For many years, the Reo Motor Truck Company stood on Elm Street between Washington Avenue and Cedar Street. As the years have went by, it is almost hard for me to remember what that area used to look like. My father was a painter at Reo and I would ride with my mother every Friday to take my Dad to work and again in the evening to pick him up. My dad as well as my uncle worked there until the plant closed its doors in 1967. I always thought Reo produced only trucks and I found out a lot about Reo and its history as I did my research. I found out that in the beginning, the company produced mostly automobiles, but also had a truck line.. Take a ride through history with me and learn about the Reo Motor Truck Company and its influence on Lansing.
The Reo Motor Truck Company was founded in 1910 by Ransom Eli Olds named after him using his initials. The company bought what was once the Baker farm and the new factory at 1126 S. Washington Avenue in Lansing Michigan was built. Many of the workers came from farms and some as far away as Germany. To provide Reo with a reliable supply of parts, Olds put together subsidiary firms such as the National Coil Company and Atlas Drop Forge Company. By 1907, Reo had gross sales of $4 million, and Olds headed one of the top four automobile manufacturers in the nation. Reo Motor Truck Company began the production of trucks and Reo’s legendary Speed Wagon led the way with shaft drive, pneumatic tires, electric starters and lights which were found on all competitive makes. By July 1925, REO Speed Wagon sales exceeded $125,000 and the company soon became a leader in automobile production.
Ransom Eli Olds
R.E. Olds was born June 3, 1864 in Geneva, Ohio to Pliny and Sarah Olds. There isn’t much about his childhood except that his family moved a lot as his father continued to search for decent work. When Olds turned 16, the Olds family permanently settled in Lansing Michigan where his father opened a machine shop. After Olds finished the 10th grade, he took a six month course at Bartlett’s Business College in 1882-83 before becoming a machinist-bookkeeper for P.F. Olds and Son.
Ransom Eli Olds was the inventor of the Oldsmobile and Olds Motor Works; however, Olds was not happy there and left the company. With a lot of time on his hands, he helped create the “REO Motor Truck Company which was named after him. This name was soon changed to Reo. The name change was in order to ensure that a threatened lawsuit from the Olds Motor Works would not happen. Olds held control of Reo with 52 percent of the stock as well as the titles of president and general manager.
It was said that R.E. Olds was talented in the mechanical part of the business rather than administrative and focused on mechanical and technological improvements which played a part in Reo’s struggles and Reo struggled throughout the years and even after Olds left the company then the company started getting ahead during WWII because of all the truck orders it received; however, that was short lived and the company was once again unstable up until the time it was sold to Bohn Aluminum and Brass Corporation of Detroit. There was a trucking line which started in 1910; however, Diamond Reo Trucks were not produced until three years after Bohn bought the company and it merged with White Motor Company in 1957.
Gold Comet Assembly Line in Lansing, Michigan circa 1959 – Factory Photo
The Reo Clubhouse
The clubhouse on South Washington Avenue
Another interesting piece of Reo’s history is the clubhouse which was built in 1927. The clubhouse hosted many events and during its time was a cultural hub of Lansing. Many events were held at the club house which included balls, weddings, basketball games, free movies as well as patriotic events during WWI and WWII. The clubhouse also featured Lansing’s first radio station WREO in 1921. The clubhouse, also named “The Temple of Leisure” consisted of four bowling allies, a 2000 seat dining room, auditorium, a fireproof movie booth, a smoking lounge and billiard room. This facility was used by Reo workers which Olds used to help retain the loyalty of its employees.
White merged Reo with Diamond T Trucks in 1967. Eventually, in 1975, the firm filed for bankruptcy and most of its assets were liquidated. Even though the Reo plant was designated as a National Historic Landmark, the Reo plant and Clubhouse was demolished in 1979 to make room for new industry. Where Reo stood and the surrounding area is now known as Reo Town.
REO was in Lansing for many years and contributed to the culture and employment opportunities for the citizens of Lansing and surrounding area. There are many pictures and information on a facebook page “REO, Diamond T and Diamond Reo Enthusiasts”. I have also included a video of the R.E. Olds museum where you can visit and learn so much more about R.E. Olds and his work as well as the Reo factory. To learn more about R.E. Olds inventions and Diamond Reo you can visit the R.E. Olds museum located in Lansing Michigan. I have included a you tube video of the museum. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUKfApxYwks
Reo Water Tower looking north from Cedar Street overpass