August ‘Gus’ Charles Fruehauf (1867-1930)

August Charles Fruehauf's story and invention of the truck trailer is an integral part of the nation's transportation history in the last century. The Fruehauf Trailer Company facilitated the growth of continental transportation as a viable alternative to rail that brought efficient transportation from the farmer's gate and the factory's loading door.

Updated: November 03, 2015

Introduction

August Charles Fruehauf's story and invention of the truck trailer is an integral part of the nation's transportation history in the last century. The Fruehauf Trailer Company facilitated the growth of continental transportation as a viable alternative to rail that brought efficient transportation from the farmer's gate and the factory's loading door. This opened the opportunity of expanded markets to the whole country.

August Fruehauf went into business as a blacksmith and carriage maker in Detroit in the 1890s. In 1914, Frederick Sibley, a Detroit lumber tycoon and a frequent customer, asked Fruehauf to convert a horse-drawn wagon into a trailer to be pulled by a Model T roadster to haul a boat he owned to his vacation house. Fruehauf responded by inventing a device that transformed his business and enabled it to grow into a world-renowned truck-trailer manufacturing company. This business changed freight transportation in America. Fruehauf Trailers was the original and most widely recognized semi-trailer brand for over fifty years and the General Motors of truck trailers in its heyday. The company invented and introduced to the American market such products as hydraulic lift gates, refrigerated trailers, flatbed trailers, heavy-duty carryalls for tanks and heavy machinery and over 125 patented types of trailers for the Defense Department.

Family Background

August’s father, Charles Fruehauf (1824–1894) was born in Prussia. About 1855 he met and married Christina Sophia Hoffmeyer (1835–1919), who was known by her middle name. They immigrated to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century and settled in Erin Township in Macomb County, Michigan, twenty miles from Detroit, a region heavily settled by German immigrants. Charles and Sophia Fruehauf had ten children, all born in Michigan.[1]

Charles was a blacksmith, machinist and farmer. Charles Fruehauf’s status as a respectable member of his community is indicated by his appointment as treasurer of Erin Township in 1883, a job he held until 1893. In the early years he supported his growing family by working at the respected Moffat & Eatherly industrial sawmill on the eastern side of Detroit. Hugh Moffat and Florence Eatherly (both immigrants from Scotland) were key figures in the development of Detroit and in its mid-nineteenth century building boom. The sawmill’s business benefited from Hugh Moffat’s election as the mayor of Detroit, where he served two terms between 1872 and 1875.[2] Moffat & Eatherly provided the materials for many prominent Detroit buildings of the era. In addition to raw lumber, the mill’s metal works and smithies provided old world excellence in metal supplies like grates, door hinges, decorative fencing, grillwork and even construction nails.

Charles and Sophia Fruehauf’s sixth child was a son named August Charles, nicknamed “Gus.”[3] August attended St. John’s Lutheran School in Fraser, a community adjacent to Erin Township. He earned money during the holidays by dipping Christmas trees into colored paint, a tradition practiced by German immigrants in Michigan. When August had completed his secondary education in 1884, he worked at Moffat & Eatherly, where his father had advanced to a position as the mill’s engineer. Moffat & Eatherly had high standards and their employees would quickly be fired if they cut corners. There, August was exposed to the skills of the mill’s most experienced artisans and developed a talent for shaping metal at a forge.

Business Development

Soon afterward, the young August Fruehauf struck out on his own to seek his fortune. August, known as “Gus,” was classically German in attitude, style, and physique; he sported a thick, bushy moustache his entire life. He was welcomed into East Detroit’s mostly German community. With his valuable experience in metal smithing at the lumber mill, he obtained a job as a blacksmith’s apprentice. August worked for Anthony Pfent who had earned an excellent reputation for building fine wagons and carriages in the community of Roseville, located on the corner of Girard (now 7-Mile Road) and Gratiot. Here August was introduced to the fine craft of carriage making and repair, which would influence his future. Pfent eventually expanded by buying a former hotel and converting it into a hardware store where he sold agricultural implements and other accessories forged by his apprentice in the blacksmith shop. As Pfent divided his time between the workshop and the hardware store, August eventually took charge of the workshop and became Pfent’s head blacksmith. A well-liked boss, August became known by the nickname of “Governor” among his co-workers, friends, and family.[4]

Part of August’s job was running errands to the nearby Schuchard General Store where he met Louisa Henrietta Schuchard (1870–1926)), the woman he would marry October 17, 1890 in St. Peter’s Church on Gratiot near Eight Mile Road.[5] Louisa came from a very large German family with twelve children; she was the eldest daughter. Her parents, Gustavius ‘Gustav’ Phillip Frederick Schuchard (1829–1892) and Dorothea Magdalena ‘Minnie’ Spengler (1829–1897), had arrived in Michigan in 1852. In Germany, Gustav attended military school and fought in the revolution of 1848. He was promoted to commissioned officer and received medals for meritorious conduct from the Duke of Baden and the Grand Duke of Hesse. In Michigan, Gustav worked in local sawmills for six years before starting his own business peddling, and later operating a threshing machine. He eventually opened a successful general store in Roseville, and was appointed postmaster in 1866 and a notary in 1869. The family belonged to the local Evangelical Church. Louisa worked as a child and later as a young woman in her father’s store, where she learned inventory management, sales and accounting skills that would be of benefit as August’s business began to prosper and expand.

Louisa was twenty at the time of her marriage; August was about to turn twenty-three. The ceremony was officiated by Rev. Henry Krusehoph and witnessed by friends and family members.[6] August was embraced by Louisa’s family, who provided him with nurturing and guidance as the couple started their life together. Louisa’s parents frequently helped the couple throughout the early years of their marriage. The couple would eventually have five children: Andrew Ferdinand (1892–1965), Harvey Charles (1893–1968), Henry Richard (1896–1962), Myrtle (1898–1976), and Roy (1908–1965).

By 1895 August had advanced beyond being Pfent’s apprentice to become a journeyman blacksmith. Like many other immigrant entrepreneurs, he found a business partner, William L. Welke, through his family network: the two men were related by the marriage of August’s elder brother Frederick to Welke’s sister Augusta. The two men opened a small blacksmith and wagon shop named Fruehauf & Welke, Carriage Makers, on Grand River Avenue. This partnership dissolved two years later when Welke took a job as carpenter for a Detroit brewery. By 1899, August had started a new shop on the southeast corner of Concord Avenue and Gratiot Avenue in Detroit, a short distance from his mentor Anthony Pfent. It was a converted feed store with living quarters on the second floor. The first shop was eventually sold in hope of finding better business at a new location. August and Louisa bought a building in Mount Clemens, Michigan. Late one night this building caught fire, nearly trapping them in the upstairs living quarters. Fire hazard was a risk factor for any blacksmith, as the forge or blast furnace coals needed to be kept alive twenty-four hours a day. Louisa was badly burned as she tried, unsuccessfully, to save three horses.

The couple was discouraged but not defeated. After Louisa recovered, a process that took several months, they packed up their growing family and moved back to Detroit, where they rented another combination two-story blacksmith shop and home. A second fire destroyed nearly everything they owned. Lacking in insurance, but not courage, ambition and faith, they moved nearby and set up yet another blacksmith shop. This time, Louisa insisted on a brick building to prevent future fires. With funds they borrowed from Louisa’s parents, they were able to set up their shop in a desirable location on Gratiot Avenue. August’s brother Charles became a partner and the two brothers specialized in wagons, carriages, and general blacksmithing. The Fruehaufs carried on a tradition of wit and practical jokes. A sign inside the door was posted saying: “Practical Horseshoer... Special attention given to knee knocking, stumbling, interfering, and over-reaching.”[7]

Even in those early days August Fruehauf had built a favorable reputation for himself and was known far and wide for his skill as a horseshoer and for the expert workmanship found in his light and heavy wagons and horse-drawn trucks of various kinds. August Fruehauf’s products were well built, materials were of the best quality, and his business methods reflected an honesty of purpose and integrity of character. This favorable reputation was earned with the timely delivery of excellent and reliable products. August spent his time in the shop while he depended on Louisa to paint the wagons and carriages. She was also the small firm’s purchasing agent and general assistant, using the skills she had learned from working in her father’s store. Louisa could often be seen on the Gratiot Avenue streetcar moving goods for the firm, balancing a wagon wheel upright with a bundle of horseshoes at her feet. At the shop she could be found caring for horses or painting wagons. She made her contributions to the family business while raising five children.[8] By 1912 the business had outgrown the shop on Gratiot Avenue. August had been eyeing a vacant lot across the street and finally decided to purchase the land. With the help of his in-laws and siblings on a weekend “building bee” they constructed the finest brick blacksmith shop in the country, with big bay windows in front and a shop so long that it could house 60 horses at one time and accommodate their growing business trade in wagons and carriages. This was the largest combination blacksmith and wagon works shop in Detroit and at the time conceded to be one of the finest and best-equipped shops in the country.[9]

A year later an unemployed German blacksmith arrived at the shop. He was intent on impressing August, whose reputation as a tough and demanding boss was well known. August Fruehauf’s requirements for his employees demanded that they not only had to be skilled artisans but also give meticulous care to details. Naturally those seeking employment could be intimidated. This visitor had a novel approach as he discovered August struggling to shoe a frisky filly. The stranger made several comments about August’s obvious difficulty with the horse. Challenged, August asked if the man thought he could do better and handed the man his leather apron. Rising to the challenge, the horse was shod in no time and the man was hired. That stranger was Otto Neumann, and he and the “Governor” developed a life-long partner and friendship. Otto, a shorter man with a ready smile was the perfect counterpart to the tall thin August. Affable and eager to find solutions, Otto excelled in developing a long list of dedicated customers. In 1918, the year that Fruehauf incorporated, Neumann took a seat on the company’s board of directors, a position he would hold until his death in 1948. Otto and August became very skilled at designing and selling new carriages and wagons. Wagons and the wagon-building department became more and more important for the business. The two men worked long hours and the business flourished.

In mid-1914, Frederic M. Sibley, Sr., a prominent Detroit lumber dealer, came to the shop looking for a carriage or method of transportation for a newly purchased boat. Sibley’s visit was fateful for August as it was to change the company’s destiny and carry it far beyond the horse and into the motor age. Sibley had a summer home on a lake in northern Michigan. He had a large 18-foot-long sailboat he wanted to transport there, but a horse and wagon would take several days. He wanted to know if August thought he could rig a contraption to hook onto Sibley’s Model T Ford Roadster to haul the boat.

August and Otto thought they could and asked Sibley to give them a few days to work on a solution. Sibley was a big customer and they were very motivated to solve his problem. Brainstorming, they discussed the details of weight, width, height and specific length. Otto began drawing sketches of the carriage bed. Their solution was to modify the back end area of the Roadster by removing the back seat.

August explained the concept of taking a flatbed that was six feet wide and twenty feet long, with side boards about four feet high. The sailboat, sails and mast would fit in the bed along with other accessories. The wagon would have coupling at the front that would mate with a coupling on the back of the Model T. In order to accomplish this they needed to modify the Roadster by removing the back seat and using the frame for support. Sibley liked the idea but was concerned about Henry Ford’s warranty approval for the modified Model T.  

Fredrick Sibley was adequately persuaded that August and Otto’s solution would work and he drove to Dearborn to seek permission from Henry Ford. At the time, lumber merchants like Sibley were among the elite of Detroit, and thus it was relatively easy for Sibley to obtain a meeting with the ambitious automobile manufacturer who was only at the beginning of attaining outstanding success (in fact, one of Ford’s earliest business backers was another lumber merchant, Thomas Murphey). Ford and Sibley discussed the sailboat being attached to the roadster and the modification of removing the back seat to accommodate the coupling. Henry Ford was adamant that any modification would forfeit the automobile’s warranty. In addition, Ford could not guarantee the torque on the frame as the wagon made turns. Despite Ford’s objections, Sibley decided to take the risk. He had a long history with August’s firm and trusted his solutions.

The work was begun and piece by piece August’s team beat out and bolted a sturdy two-wheeler that hooked to the rear of Sibley’s Model T frame with a pole that acted as both tongue and brake. August called the mechanism a semi-trailer, and Louisa painted its sides with handsome gold letters reading “Sibley Lumber.” Eighteen-year-old Harry Fruehauf proudly demonstrated the trailer and modified roadster for his father’s client.

The trailer got the boat to Sibley’s lake successfully. Sibley, impressed by its performance, decided that a rig with a platform would also make an efficient piece of equipment for his lumberyard. He reasoned that he would save man-hours and horse feed and could make a lot more trips more efficiently. He ordered another trailer for the lumber company.

August built a stronger trailer with a platform designed for lumber. This trailer worked just as Sibley had anticipated. His gamble had paid off and he submitted a large order for more. When the practicability of the “trailer idea” was so successfully demonstrated, larger trucks, in place of passenger cars, were immediately purchased and placed in service. Fruehauf trailers had now arrived on the American road.

Then orders came in with a flurry as Sibley’s competitors rushed to overcome Sibley’s technical advantage with his new fleet of motor-driven trailers. Other local manufacturers saw the huge advantage of a motor-driven trailer to deliver their goods to market. For the first time, efficient transportation was possible from the farm and factory to consumers and suppliers. The new trailers were nicknamed “Hercules” and underwent a series of improvements as they were produced for additional customers. The nickname didn’t stick, as customers routinely referred to them as Fruehauf Trailers. August’s name meant a great deal, as he was a stickler for quality work and customer satisfaction. His motto was “The customer is boss!” He produced an excellent product that could be counted on to last. August and Otto Neumann supervised each trailer as it was produced according to individual customers’ specifications. August’s early training in quality products and respect for his customers earned the esteem of his customers and with it an excellent reputation. As problems arose, the Fruehauf team developed a variety of innovations to address them, including the addition of a fifth wheel to the coupling attaching the trailer to the vehicle towing it that led to the automatic coupling of today.[10]

In 1915 the first Fruehauf trailer advertisement appeared inThe American Lumberman, a leading trade periodical, only a year after Sibley’s fateful visit to Fruehauf’s blacksmith shop. The advertisement, which cost $28 (or $627 in 2010 dollars), resulted in $22,000 in orders that year (or $493,000 in 2010 dollars). Soon after major trade publications, vocational magazines, and newspapers were carrying the revolutionary Fruehauf message, “A horse can pull more than it can carry...so can a truck.” 

Fruehauf’s success with car-pulled trailers, however, continued to displease Henry Ford. In spite of Ford’s warranty threat and growing disapproval of pick-up truck manufacturers, Fruehauf officially entered the manufacture of trailers for use with automotive vehicles. Automobiles were eventually upgraded to truck tractors to haul larger and larger payloads.

A few companies, sensing the potential market for trailers, built four-wheel trailers based on a knuckle-steer coupling mechanism. However, this type of trailer lacked stability and would whip from one side of the road to another, creating an unfavorable impression. The Fruehauf Trailer Company hired a full-time engineer to study the problem and after much experimentation developed a circle-steer mechanism for attaching trailers. It steered from one end only and was simple to manufacture, low in cost, and would move the trailer directly in line with the path set by the towing vehicle.

By 1916, Fruehauf was producing three varieties of trailers; two-wheel trailers, semi-trailers and four-wheel trailers, with each model adjusted to ensure an evenly-balanced load that would keep the trailer in line with the truck pulling it. The four-wheel trailer, a Motor Age article noted, was being used in a broad range of industries, including lumber transport, road construction, and the movement of materials for breweries and tobacco companies.[11]

By 1918, August found that despite a day and night shift, orders were still outstripping his company’s production capacity. Sales reached $150,000 (or $2.17 million in 2010 dollars) and the blacksmith shop was literally bulging at its bay windows with workmen and trailers. New land and a new plant became mandatory. On February 27, 1918, the Fruehauf Trailer Company was incorporated with a capitalization of $108,000 ($1.56 million in 2010 dollars). The company’s first balance sheet reported almost $8,000 in cash ($116,000 in 2010 dollars) with the remaining assets representing real estate, tools, bills receivable and inventories. It is notable that the inventory did not list a single horseshoe, signifying the end of the horse-driven era for Fruehauf.

Coincidentally, later the same year the first meeting of the Trailer Manufacturers’ Association was held in Cincinnati. Fruehauf, represented by employee Earl Vosler, was the only manufacturer building semi-trailers, and the unusual idea was the target of considerable ridicule. A few four-wheeled vehicles had been built at Troy, Ohio. There was also a firm in Detroit experimenting with the four-wheeled type, but no one had even dreamed of a two-wheeled trailer until August C. Fruehauf pioneered the idea and coined the name—Semi-Trailer—a name which is today familiar to transportation users and operators the world over.

Although Fruehauf is often credited with building the first semi-trailer, the credit must be shared with a number of other individuals who all arrived at the invention in the half-decade that preceded the First World War. Thefirst patent relating to the fifth-wheel hitch, whose invention made the semi-trailer practical, was filed in 1919 by Herman G. Farr and officially awarded in 1922. Farr was an engineer of the Knox Automobile Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. Farr and another Knox engineer named Charles H. Martin, had been experimenting with various types of fifth-wheel arrangements in connection with their positions at the Knox Automobile Company, who were manufacturing a 3-wheeled tractor designed to tow existing heavy trailers and fire apparatus. In fact, Fruehauf became the Detroit distributor for the Martin Rocking Fifth Wheel Co., and prominently featured Martin fifth wheels in their early advertising.[12]

August served as the first president of the small new corporation. Louisa was vice president, son Harvey was treasurer and sales manager, and Otto Neumann was factory manager. As the business continued to expand it became physically impossible for August to give ceaseless personal supervision to every phase of the growing business. Not only were there manufacturing difficulties but problems of finance and sales. August relied on Louisa and their sons, Harvey and Harry, more and more. Harvey and Harry were trained in manufacturing methods and August tried to instill in them a creed of craftsmanship: “Do a good job—put everything into it of materials and workmanship—take a pride in your work whether you get paid for it or not.”

Fruehauf began to advertise and issue marketing press releases. In a November 1918 press release, for example, Harvey Fruehauf extolled the advantages of the truck-trailer, arguing that with transportation costs constituting a major business expense it was necessary for businessmen to “coldly calculate” their expenses and treat transportation as “a science.” The truck’s ability to “pull more than it could carry” had led to the development of the trailer, which “doubled and trebled” its efficiency.”[13]

To keep up with supply and demand, August brought on board men who could create improvements to the expanding needs of the customers. One of those creative people was Fruehauf’s chief engineer, Ernest F. Hartwick, who was also a second-generation German-American. In 1919 Hartwick introduced an improved manual fifth-wheel coupler and trailer jack. This invention gave Fruehauf its own patented hitching system. It gradually replaced the third-party systems that had previously been provided by the Martin Rocking Fifth-Wheel Company.

The Need for Improved Roads

Trailer manufacturers like Fruehauf were not alone in their recognition of the need for improved roads. By the end of 1917, the country’s railroads were operating at full capacity and still not able to meet demands for transportation. Goods were difficult to obtain creating backorders, delivery logjams delays and higher prices. As the United States entered World War I in April 1916, solutions to these challenges became critical. The Quartermaster Department and the Highways Transport Committee of the National Department of Defense launched a plan to relieve congested railroads by creating a truck convoy from Detroit to the Atlantic coast to deliver goods and trucks for men at arms to be loaded onto ships. The convoy of 30,000 war trucks carrying payloads of 690,000 tons of freight set off from Detroit on December 16, 1917. In addition to supplying troops with vehicles, supplies and goods to be transported to the front in France, the convoy was expected to solve another urgent problem, that of training the men in the operation of the trucks and heavy equipment they were required to use in battle. Major General Henry Sharpe is quoted saying, “The military motor truck driver must not only have hours of maintenance, repair and adjustment and loading and unloading, in the worst possible conditions and under every conceivable difficulty. Developing these skills and experience comes only through training.”[14]

August Fruehauf sought out military contracts for the fledgling Fruehauf company during World War I, and apparently felt very little ambivalence about supporting the United States in its war against his parents’ country of origin. His son Andrew’s voluntary service in the war is further evidence of the family’s feelings about patriotism. Similarly, during World War II the Fruehauf company actively sought out military contracts.

During World War I, American military leaders observed the use of highly-organized transportation routes by French and British commanders in order to efficiently manage the movement of troops and supplies. After the war, the military undertook a campaign to persuade the public about the importance of improving the national highway and road network as well as to train troops in the use of heavy equipment such as trucks and trailers.

In 1919, a cross-continental convoy organized in part by Dwight D. Eisenhower—then a lieutenant colonel; later the president who signed into law the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956—took place. The plan was intended to encourage the public to support a $425 million plan (or $5.3 billion in 2010 dollars) to improve the nation’s highways. Traveling from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco along the Lincoln Highway, the convoy of more than 80 trucks, ambulances, mobile field kitchens and other vehicles, manned by over 250 enlisted personnel, moved at the pace of 75 miles per day. The weight of the vehicles caused more than 80 different bridges to collapse en route, and the convoy’s path revealed that there were almost no paved highways between Illinois and Nevada. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921, passed in response to the publicity generated by the convoy, authorized funding to create a coherent plan for the nation’s future road network and partial government funding for its construction. By 1923, the first set of roads authorized by the act had been completed.

By 1919, with the nation whirling in a postwar business boom, Fruehauf sales grew to a whopping $302,000 (or $3.81 million in 2010). A new factory on Harper Avenue in Detroit was completed in 1920, and Fruehauf tackled a growing stream of orders. One innovation was the van-type trailer. These trailers also introduced a hydraulic lift gate, which permitted easy off-loading/on-loading of the payload to ground level from the trailer platform. These were the preferred transportation choices utilized by professional haulers who had once operated with horse and dray. Then construction men saw the adaptability of the semi-trailer to their special problems, and ground hugging carryalls were developed to get heavy machinery and immense installations to places inaccessible by less versatile means. The carryalls could transport up to 35 tons.

Initially after the war, times were prosperous, materials were scarce and high in price, and labor was difficult to obtain. Some export business had been received during 1919 and in 1920 a large order was received from Amsterdam for the Dutch East Indies. Everything pointed to a continuation of abundant business. A new and larger site was secured for the new Fruehauf factory on Harper Avenue, adjoining the Detroit Terminal tracks. This location assured the Fruehauf Company room for expansion and adequate shipping facilities. The new factory was built and occupied in 1920.

But with the election of Warren G. Harding in 1920, the country began to suffer an economic downturn. Then came the first indication of what was to follow. The order for the Dutch trailers was held up—then cancelled—not a single trailer of that order was ever delivered. But the materials were all in stock. Along came the depression of 1921 and the Fruehauf Trailer Company faced this downturn at the greatest disadvantage a young company could encounter just as it was investing and expanding. The situation became desperate!  The company carried an excessively large inventory, purchased at peak prices. It suffered from a severe liquidity crisis.

A solution appeared with the visit of two English businessmen who wanted to build a factory in Detroit to manufacture a new type of casement windows. They approached August, who was nervous about cash flow after the cancelation of the Dutch sale. These men asked if August might be interested in selling two and a quarter acres of his plot, for $15,000 (almost $200,000 in 2010 dollars) cash per acre. Needing an influx of cash, the “Governor” prevailed upon his colleagues on the board to accept this offer. On November 7, 1921, the Fruehauf directors voted unanimously to sell the requested land to the Crittall Casement Window Company, a British company that pioneered the production of steel-framed windows.

From that time forward the trailer business slowly and steadily improved. Fruehauf’s sales continued to prosper and in 1925 sales of the Fruehauf Trailer Company passed the million-dollar mark, reaching $1,215,000 (or $15.3 million in 2010 dollars). August was not one to rest on his laurels and the firm continued to innovate. By the mid-1920s Hartwick had left the company and was replaced by Frederick M. Reid. In 1926 Reid invented the automatic semi-trailer. It allowed a trailer to be coupled and uncoupled mechanically by the power of the tractor’s engine. The semi-trailer was immediately recognized by Fruehauf’s peers as a major contribution to the motor freight industry, a considerable shift from the reception the company had received at the National Trailer Association in Cincinnati nine years earlier. Reid also created the drop-frame tank semi-trailer that enabled the haulers to transport gas and oil more economically. In 1926, Fruehauf introduced the automatic semi-trailer. Transportation experts instantly recognized Fruehauf’s introduction of the automatic semi-trailer as a major contribution to the industry. By 1928 there were three million registered trucks and trailers in the United States—compared with just under 100,000 fourteen years earlier.

Progress meant trailer sales

The 1920s also saw the birth of the refrigerated trailer body manufactured by Fruehauf. These units had 4 and 6-ton capacities and were generally used to haul ice cream in cans. After the cargo was loaded, a trap door on the roof of the van would be opened to allow pulverized ice and salt to enter through spouts keeping the cargo cold. The company also created an innovative reversible four-wheel trailer.

Another significant new invention Fruehauf developed in the late 1920s was a drop-frame semi-trailer with a tank mounted onto it for transporting grain. The tankers were later modified to carry gasoline and oil. The reception accorded this new type of semi-trailer was astounding and the gasoline and oil division of the Fruehauf Trailer Company became one of the most important in the firm. Practically every major oil company ordered tanker trucks from Fruehauf, with orders for fleets of 50 or 200 trucks not uncommon. These tankers were also a means for transporting other liquid products in bulk such as industrial chemicals, concrete, and milk. The company developed an assortment of water-tank trailers in the late 1930s which later proved useful to the military during World War II. By 1929 sales had reached $3,759,000 (or $48 million in 2010 dollars).

As the company continued to expand in 1920s, August brought his sons into the business. Andrew, the eldest, was briefly put in charge of the company’s Chicago branch, but eventually decided he was not cut out for a business career and had left the company by the 1920s. Harvey, born in 1893, had some education in accounting, sales and marketing methods. He preferred the office side of the business rather than fabrication or production. Harry, born three years later in 1896, would become active in the manufacturing end of the company. Harry was in charge of the firm's growing purchasing department and in 1923 Harvey expanded his responsibilities by creating a finance department to accommodate installment sales from the growing list of distributors. Roy, much younger than his brothers, ran errands and assisted in all departments until he was old enough to go to college. The first Fruehauf factory branch was opened in 1921, and by the end of the decade Fruehauf had established distributorships across the country, including in Indiana, Ohio, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Ontario, Canada.

August Fruehauf remained a vigorous and active president throughout the company’s success in the 1920s. After his wife’s death in 1926, his daughter Myrtle cared for him in the double house that her family shared with him. At the end of 1929, however, August became ill and was confined to his home from December onward. In February 1930, he retired as president, passing on the position to his second son Harvey, while remaining chairman of the board of directors. He died less than three months later, on May 11, 1930. He was 63 years old.

August’s sons proved successful in maintaining the Fruehauf’s reputation and expanding sales. Even the Depression did not harm the company; because trailers were practical and economical, the demand for them remained healthy. Conditions could not have been more favorable. Motor freight operators eagerly adopted the trailer idea and soon thousands of trailers were rolling the highways. The return of prosperity and the tremendous increase in the number of motor cars and trucks, emphasized the need for more and better roads. This demand, in turn, created a market for trailers capable of hauling heavy road building equipment. Where one “full-time” engineer had been employed in 1916, by the 1930s the company needed multiple expert draftsmen bending over drawing boards whose constant aim was to combine beauty, strength, and utility in Fruehauf trailers. Fine steels, drop forgings and sheet metals replaced heart-of-oak, hickory, and seasoned ash as materials. In 1937, a total of four million trucks and trailers were on the nation’s highways.

In 1935 Fruehauf sales reached $6,263,000 (or $99.5 million in 2010 U.S. dollars), and five years later they hit $19,512,000 ($303 million in 2010 U.S. dollars). Fruehauf opened its first branch factory in Chicago in 1930, and soon pushed their way across the country. In 1939 the company constructed a large new factory in Detroit for its trailer new body assembly and sheet metal stamping operations.

The company endured its first big clash with government authorities when the Fruehauf Trailer Company was accused of violating the Wagner Act of 1935 by interfering in its employees’ efforts to form a labor union. Harvey Fruehauf was widely known for his negative views towards labor unions both among his employees and among his business peers. In November 1935, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a new agency created under the Wagner Act, began hearings in Detroit into accusations that Fruehauf Trailer Company had fired several men who had sought to form a United Auto Workers unit for their pro-union activism. The NLRB decided to build a case against Fruehauf to set an example for other major employers. The hearings uncovered that a Pinkerton detective, J.N. Martin, had been hired to infiltrate the union, learn members’ names, and report them to a company executive. Nine of the employees were fired, and three more were threatened with losing their jobs.[15] The NLRB released a ruling in December 1935 ordering Fruehauf to reinstate the fired employees with back pay and to stop hiring private detectives if they were being used to thwart union activity.[16]

In response to the NLRB’s attack, Fruehauf took the case to the Sixth U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the Wagner Act violated the Tenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. On June 30, 1936, the court ruled in Fruehauf’s favor. The case was followed by the business community with great interest as the NLRB appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. In December 1937 the court ruled, by a 5 to 4 margin, that the Wagner Act was applicable to the Fruehauf Trailer Company. The court mandated that the fired employees be reinstated and receive back pay, and Fruehauf was to cease its anti-labor union practices. The Fruehauf case (National Labor Relations Board v. Fruehauf) set a precedent for all employers, and employees, of motor-vehicle-related businesses.[17]

Notwithstanding Harvey Fruehauf’s opposition to unionization, the decade following the National Labor Relations Board decision saw the Fruehauf Trailer Company set new records for its success. Each year trailers bearing the name of Fruehauf transported more and more products Americans ate, wore and used. As the company grew, increasing numbers of Fruehauf trailers took their place on the American road. The mammoth Fruehauf factories were a source of admiration to transportation engineers and students of modern shop practice. Fruehauf trailers were not assembled units. Each job was designed and every part was manufactured in the big Fruehauf shops under strict specifications to fully meet customers’ requirements.

World War II gave trucking another tremendous boost as the armed forces relied heavily on its transportation capacity. Fruehauf alone designed and built 125 different types of trailers for the men under arms. They were created for a wide variety of uses. Among them was the M9 Tank Trailer. It was built to be combined with the M20 Tractor. The trailer and tractor combination, known as an M19 tank transporter, had more than two dozen tires, weighed 20,150 pounds and could carry up to 45 tons. It measured 30 feet long and almost ten feet wide. During World War II Fruehauf designed trailers for tank recovery as well as for transporting cargo like fuel and ammunition. The company also designed trailers for carrying large searchlights, small two-wheel cargo trailers, and eight-ton trailers that could be used to carry small tractors.

By 1946, sales had more than tripled again to $77 million (or $859 million in 2010 U.S. dollars) thanks in part to the huge demand for trailers for the military. This demand continued after the war. A 1954 press release noted that the company had continued to develop new vehicles for the military, including the launching platform for “Matadors,” one of the first cruise missiles developed.[18]

In the fifteen-year period from 1940 to 1955 the number of American trucks doubled. By 1955 there were ten million trucks and trailers carrying freight over American highways, and by 1956 several hundred thousand more were added. The trailer fleet grew to almost five and a half times its 1940 size, from 130,000 in 1940 to 420,000 in 1950 and then 700,000 by 1955. Trucking was and remains a gigantic industry.[19] The Truman administration declared trucking America’s largest industrial employer, accounting for one in every ten jobs, and spent $30 billion (or $272 billion in 2010 dollars) annually on wages and materials. Truck owners paid over one third of all motor vehicle taxes, and purchased more than 10 billion gallons of gasoline a year.[20]

During the 1950s, Fruehauf initiated the “piggybacking” process, the carrying of loaded truck trailers on railway flat cars. The company invented a trailer that could unload a trailer directly onto the railway car and lock it into place for transport. Following that they promoted the ‘fishybacking’ process, the carrying of loaded truck trailers and containers on steamships, growing to great importance along both coasts and the St. Lawrence Seaway.[21] These were the beginnings of containerization. The creation of the U.S. interstate highway network by Dwight D. Eisenhower further expanded the popularity of trucking as a mode of freight transportation that could reach the United States’ smallest and most remote communities. However, internal disagreements among the sons of August Fruehauf were in play and would ultimately cause the company’s downfall. An examination of the Fruehaufs’ family life sheds light on these events.

Social Status, Networks, Family and Public Life

August Fruehauf was a dedicated Germanophile who listened to German music, loved German food and drank German beer. He spoke German with his colleagues and with his five children as well. His son Roy imitated August’s reverence for all things German and went so far as to purchase dogs from the old country that only responded to German commands like plotz and aufpassen. His Christmas photos depicted the youngsters in lederhosen and dirndls.[22] August’s social interests included the Knights Templar, a society affiliated with Freemasonry, which his sons also later joined.

Early in August and Louisa Fruehauf’s marriage, Louisa contracted tuberculosis. She was not expected to live, and her young children gathered for a vigil at her bedside. Hearing the sad news, a neighbor visited with literature written by Mary Baker Eddy of the new religious movement, Christian Science, founded in 1879. Miraculously Louisa recovered, and credited Christian Science and its related writings with restoring her health. The entire family became devout followers of the Christian Science faith.

August Fruehauf and Louisa Schuchard waited two years to have children. They became the parents of four sons and a daughter.[23] The couple’s eldest son, Andrew, was born in 1892. He served in the military during World War I.[24] Prior to induction, he married Alma Schmide about 1917.[25] After his discharge he returned to the newly-established Chicago branch of the family business to sell Fruehauf trailers to lumber dealers.

According to family legend, Andrew had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life after his military experiences. This might have been a consequence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological condition that was not recognized until decade later. Unable to adapt to the demands of business life, after several years Andrew left the family business

Andrew especially embraced Christian Science, which may have helped him overcome the negative impact of his war experiences. After leaving the Fruehauf company, Andrew received a sizeable allowance and, when his father died, the largest share of his estate. Andrew felt an affinity for the less fortunate and became particularly interested in Detroit’s African-American community. This led him to choose a vocation that he felt would honor his religious beliefs. In April of 1952 Andrew purchased the Detroit Tribune, the city’s oldest African-American newspaper, which had gone into bankruptcy. He became the newspaper’s publisher and aspired to develop it into an African-American counterpart to the Christian Science Monitor. He devoted the last years of his life to the paper and to promoting and encouraging the aspirations of Black Americans. Andrew died in December 1965 and was memorialized in a service that drew large attendance from the African-American community. His estate, estimated at $500,000 (or $3.4 million in 2010 dollars) made bequests to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and to continue the Detroit Tribune. The newspaper, however, ended publication the following year.[26]

As the only daughter of the family, Myrtle, born in 1898, was given the responsibility as she was growing up of helping to take care of her parents and her youngest brother, Roy, who was ten years her junior. She married Gerald Wilkenson Chamberlin in 1920, at age 22, and Chamberlin eventually became a company official just as her brothers did. Even after she married, she and her husband lived with August and Louisa. Eventually, August purchased a larger home on Westchester Avenue, in the affluent Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, that was intended to accommodate the two families. Myrtle was known to be an excellent cook and prepared German cuisine for her parents. Her specialties were spaetzle, pig’s knuckles and potato pancakes.[27] 

On August 8, 1926, the family suffered the devastating loss of Louisa.[28] Still a relatively young woman of 56, she died peacefully in the home that she and “the Governor” shared with their daughter Myrtle and her husband, Gerald (“Jerry”) Chamberlin. August and the whole family mourned her passing and leaned heavily on Myrtle to fill the void. Myrtle encouraged her father to play “hooky” and sneak off to Lake St. Clair to fish with her husband. She made every effort to respect August’s love of Germanic traditions and his precise habits. The family recounts stories about “the Governor’s” demanding nature. He wanted a three-minute egg, no more and no less. If it wasn’t three minutes, back it would be sent to the kitchen.[29]  Eventually August recovered, returned to work and even began to date again, but he did not remarry.

Family Dissent and the End of the Fruehauf Company

Roy, the baby in the family, initially went to Principia College in St. Louis, a school affiliated with the Christian Science church. When Roy returned home for his mother’s funeral, in 1926, he decided to leave college and join his brothers and father in the family business. He worked in different areas of the business learning about each department, achieving particular success in the sales department. In the early 1930s his brother Harvey sent him to Chicago and then to Des Moines where Roy would learn sales from the ground up. Bearing in mind his father’s motto—“The customer is the boss”—Roy used his talent as a natural-born salesman to earn the respect of the businesses he contacted and garnered their confidence.

The disintegration of Fruehauf Trailer Company began in 1950, a few months after Harvey stepped down and his brother Roy took the president’s chair. With the 17-year age generation gap between the two men there were natural differences in style, personality and vision. Harvey, a product of the more lean times the company had endured, was in favor of a more conservative approach without risk.

Roy, a younger, more charismatic risk taker, had a more expansionist view. He had been head of sales since 1938 and was acutely familiar with the roller-coaster nature of international sales. The company’s profits from sales had grown from his efforts and Roy recognized the need for innovation and expansion. Proposing new ideas to Harvey, Roy continued to meet with considerable resistance from his elder brother who was resistant to change.

Roy had a very different business style than his staid conservative older brother and a higher tolerance for risk. One of his first directives as president was to establish manufacturing branches throughout the U.S. and later in Europe and South America, positioning Fruehauf as a worldwide corporation. Buying up the competition was cheaper, and in the process Fruehauf acquired over 70 companies. In addition, national dealerships were established throughout the United States, in various Midwestern cities, New Jersey, Texas, and California. Roy’s background in sales was key as he had insight into the market place and knew his customers’ needs intimately. In 1954, the Fruehauf Company had nine plants and eighty-eight branches in operation in the United States and Canada, as well as plants in Brazil and France, and sales had doubled to $152,000,000 ($1.2 billion in 2010 dollars). This was the highest figure yet reached in the company’s history. A year later sales grew fifty percent to $234,000,000 ($1.9 billion in 2010 dollars).[30] By 1957 Fruehauf Trailer Company employed 8,200 people.

Harvey, however, second-guessed his brother’s decisions and attempted to intervene in setting company policy, causing disharmony both at the company and at board meetings. Rather than focusing on his business obligations, Roy began to feel that he was spending too much time handling his old-fashioned brother’s approach to business. Friction developed and over the course of the next four years a bitter power struggle progressed between the two brothers and their supporters. This struggle ultimately destroyed the Fruehauf Trailer Company.

Harvey was finally voted off the board by a vote of the other directors. Embittered, in 1953 he sold his preferred stock in the company to corporate raider George Kolowich for the sum of $3 million (or $24.5 million in 2010 dollars). This brought Kolowich close to controlling enough stock to produce a majority at the next board meeting. A very public proxy battle ensued, concluding on May 2, 1954, with Roy Fruehauf (who was supported by his other brothers, Harry and Andrew) retaining control of the trailer company. This changed Harvey's relationship with his siblings for the duration of his life.

Finally, in the aftermath of the proxy fight, Roy and the Fruehauf Trailer Company were investigated by the McClellan Senate hearings who were conducting hearings on corruption and racketeering in the Teamsters Union. Due to Roy Fruehauf’s personal association with Teamsters president Dave Beck, he was called as a witness, but eventually cleared of any association with wrongdoing. In September 1958, in an effort to separate his legal troubles from the Fruehauf Trailer Company name, Roy stepped down from the company’s presidency, but remained chairman of the company’s board of directors for the next six years.

Fruehauf Trailer Company ceased to be a family owned and managed corporation following the deaths of Harry in 1962 and of Andrew and Roy in 1965. In 1969 the IRS reviewed the financial books of Fruehauf Trailer Company. In response to that audit, in 1975 the Justice Department brought an indictment against Fruehauf’s management, charging the company with tax evasion and conspiracy to defraud the government. Top executives William Grace and Robert Rowan were tried and found guilty. Grace was subsequently incarcerated.[31] Grace, who had been on the board of Hobbs Trailers, had joined Fruehauf when Hobbs was acquired in 1955.

Eventually, Fruehauf's stock became vulnerable to outside buyers and in 1989 Terex Corporation of Westport, Connecticut attempted a hostile takeover of Fruehauf. The attacker was Asher Edelman, a Wall Street raider who in 1988 taught a course he called “Corporate Raiding: The Art of War.” Although Fruehauf won this battle, it left the company crippled and $1.4 billion in debt. Robert Rowan, who remained in control of the company, supervised the sell-off of “almost everything but the core trailer business,” including its rental dealerships and financing arm. With these divisions, the “crown jewels,” gone, the company no longer had a reliable outlet for its factory output, and the company was unable to compete with other trailer manufacturers.[32] On October 7, 1996, Fruehauf Trailer Company filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11. In April 1997 Wabash Trucking bought the Fruehauf name and other assets-in-bankruptcy for $52 million ($70.6 million in 2010 dollars).

By this time, the founding members of the Fruehauf family were all deceased, and the U.S. division of the corporation was bought and absorbed into Wabash. There still remain a few isolated Fruehauf branches in other countries like Mexico, France and New Zealand who proudly carry the name and legacy of August Charles Fruehauf. In the United States, Fruehauf is a name that will continue to echo through the memories of business leaders and old time truck drivers who hold a reverence for history, and for a quality product that originated in a blacksmith shop in old town Detroit over 100 years ago. August Fruehauf believed that the customer was always the boss and built his company accordingly.

Notes

[1] 1880 U. S. Census, Erin Township, Macomb County, Michigan, NARA T9-0592, page 417A, entry 4134, film 1254592.

[2] George Woodward Hotchkiss, History of the Lumber and Forest Industry of the Northwest (Chicago: George W. Hotchkiss & Co., 1898), 64, 69; Clarence Monroe Burton, Mary Agnes Burton, eds., History of Wayne County and the City of Detroit, Michigan (S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1930), 69.

[3] The family’s other children were Friedrich (b. 1856); Charles (b. 1858); Edward (b. 1861); Henrietta (b. 1863); William (b. 1866); Wilhelmina (b. 1870); Louis (b. 1872); Carl (b. 1874) and Paul (b. 1878).

[4] Steve Spilos, “‘Gus’ Fruehauf Was Real Pioneer of Conner Creek,” newspaper article cited in Fruehauf Family Tree, Darlene Norman, 2014.

[5] Michigan Marriages, 1822–1995, indexing project 100424-5, system origin Michigan, EASy, source film 1380376, reference 7136.

[6] Spilos, “‘Gus’ Fruehauf.”

[7] Roy Fruehauf, Over the Road to Progress!: Fruehauf Truck Trailers (New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1957).

[8] Although it is only speculation, it is possible that Louisa’s involvement in running August’s new shop after 1899 may help explain the ten-year gap between the birth of the couple’s fourth child, Myrtle, in 1898 and their last child, Roy, in 1908.

[9] Fruehauf, Over the Road to Progress!; family information.

[10] Fruehauf, Over the Road to Progress!

[11]Rapid Growth of Trailer Industry,” Motor Age, Nov. 2, 1916, 66–67

[12] Mark Theobald, “August C. Fruehauf,” Coachbuilt.com, (accessed May 12, 2015); Herman G. Farr and Charles H. Martin, Fifth-wheel Construction, US Patent 1412025 A, filed 27 September 1919, and issued 4 April 1922.

[13] Harvey Fruehauf, “Transportation is a Big Problem Now,” interview/press release, Nov. 1918, copy in Roy Fruehauf Papers.

[14] New York Times, Dec. 17, 1917.

[15] See Louis Stark, “Hired Detective in Trailer Plant,” New York Times, Nov. 8, 1935; Louis Stark, “Say Union Trapped Plant’s Detective,” New York Times, Nov. 9, 1935.

[16] Associated Press, “Orders Company to Quit Hiring Private Sleuths!” Dec. 16, 1935.

[17] National Labor Relations Board v. Fruehauf Trailer Company, 301 U.S. 49 (1937).

[18] Jay Scott and Benjamin Sonnenberg, Fruehauf Trailer Company press release, Feb. 10, 1954.

[19] Biographical sketch given by Roy Fruehauf to Eminent Americans, published by C. W. Taylor, Jr., Palo Alto, California; also appeared in Who’s Who, Roy Fruehauf Papers.

[20] Address by Roy Fruehauf, President of Fruehauf Trailer Company, before the 8th National Credit Conference of the American Bankers Association in Chicago, Illinois, Jan. 17, 1956, Roy Fruehauf Papers.

[21] “‘Fishybacking’ for Milwaukee,” Milwaukee Journal, Feb. 15, 1956.

[22] Family information.

[23] 1900 U. S. Census, Detroit City, Wayne County, Michigan, enumeration district 0162, page 6A, family 108, reference 40, film 1240753, image 00185.

[24] U. S. World War I Draft Registration Cards 1917–1918, publication M1509, GS film 1675206, digital folder 005251197, image 01464.

[25] 1920 U. S. Census, Wayne, Michigan, film 1820814, digital folder 4311652, image 00330.

[26] “Wealthy Fruehauf Leaves Trust for Detroit Tribune,” The Afro American, Feb. 12, 1966.

[27] Family information.

[28] Michigan, Death Certificates, 1921–1952, GS film 1973140; digital folder 005240801; image 00015.

[29] Family information from Chamberlin family members, interviewed in St. Louis in 2013.

[30] Fruehauf, Over the Road to Progress!

[31] Phyllis Berman, “The Wabash Way,” Forbes, April 6, 1998, available online.

[32] Phyllis Berman, “How to Wreck a Great Business,” Forbes, April 6, 1998, available online.

 

Cite this Entry

APA Style

"August ‘Gus’ Charles Fruehauf." (2018) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved November 17, 2018, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=253

Chicago Style

Fruehauf, Ruth and Darlene Norman. "August ‘Gus’ Charles Fruehauf." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 4, edited by Jeffrey Fear. German Historical Institute. Last modified November 03, 2015. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=253

MLA Style

"August ‘Gus’ Charles Fruehauf," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2018, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 17 Nov 2018 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=253>

August Fruehauf in the regalia of the Knights Templar

  • August Fruehauf and one of his sisters, tintype, date unknown
  • August and Louisa Fruehauf with their three oldest children, Andrew, Harvey, and Henry, ca. 1896
  • The first semi-trailer produced by the Fruehaufs
  • Example of an early refrigerated trailer

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