The history of the Fruehauf Trailer Company goes all the way back to the very beginning of trucking. August Fruehauf, a blacksmith from Detroit, Michigan, can be credited for designing and building the first trailer in 1914. From humble beginnings, he and his company went on to revolutionize the trucking industry and become an integral part of the growth of America. A lyric in the song “Hello I’m A Truck” makes a very true statement when it says, “There’d be no truck drivers if it wasn’t for us trucks” – and those trucks are able to haul so much more freight because of the trailers that they pull!
When August Fruehauf was 14 years old, he left his rural Michigan home to seek his future in the big city. The year was 1882, and the city he made it to was East Detroit, where he took an apprentice job with a local blacksmith to learn the trade – this was where he first demonstrated his love for the business of transportation. In 1899, after losing two homes and shops to fire, August and his wife Louisa relocated to Detroit to set up another blacksmith shop. From dark to dark he struck his anvil, earning him a good reputation in regards to quality and craftsmanship.
Five years after Ford’s first car was built in 1901, August rented another piece of land where he built a two-story blacksmith shop, with his own hands, along with some help from his wife’s kinfolk, who came into town to help with the project. That wondrous shop was outgrown by 1912. Walking across the street to a vacant lot, August paced off the site, looked up the owner, and then bought the piece of land. It was on that site that he built the finest brick blacksmith shop in the United States at that time, complete with bay windows in the front and a shop long enough to house 60 horses at one time.
A lumber tycoon from Detroit named Frederic M. Sibley came to see August in 1914 to help him with a problem. That was a fateful visit that not only changed the company’s destiny, but would also be the first step toward ushering the old horse and wagon into the motor age. Mr. Sibley had a fine boat that he wanted to get to a summer place he had acquired on a lake in upper Michigan. By horse and wagon it would have taken days to get it there, so he wanted to know if August could rig up a contraption to hook to his Model-T Ford roadster to haul the boat. August Fruehauf and Otto Neumann did just that. Using their blacksmith skills, they beat out and bolted a sturdy two-wheeler that they hooked to the frame of Mr. Sibley’s Model-T using a pole that acted as a tongue and brake. They called it a trailer.
Being impressed by the performance of this trailer, Mr. Sibley decided that such a rig with a platform would be most efficient for moving around and delivering his lumber. Building a trailer with a platform, it worked just like Mr. Sibley thought it would. Orders began coming in a rush, putting Fruehauf trailers on the American road. There were many problems to overcome, but the Fruehauf team managed to solve them and constantly improve their “trailer” design. One of those improvements was the invention of the fifth wheel – which we still use today. By 1918, despite having both a day and a night shift, orders were outnumbering production, so a new plant became mandatory.
The Fruehauf Trailer Company was incorporated on February 27, 1918. August Fruehauf was the first President, his wife Louisa was the vice president, their son Harvey was the Treasurer and Sales Manager, and Otto Neumann was named as the Factory Manager. As the business boomed, sales surpassed the million-dollar mark for the first time in 1925. Each year the company grew as more of the things that American’s ate, wore and used were carried in trailers bearing the Fruehauf name. During the Second World War, the armed forces relied heavily on the “go anywhere” type of transportation that Fruehauf trailers could provide. By 1954, Fruehauf had 125 different types of trailers, which were built in nine plants, including one in Brazil and one in France.
August Fruehauf’s son Roy became president of the company in 1949. He was the college-educated younger brother of Harvey, and was more eager to take over the company than his older brother. Roy had moved up the ladder in various roles in his 23 years with the company and was vice president in charge of sales before taking over the president position. Roy Fruehauf had broken all of the company’s sales records using his legendary generosity and natural charm – he was very well-liked by his customers and he enjoyed traveling and entertaining his clients.
Newly married to Ruth Horn, the couple was famous for making practical jokes and hosting cocktail parties, but their mission in life was to sell trailers. Ruth knew how to have a good time and was able to incorporate her southern charm and hospitality into the company events, which further helped the company’s popularity and growth. After stepping down from his position, Harvey questioned, second guessed and interfered with all of Roy’s business strategies and decisions. Roy disagreed with his brother’s safe and conservative style – he was more of a risk-taker with an eye to the future. Because Roy had worked his way up through the rank and file, he was well-liked and respected, and many agreed with his strategies.
Speaking about “the future” way back in the 1950s, Roy said, “Many units in these fleets will be powered by the atom. There will be more plastic trailers – and other types of trailers – using lightweight metals like titanium to carry even greater payloads. These trucks and trailers will be equipped with every conceivable safety device – many of them not yet even on the drawing boards. Piggybacking, the carrying of loaded trailers on railway flatcars, will be the biggest single revenue-producing factor for the Nation’s railroads.” Boy, did he get that right, or what! In the 1950s, Fruehauf was instrumental in designing and building some of the very first shipping containers – their “Flexivan” was an innovative hybrid trailer system that could convert from a truck-trailer into a train car in only four minutes.
On July 17, 1953 newspapers released the story that former company president Harvey C. Fruehauf had sold all his shares in the Fruehauf Trailer Company to corporate raider George J. Kolowich. In response to this bold move, Roy gathered up all of his resources to help him fight off a very public proxy battle. At the May 2, 1954 annual shareholders’ meeting, Roy won back full control of his company. Unfortunately, ten short years later, the company fell out of the Fruehauf family’s hands in 1964. Then, after years of mismanagement, the company was bought by one of their main competitors, Wabash Trailers, in 1997.
In 1940 a documentary-style film called “Singing Wheels” became the first institutional motion picture film sponsored by the motor truck industry. Produced with the financial support of Roy Fruehauf and the Fruehauf Trailer Company, this short film (about 23 minutes long) recognized the importance of trucks and trucking at the time. Although a bit corny at times (the song), the movie is fascinating and fun to watch, because it not only depicts what trucks and trucking was like in 1940, but also America. It is a true glimpse back at what this country stood for and what it was all about. I encourage you to take a few minutes and watch this really neat movie – you will not be disappointed (you can find a link to this old publicity film for trucking at www.singingwheels.com).
Roy Fruehauf and his company were more than just a trailer manufacturer – they were a big part of the success and growth of every U.S. business and a major contributor to the country’s national defense. Roy met with President Dwight D. Eisenhower and, in addition to lobbying him in matters of transportation, he also assisted him with the creation of the immense Interstate Highway System. I can’t imagine what our industry might look like today without the important contributions made by the Fruehauf family and their innovative company!
Ruth A. Fruehauf is Roy’s youngest daughter, and the only surviving member of her immediate family. When her mom died several years ago, she came into possession of her father’s personal and business papers. Boxes of documents, photographs, scrap books and correspondence from major and minor historical figures filled these well-kept archives. Ruth was amazed at all that she discovered about her dad and how entangled his life was with our country’s history in the 1940’s through the 1960’s.
Encouraged by the raw enthusiasm and interest of friends and those in the trucking industry that wanted to know what happened to the company, Ruth has been working on a book about Fruehauf for many years now. Her website (www.singingwheels.com), documents in great detail the rise and fall of the Fruehauf Trailer Company. On this site, you will find scores of old pictures and an incredible amount of information – but Ruth said the website is just a taste of what the book will be. Ruth, along with her research partner Darlene Norman, hopes to have the book published and available by the end of this year. We will keep you posted.
Ruth Fruehauf has vivid memories of her larger-than-life father, and whenever she encounters people who knew him, they are always quick to share stories of her father’s generosity, business acumen, and dedication to his customers. He was a loyal friend and a “good guy” who also had a great sense of humor. We can’t wait to see the book when it is finished. August Fruehauf and his son Roy were two of the most influential people in the history of transportation in America, and along with the Fruehauf Trailer Company, they played an instrumental role at keeping those “singing wheels” rolling!