation for the city’s industrial growth.
The five Studebaker brothers came to town in 1852 and began producing horse-drawn wagons,
eventually becoming the world’s largest wagon manufacture. The
Company “switched gears” with the advent of the automobile and became a premier car company.
The South Bend Silver Hawks
regional baseball team takes its name from one of Studebaker’s popular models.
Another world-class South Bend product came from the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Built in 1868,
the company manufactured cabinet cases for the sewing machines, using the area’s plentiful walnut trees.
The South Bend Iron Works, also known as Oliver Chilled Plow Company, was headed by James Oliver,
and in 1868 began making the iron parts for the Singer Sewing Machine cabinets. As business grew,
the need for workers grew. Many of those workers came from South Bend’s large immigrant
population – hardworking families from Poland, Hungary, Germany, Ireland, France and Belgium – who
made up a quarter of the city’s population between 1870 and 1910. To this day, descendants of those
early workers populate the city and contribute to its rich tapestry of ethnic neighborhoods and cuisine.
Another company that literally put our city on the map was the South Bend Toy Company. Begun
in 1874, the company employed hundreds of people. Even today, you can still find wooden toys,
croquet sets, wagons and doll carriages that bear the South Bend name. Shoo Fly Rockers, the
popular rocking horses, were sold in the Sears and Roebuck catalog. The company eventually
merged with Playskool, later a subsidiary of Milton Bradley and then Hasbro.
These are just a few of the major industries that set the tone for our city. Today, as the
fourth largest city in Indiana, we continue to grow with large manufacturing firms such as
AM General, Bosch and Honeywell, and thousands of smaller, “quieter” technical support
companies that employ a population of workers whose roots grow deep and reflect the
hardworking, entrepreneurial spirit of our early settlers.