The Badger Coach Company
Researched and Written by Ruth Ann Montgomery
Many folks have noticed the renovation of the building on North Madison
Street. When siding was torn away from the north side of the building, another
piece of Evansville history was revealed. The old sign, “Badger Coach Co.,”
was once, the proud announcement that Evansville was the home of a trailer
manufacturing company owned by Howard and Grace Bruce, and their son,
Howard and Grace Bruce were married in 1911 at the home of Grace’s father,
George Hall, Jr. George was the son of George “Popcorn” Hall and was nearly
as famous as his father, in the circus business.
From the time she was a small child, Grace had performed in her father’s
circus. Howard had also been in the entertainment business. His father owned
theaters and a hotel in Stevens Point. Howard had operated the H. A. Bruce
Shows and had also worked as a drummer in the Gollmar Bros. Circus bands.
In the 1920s, Howard and Grace Bruce worked in circuses with her father,
George, Jr. and with her brother, Frank Hall. In 1924, Frank Hall and Howard
Bruce traveled with ten trucks filled with equipment, animals and performers.
The show included trained sheep and goats, stunt men, and other circus acts.
Mark Bruce, Howard and Grace’s son, was born in 1913. He was the fourth
generation of the Hall family to work in the circus. Mark traveled with his
parents as a child and later learned many staging and show routines working in
circuses during the family’s winter vacations in Florida.
Grace and Howard Bruce were in their late 40s when they gave up the Circus
life and settled into the new business of making touring trailers. The Badger
Coach Company began operation in the late spring of 1935 after Howard and
Grace Bruce purchased the North Madison Street land from John Feldt. A
small building was erected on the site and the Badger Trailer Company was
founded. The name was later changed to Badger Coach Co.
The first announcement of the company appeared in the Evansville Review on
August 1, 1935. Three models, the advance, the standard, and the junior
model of the vacation trailer were pictured in the quarter page spread. They
were to be pulled behind an automobile and the article featured photos of the
The floor plan of the standard model resembled a boat. A diagram of the trailer
floor plan showed the location of the furniture and equipment. The
accompanying text described the trailer as providing, “ample room for four
persons although it has been designed primarily for two passengers. The
equipment included a refrigerator, sink, stove, bed, tables and storage for
luggage. According to the article, the model offered “many conveniences to the
vacationist who a few years back depended upon an open fire and tent for food
In the midst of the Great Depression, the Bruce family had entered a vacation
market that was attracting people to the great outdoors. These consumers
wanted to enjoy nature without the inconvenience of putting up a tent and
cooking meals over a campfire. People who traveled in the trailers were
sometimes known as “Tin Can Tourists.”
The desire for long-distance travel to vacation spots was spurred by more
dependable automobiles, and better highways leading to the national parks in
the west and to winter camping sites in the south. Along the way, there were
campgrounds, wayside cottages, and local parks, like Evansville’s Lake Leota,
where camping was allowed.
The Bruce’s spent their winters in Florida and had already established a similar
plant in Manatee, Florida. According to the August 1, 1935 newspaper article,
they used their advance model trailer as their winter home. The family wanted
to make their trailer manufacturing company a year-round business and still
maintain their summer home in Evansville.
They started with orders for four trailers. These were so well received that by
the time they company opened again in the spring of 1936, they had orders
waiting. One man from Michigan, wanted to take his new mobile vacation home
on a California trip. Another trailer was being manufactured for a Portage
The Bruce’s had also introduced a new model that would sleep four people.
The company expected to build three of this model, and complete 18 trailers
during their season in Evansville. The trailers sold for $395 to $1000,
depending on size and equipment.
In April 1936, the Evansville Review ran another article, “Young Trailer Industry
Making Good in Small Town.” Successful sales of the few trailers the Bruce’s
were able to manufacture the previous summer, encouraged another Evansville
entrepreneur to enter the business.
Evansville now had two trailer manufacturers, The Badger Trailer Co., also
known as the Badger Coach Co. operated by the Bruce’s and The Globe
Trailer Coach Co., operated by a Mr. Lutz. The Globe Trailer had started
operations in August 1935, just as the Bruce’s were preparing to leave for
Florida. Lutz reported that his trailer prices started at $350.
The Bruces were ambitious about advertising their products and took trailers to
trade shows. In the summer of 1938, the Wisconsin-Minnesota Automobile
Tourist association sponsored a convention in Wisconsin Dells to promote
tourism. Howard, Grace, and Mark Bruce took one of their “attractive trailer
coaches” to show. The Evansville company was the only Wisconsin trailer
manufacturer exhibiting at the show.
Before leaving for Florida in November 1938, the Bruce family held an open
house to introduce the latest model trailer. The front page article in the
November 11, 1938 Evansville Review described the new trailer: “Finished in
Philippine mahogany with black walnut trim, the new model is equipped with
attractive Venetian blinds and is arranged in two compartments, a living room
with concealed kitchen equipment and a private state room with stationary bed.”
The state room was elegantly furnished for a tourist trailer, with a dresser, built-
in mirror, two clothes presses, and a flush toilet. A door separated the bedroom
from the kitchen area. Cooking equipment included a three-burner gas range,
with oven, a “factory-built ice refrigerator,” and “ample cupboard space.” The
trailer also had a oil burner for heat
The exterior of the trailer was finished in a wine color, with black and aluminum
trim. The roof was made of aluminum and it had a double floor construction.
The trailer could be customized for those who did not like the standard model.
The Bruce’s planned to exhibit the new model at tourist conventions and trailer
shows in Florida during the winter months. They reported back to the Review
from their home in Florida that they had exhibited their new trailer at the annual
Sarasota trailer show.
The following year, Mark Bruce and another employee, Bob Hubbard took a
trailer to Traverse City and Orchard Beach State park near Manistee,
Michigan. They exhibited the trailer at the Tin Can Tourist Association of The
World and Automobile Tourists’ Association shows. These organizations were
headquartered in Florida and also sponsored the shows in Florida where the
The business was so successful that the company needed larger facilities in
Evansville. In the spring of 1940, Paul Dehnert, a local contractor, was hired to
build an 18 x 64 foot addition to the small building the Bruce’s had been working
in on North Madison Street.
The frame structure had a concrete floor and was sided with fake-brick to match
the smaller building. Crews of carpenters, masons and electricians worked at
the remodeling project so that it could open in mid-May. The Bruce family also
had an apartment built in the second story of the shop.
The Bruce family planned to build even larger models of their trailers and local
residents were invited to an open house so that they could view the new
models. Their first new order for 1940 had been from George Roberson, the
owner and manager of the Roberson Players, a traveling show troupe.
Roberson had purchased a 24-foot tandem-wheeled model that was customized
for his needs. The Bruce’s told the Review reporter that Roberson had chosen
their model after “carefully inspecting models displayed by some 20 other
manufacturers at the annual winter trailer show in Florida.”
In later years, the Bruces added custom boat building and trailer repair work to
Howard, Grace, and Mark Bruce built trailers in their shop on North Madison
Street for 28 years. In 1963, the building was sold to Roland and Shirley
Devlin. Devlin told the Review that he expected to continue his business of
renting and selling tent type trailers and also to move his real estate business
into the North Madison Street building.
A few months after the sale of the business, Grace Bruce passed away.
Howard and Mark Bruce continued to live in Evansville and often wintered in
Florida. Howard died in 1969.
Mark became active in state and local theater productions and served on the
board of governors in Evansville’s Little Theater and the Wisconsin Theater
Association. In 1977, he was recognized for “outstanding contributions to
theater in Wisconsin.” Mark died in January 1985.
Today, the building that once housed the Badger Coach Company is being
restored and revitalized. Only the sign “Badger Coach Co.” remains of the
once flourishing Evansville business.
|Wedding photo of Howard and Grace Hall Bruce
Howard Bruce - Circus Band drummer
Bruce Company trailer and advertising car