Debbie Croft: Descendant of trailer maker chronicles family’s famous business

05/03/2014 12:00 AM

05/02/2014 4:30 PM

August Charles Fruehauf was the son of German immigrants, and a blacksmith and carriage maker near Detroit. His blacksmith and wagon works shop was the largest in the area and earned a reputation as the best in the country.

“My granddad made wagons, doorknobs, grillwork, wrought iron fencing and gates,” Ruth Ann Fruehauf said.

During the peak of the second industrial revolution, territorial expansion and urbanization changed the face of America. Thomas Edison’s electric light bulbs illuminated city streets and Henry Ford’s automobiles carried passengers in style.

Gilded mansions were built to accommodate families of wealthy business owners, giving shape to the country’s most distinguished neighborhoods. And the invention of structural steel and elevators introduced skyscrapers.

The Wright brothers had found their wings, and railroad tracks crisscrossed the country, making long-distance travel possible.

But for short distances, products were still transported by horse and wagon.

One of Fruehauf’s customers, lumber dealer Frederic Sibley, needed a way to transport his 18-foot sailboat to a lake in upper Michigan. Fruehauf and his best friend and business partner, Otto Neumann, asked for a few days to think on it.

Discussions of measurements with sketches produced the solution: attach a flatbed wagon using couplings, to the back of Sibley’s Model T Roadster – after removing the back seat from the automobile.

When Henry Ford found out, he was not impressed. But that’s another story.

The year was 1914, and Fruehauf had invented the semi-trailer.

“He was at the right place at the right time,” Ruth adds.

Sibley liked it so much he ordered more. This enabled his company to distribute products faster and farther, prompting his competitors to put in their orders as well.

Between 1914 and 1918 the Fruehauf trailer designs were constantly improved. Demand exploded, and by the end of 1918, not a single horseshoe was included on the shop’s inventory list.

By 1919 the business had a new name: the Fruehauf Trailer Company (FTC).

Another Fruehauf invention was the fifth wheel, the forerunner of the modern automatic coupling.

His motto, “You can pull more than you can carry,” was based on a scientific principle. This led to hundreds of designs for truck-trailers and their component parts during the 80 years the family remained in business.

At the time, paved roadways were few and far between. A dirt track ran from Chicago to California. Following World War 1, the U.S. War Department formed the Transcontinental Motor Convoy of 1919 to determine whether America’s roads could handle emergency Army mobility over long distances.

Two years later, the Federal Aid Highway Act was signed, allowing the development of a national highway system. (Young Dwight D. Eisenhower had been a part of the group, and his observations were recorded and remembered.)

FTC led the way through decades of commercial transportation improvements: the reversible four-wheel trailer, hydraulic lift gate, liquid tankers, refrigerated trailers, “double the payload” tandem trailers, low-level trailers for carrying heavy equipment and military vehicles, shipping containers, and mobile post offices and communication centers.

The 1940 documentary film “Singing Wheels” showed Americans how trucks connected every segment of society, from farms to factories, from businesses to households.

Ruth’s father, Roy Fruehauf, assumed presidency of FTC in 1949.

“He shepherded the company into another era,” his daughter said.

By the mid-1950s, plants were built across North America, including Sacramento and Fresno, and overseas, with 88 branches established worldwide. Sales had reached $152,000,000.

Roy Fruehauf was one of the most prominent businessmen of the time, “called upon by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and government and business leaders for advice and business acumen,” Ruth Ann Fruehauf states in her upcoming book “Singing Wheels: The History of the Fruehauf Trailer Company.”

He eventually became a member of Eisenhower’s Independent Advisory Committee to the Trucking Industry. Eisenhower’s participation in the 1919 convoy left a lasting impression. During Eisenhower’s presidential terms he signed into law the establishing of over 41,000 miles of paved highway.

Fruehauf served Fortune 500 companies in the United States, including Nabisco, Firestone, Quaker, Maytag, Tide, Dow and many others. FTC became the industry leader, selling more than other trailer companies combined.

“Federal trucks and Fruehauf trailers partnered for a while, in 1953 the cab-over-engine with a trailer were the cutting edge of engineering at the time,” according to the book.

Unfortunately, disagreements within the family caused the company’s downfall in the late-1990s.

Ruth Fruehauf was approached last year by the German Historical Institute to write a 10,000-word essay about her grandfather, whose work ethic and ingenuity impacted global transportation.

In her parents’ basement, she found more than 30 boxes full of papers, photos, framed documents, artifacts and memorabilia. She is currently working on a pictorial journal, featuring 70-80 original photographs, due to be published soon. A nonfiction book of the complete history will also be written.

She credits Darlene Norman, co-author, for her extensive help with research and documentation.

The two women established the Fruehauf Trailer Historical Society, located in Mariposa. Learn more at the www.singingwheels.com.

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