South Bend Area Business & Industry

In 2019, the city of South Bend garnered national attention due to a presidential bid by its mayor, Pete Buttigieg. The campaign brought attention to the city including its struggles with race relations and economic inequality. These conditions in the city were heavily shaped by the area’s industrial past. This tour links past and present by exploring how the city of South Bend in the 20th century was shaped as corporations of all sizes opened, grew, brought in workers, and ultimately closed.

Wagons, plows, and similar kinds of farm equipment were early staples of South Bend industry. They were produced in massive factories on the outskirts of town. The agricultural Midwest made South Bend a prime location to manufacture farming implements and equipment as they could be sold locally or transported further west by rail. Northern Indiana’s forests attracted lumber-dependent businesses including wagon and furniture makers. The banks of the St. Joseph River housed industries reliant on hydropower, such as mills. These industries also paved the way for South Bend’s best-known product: Studebaker automobiles.

At their height, South Bend’s biggest factories employed thousands of workers making products sold all over the United States. From the 1880s to the 1920s, when the local supply of labor was exhausted, businesses imported their labor force by appealing to Poles and Hungarians seeking economic opportunity in the United States. Later factories attracted African Americans moving north as part of the Great Migration. Manufacturing jobs encouraged more than six million African Americans to move from the rural south to Northern and Midwestern manufacturing cities between 1916 to 1970. South Bend has held onto this diverse population: today, approximately 27% of the city’s residents are Black, compared to only 9.8% of Indiana residents.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the once booming businesses grappled with changing consumer tastes, increased foreign production, and mergers that forced small businesses to be absorbed by larger businesses. Through the 1980s, South Bend’s industries consolidated and slowly diminished. Their ultimate closure had a lasting economic impact on the city, which in 2017 had an income poverty rate of 22.8%. This rate is over twice the national average. The African American community was hit particularly hard, with an income poverty rate of 40.2% compared to a national rate of 23.1%.

Despite factory closures, the factory buildings and the mansions built by their wealthy owners remain. Today, warehouses are finding new life as office and residential buildings. Homes built during local industry’s peak are being preserved for public enjoyment.

This tour examines lost businesses of South Bend and the fruits of their success in order to shed light on the impact of industry on the city’s history.

Studebaker Plaza

Studebaker Plaza, today a city-owned public space, serves as a reminder of the humble roots of South Bend's industrial age. The enormous Studebaker corporation grew from a small blacksmith shop established on the corner of Michigan Street and…

Studebaker Assembly 84

By the 20th century, Studebaker began producing cars, competing against the top manufacturers in the country. In order to keep up, Studebaker hired employees to run huge factories, like the one where “Assembly 84” is located. The massive assembly…

Tippecanoe Place

Clement Studebaker, co-founder and first President of the Studebaker company, chose to build a home that reflected his financial success. Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb was chosen to design the Romanesque style mansion in 1885. Lavish New Home,…

Oliver Chilled Plow Works Smokestack

Oliver Chilled Plow Works - 1835-1855 South Bend’s Oliver Chilled Plow Works manufactured some of the world’s most popular plows, calling themselves “Plowmakers to the World.” Immigrant and inventor James Oliver’s patented method of chilling the cast…

Copshaholm Mansion

J.D. Oliver’s inspiration for CopshaholmJoseph Doty “J.D.” Oliver managed the finances for Oliver Chilled Plow Works, the business his father founded in 1857. J.D. Oliver’s mind for business was key to the company’s lasting success. He landmarked his…

Singer Sewing Machine Factory

Singer: a Better Machine 1850-1868Isaac Merritt Singer refined existing sewing machines in 1850 by adding a presser-foot system. The system surrounds the needle with a foot-like part that forces the fabric to lay flat when being fed into the machine…

Stephenson Underwear Mills

Origin of the Mills Although South Bend citizens remembers the Stephenson Underwear Mills as men’s and women’s underwear makers, the company started as a wool mill. In 1855, Alexander C. “A.C.” Staley and Jeremiah Sowry started milling wool --…

Wilson Brothers Shirt Factory

Wilson Branches Out to South BendThe Wilson Brothers menswear business was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio by the four Wilson brothers, John, E. Crane, Hugh, and Milton, in 1864. They moved their headquarters to Chicago four years later, where they…

Bowman Creek Industrial Site

Sitting just south of downtown South Bend, the Bowman Creek area has been a business magnet since the 1860s. The creek supplying water and proximity to the river and rail lines made it an attractive location for local entrepreneurs including a power…

Dodge Manufacturing Company

Independent Invention Mishawaka-born Wallace Harlow Dodge earned his reputation as an inventor when he patented the Magic Jack in 1878, which became the leading jack for performing wagon maintenance. With the help of his younger brother, William,…