Targe G. Mandt's family came to America from Telemarken, Norway in 1848 when he was just 2 1/2 years old. They settled on a farm in Pleasant Springs about six miles northeast of Stoughton in the newly created state of Wisconsin. As Targe grew up he helped his father in the workshop turning the hand-powered lathe, watching him work and learning the proper use of tools. By the time he was sixteen years old he had completed a wagon unassisted doing both the wood and metal work.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Targe, too young to enlist, went to St. Joseph, Missouri and worked in a factory making wagons for the Union army. Before he was nineteen was made a shop foreman. After the war, he returned to Stoughton eager to start a wagon factory of his own. In 1865, he had one hundred dollars and with part of this he made a down-payment on a lot by the river on South Street. He also bought an old warehouse and moved it to his lot. That first year he made five wagons and one buggy. In 1866 he bought another lot and added on to his blacksmith shop. That year he made ten wagons, four buggies and five sleighs. In the next three years he added on to his factory two or three more times. By 1870 the fame of his product had spread and he sold a carload of wagons in Iowa. Business continued to grow and T.G. Mandt extended his trade into Minnesota and a large part of the Dakotas.
But in 1873 depression gripped the country. 1873, 1874 and 1875 were bad years with farmers hit hard as the land suffered from drought and the crops were devastated by plagues of grasshoppers. They could not afford to buy wagons in these hard times. Mandt's creditors met and agreed to accept 35 cents on the dollar as payment in full for all his debts rather than shut down the factory and sell it for what they could get.
For a while, times improved. Orders for wagons again began to pour in and business grew until 1883 when the factory employed 225 men and over $350,000 in wagons were sold annually. But on a bitter cold day, January 13, 1883, a fire broke out at the wagon works. The flames spread quickly through the all wood buildings. Fanned by a strong wind that carried flaming shingles more than a mile, the fire assumed disastrous proportions threatening the entire village. There was no fire department in town but the workers labored valiantly to keep the blaze in check. A lucky shift of the wind saved the village. But by the time the fire was under control, the factory was a ruin. Most of the buildings burned to the ground. At their very next meeting the city council voted to buy a fire engine with a hook and ladder attachment.
For a time it appeared the wagon industry was lost to the Stoughton community, but in 1884 a stock company was formed and incorporated, the T.G. Mandt Mfg. Co. Ltd., with a capitol of $250,000. T.G. Mandt was elected president and once again "Stoughton wagons" began to pour from the lines. However, in 1889, Mandt severed his relations with the new corporation and after he left, the name was changed to "The Stoughton Wagon Company".
Mandt retained all his patent rights and in 1896 formed "The T.G. Mandt Vehicle Company" and again entered the business of making wagons. The rival companies both enjoyed a period of great prosperity. When Mandt died on February 28, 1902, the townspeople turned out en-masse to pay final tribute to the immigrant lad who had done so much for Stoughton.
Text adapted from Oak Opening, The Story of Stoughton, by Ferd Homme, available for sale at our museum shop.