The Historically Significant Gestring Wagon Co.
St. Louis wagon maker Gestring manufactured wagons by hand
This "white" Gestring wagon likely dates to a period between 1885 and 1890. Numerous features point to its use as a one-of-a-kind promotional vehicle.
Image courtesy David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives
As I stood in the middle of a strangely quiet and virtually abandoned city block, for a moment I could imagine the sights and sounds of old growth timber being sawn. At my feet, shavings from a drawknife lay on the ground. Swept into a pile near a dusty stairwell, the shavings served notice that someone would be returning to finish the job. The sound of hammers and anvils rang out while molten metal fireworks showered a dirt floor.
Around the corner, workers stacked lumber in sheds to dry and complete the seasoning process. At the back of the lot, a clerk inspected a supply of custom-fabricated parts. Nearby, a painter lifted his brush and stepped back from his work. Wiping his brow, he surveyed deep blue pinstripes freshly laid on the wooden wheel. His craft was a specialized form of commercial art; his canvas could literally travel the world.
Out front, horse-drawn streetcars, wagons and carriages filled the north-south thoroughfare. My eyes fixed on a large, low-slung dray rumbling south toward the riverfront levee and docks. As it passed by, I looked up to see workers wheeling two of their latest creations out the door.
Captivated by the vision, I could feel my daydream settling in. But before I could picture anything else, the ground began to shake, followed by a rush of wind and the growl of an engine brake on a passing tractor-trailer rig. It was enough to jolt me back to reality, but I remained intensely curious as to what this area once looked like. I was on the grounds of what was once a thriving wagon manufactory in St. Louis, “Gateway to the West.”
Today, the site is part of a recently completed archaeological dig conducted by the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT). Numerous excavation holes and trenches permeated the property, exposing 19th century limestone foundations. Remnants of brick forges dotted the terrain with significant samples of the last coal used. The dig also uncovered early millstones (used to grind paint), slate roofing materials, heavily corroded metal wagon parts, water closets, cisterns and countless handmade bricks. As a historian of the early American transportation industry, I’m accustomed to the challenges of exploring the mostly forgotten pieces of our past. Usually, I’m the one doing the searching. This time, the story came looking for me.
Digging for answers
In December 2009, I received a call from the MoDOT archaeological staff seeking information and materials related to a dig near Broadway, Mound and Brooklyn streets in St. Louis. The state had acquired the property as part of a Mississippi River bridge construction project. MoDOT’s historic preservation group researched, excavated and catalogued remains of several 1800s-era businesses that had operated at the site.
Among those of specific interest was the Gestring Wagon Co. (pronounced guess-string), established in the 1850s. Although the company’s original buildings were razed years ago, the firm is historically significant for a number of reasons, including the fact that the Gestring earthworks remained largely undisturbed since the company ceased operations midway through the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Equally notable, this horse-drawn vehicle company not only survived the transition into the automobile era, but also outlived many prominent early wagon makers. It’s an especially remarkable achievement since, in more than 75 years of operation, the company never adopted steam power or other tools of mass production employed by many vehicle builders. Every Gestring wagon was handcrafted by trained artisans who carried on the same basic construction principles of the earliest American wagon makers.
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