Legacy of legendary St. Louis wagon builders endures.
Old wagons talk to me.
I know that sounds strange, but those early wheels do have a lot to say and one of the best ways to listen is by focusing on where the vehicle was made. For serious collectors, it’s one piece of information that can hold a wealth of details related to brand identity, design, construction, features, purpose, rarity and even competition in the market.
While most early wagon builders were small shops serving limited regions, many prominent makers capitalized on location. An area with easy access to navigable rivers, rails and roads was almost always a favorite spot. Chicago, for instance, was home to Peter Schuttler and Weber. South Bend, Ind., claimed Studebaker, Birdsell and Coquillard. Racine, Wis., boasted Mitchell, Racine and Fish Brothers.
St. Louis’ position on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers made it a natural crossroads for westward traffic and commerce. In fact, so many business opportunities existed there that, by the 1880s, the city was home to about 140 wagon and carriage builders, far more than any other city west of the Mississippi at that time. By the turn of the 20th century, directories show St. Louis with nearly 200 horse-drawn vehicle builders. The industry was so significant that some suppliers sent the majority of their production to the city. Many contend that St. Louis was home to more nationally recognized wagon companies than any other U.S. city.
Among those Mound City makers, several standout brands played significant roles in U.S. history. From immigrant travel to freighters, cattle drives and military campaigns, St. Louis wagons were well represented throughout the country. Many of those builders are still highly regarded by historians, enthusiasts and collectors. In honor of the city’s 250th anniversary in 2014, we’re taking a close look at a half dozen of the area’s most accomplished wagon brands.
Established in 1825, Joseph Murphy’s shop was one of the oldest successful wagon manufacturers in St. Louis. Likewise, Murphy is arguably the most discussed and least known of any major U.S. wagon maker. Even though Murphy and his wagons are regularly referenced by collectors and academics, many questions remain about his company. In fact, of the 200,000 wagons purported to have been built by Murphy, not one has been conclusively identified.
From the few historical accounts and company records that do exist, it is known that Murphy wagons achieved a significant reputation within the freighting community. In fact, according to the recollections of D.P. Rolfe, a freighter in the 1860s, “The freight wagons used were the Murphy and Espenschied, made in St. Louis, and the Studebaker, made at South Bend, Indiana … More of the Murphy make were used than either the Studebaker or Espenschied …”
Murphy is often referenced today in connection to a customs duty imposed on American freighters traveling to Santa Fe. In 1839, the governor of New Mexico imposed a $500 ($12,500 today) tax on each freight wagon traveling into the area. The toll caused serious financial heartburn to the freighters, but Murphy is said to have come to the rescue, building giant wagons capable of hauling enough goods to offset the tax. It’s a story that sounds plausible, but no period accounts supporting it have been found.
Several years ago, I was fortunate to discover 13 letters sent from J. Murphy & Sons to an Illinois wood mill. Four of the letters were written by the elder craftsman himself. The correspondence detailed the wood he was seeking and information on when and how it should be cut. It’s believed that these pieces are the last surviving business correspondence from Murphy. Appropriately, every faded stroke of the pen confirms Murphy’s legacy as both an expert in wood and an extreme stickler for quality.
By 1888, Joseph Murphy had relinquished control of his company to his sons. The firm continued to build wagons until just after the turn of the 20th century, making it very possible that some of these vehicles are just waiting to be discovered.
Of all the early St. Louis-built wagons, there were likely none that gave Joseph Murphy greater competition than those made by Louis Espenschied. In the city directory of 1859, 65 wagon makers were listed but only two paid for advertising space: Murphy and Espenschied.
Established in 1843, Espenschied Wagon Co. is eternally tied to the growth and history of America’s movement west. From immigrant travel to the needs of the gold fields, freighters and army, Espenschied wagons carried a large reputation.
As part of that leadership, Louis Espenschied headed a group of four wagon makers that solicited the U.S. Army in 1861, offering to build as many wagons as were needed by Union forces. Espenschied proposed construction of six-mule wagons with 2-1/2-inch iron axles. The wagons would carry 5,000 to 6,000 pounds; the same designs were said to have been used by freighters traveling to New Mexico and Utah. Espenschied priced them at $125 each and pledged them to be better than Army regulation wagons. The proposal noted that the companies’ “many years’ experience in making Wagons for the Great Plains” enabled the four to craft the very best vehicles.
The proposal was immediately accepted. An order for 200 was placed within 10 days of the July 6 proposal. No other bidding took place as the needs of the Civil War were urgent and the reputations of Espenschied, Jacob Kern, Jacob Scheer and John Cook were unquestioned. The wagons were promptly built. By December of the same year, Espenschied made another proposal to the Army for 1,000 more wagons at the same price.
Like other makers of his time, Espenschied’s devotion to his craft showed in design innovations. In 1878, he won a patent for a built-in grease reservoir on the axle skein. That feature allowed the wheel to go longer periods with less lubrication. In an 1882 company profile, Espenschied is also given credit for an even earlier major advancement in wagon design: the thimble skein. It was an innovation adopted by virtually all wagon makers.
Espenschied died in 1887, leaving an estate valued at almost $500,000 ($12,195,000 today). Soon after, his firm merged with that of Henry Luedinghaus, forming Luedinghaus-Espenschied Wagon Co. Today, there are still a few existing Luedinghaus-Espenschied wagons, but an Espenschied dating to the original firm has yet to be identified.
Henry Luedinghaus started his own wagon manufactory in 1859. Luedinghaus Wagon Co. was located across the street from his old partner, Casper Gestring, and Gestring Wagon Co. In fact, the areas occupied by Luedinghaus, Gestring, Espenschied and Weber-Damme were all within blocks of each other.
Henry Luedinghaus’ company distinguished itself by making high-quality farm, freight, business, log and lumber wagons. By 1878, Luedinghaus was not only building to order but also maintained an inventory of wagons that could be purchased on-site. At about the same time, the company began bidding on government contracts. An 1880 Luedinghaus proposal of $61.50 per wagon was handily beaten by the firm of Austin, Tomlinson & Webster (Jackson Wagons). The winning bid from this Jackson, Mich., company was $57. The price advantage was hard for traditional makers to overcome: Jackson wagons were built by state prisoners who were paid little for their labor.
In spite of the challenges of competing on a national scale, Luedinghaus continued to grow. The company motto was, “The wagon will speak for itself.” It’s no wonder the vehicles were popular. Luedinghaus claimed to be the first to offer the exceptional strength and reliability of bois d’arc wheels. All wood in the wagons was said to have been thoroughly seasoned for two years before use and paint was painstakingly hand-brushed, not dipped. Dipping was a faster process but some found the resulting adhesion inferior.
At the 1904 World’s Fair, Luedinghaus displayed a pyramid of 11 wagons. The massive exhibition dominated the competition and generated vast publicity. The spectacle was a physical duplication of the company’s official trademark and tagline that proclaimed, “We Tower Above All.”
For a brief time in the 1920s and early ‘30s, Luedinghaus built auto bodies, trailers and trucks. It was a valiant attempt to change with the times, but the challenges of the Great Depression were too much to withstand. The firm closed its doors in 1934.
“The Pride of St. Louis” was the slogan of Linstroth Wagon Co. Established in 1849, the firm stood in the middle of some of America’s heaviest westward travel. The California Gold Rush and subsequent discoveries of precious ore throughout the frontier continued to be a boon for wagon makers positioned in the right locations. In his early days, Linstroth’s wagon shop was known as “Linstroth and Keune.” Carl Keune was Henry Linstroth’s partner for decades. By 1886, though, the company was incorporated and became known as Linstroth Wagon Co.
Like other St. Louis wagon makers, Linstroth also lobbied for government contracts. The company’s product line included farm, log, stake and mountain wagons as well as oil and lumber gears, farm trucks, carts and one-horse wagons. Tires were hot-set by hand and painting was also done by hand. Many Linstroth wagons had a bright green box with black-and-yellow stripes accented by a red gear and wheels.
By 1899, the company employed 100 craftsmen and shipped wagons throughout the country. Features included a countersunk kingbolt, dustproof skein, concave rub irons, extra cross sills on the box bottom, chafe irons on the sideboards and a doubletree with no holes in the wood.
Linstroth also made a wagon brand called “Magnolia,” which was promoted as a less expensive farm truck. In the case of wooden wagons, a “truck” is not a motorized vehicle but rather a less expensive gear designated as an all-purpose utility vehicle.
While Linstroth outlasted many St. Louis makers, it could not escape the fate of all wood-wheeled wagon companies. It disappeared from industry directories around the time of America’s entry into World War II. By the late 1940s, there was no longer any resource for factory parts and repairs.
Because of founder Casper Gestring’s commitment to quality, the firm is both a St. Louis legend and an exceptional example of how some of the earliest vehicle makers went about constructing wagons and handling business (Editor’s note: For more on Gestring Wagon Co., see David Sneed’s article, The Historically Significant Gestring Wagon Co., from the September 2010 issue of Farm Collector). Established in the mid- to late 1850s, when Gestring finally closed its doors in 1935 it was touted as the last of the old school makers. In nearly 80 years of operation, the company’s focus on manufacturing completely hand-built wagons never wavered. It’s a remarkable legacy that allowed Gestring to go head-to-head with some of the biggest makers in America and outlast the vast majority.
While some of Gestring’s history is known, other bits and pieces are still coming together. Such was the case earlier this year when we identified a previously unknown brand called “Hiawatha,” built by Gestring. According to government records, Gestring first used the name in 1878 and was granted official trademark status in 1915. This addition to the product line allowed the company to offer a less expensive alternative to the flagship Gestring line.
With a company history dating to the beginning of the Civil War, the wagon-making duo of Henry Damme and Philip Weber actually put down roots as early as the mid-1850s with Henry’s wagon-making career. Weber and Damme wagons enjoyed wide-ranging sales with a 1908 catalog proclaiming they were “seen everywhere — among the corn and wheat growers of the North and East; the stock, hay, grain and fruit raisers of the West, and the cotton growers of the South …”
Just as prices for quality contemporary vehicles continue to rise, prices for new wagons also rose. A good example can be seen in the prices paid by a Weber & Damme dealer for the same 3-inch thimble skein wagon in 1888 and 35 years later in 1923. While the ’88 model cost the dealer $46 and included a seat and brake, the 1923 version nearly doubled in cost to $90.89 and the seat and brake were no longer standard.
A distinctive feature of many Weber & Damme wagons is a patented sand plate (or fender) attached to their own thimble skein. While the skein was said to have a carrying capacity of 200-300 pounds more than the typical thimble skein used by others, the sand fender also rendered significant benefits. This metal covering was positioned inside each wheel and directly over the wheel hub. It shielded the skein from dirt, dust and debris, effectively prolonging the life of the wheel while maintaining an easy draft.
Weber & Damme manufactured a wide range of vehicles including farm, log, fertilizer, produce, coal and utility wagons along with cotton beds, contractor’s carts, and log and lumber gears.
In addition to these six industry leaders, there were other St. Louis builders like John Luking, Peter Wagner, P.J. Cooney and Schelp Wagon Co., as well as an entire host focused on crafting carriages and lighter vehicles.
Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, the city remained a transportation mecca. Today, every wood-wheeled survivor from St. Louis is a reminder of the power of place and the dreams of a nation. So the next time you come across an old wagon, find out where it’s from and don’t be surprised if it starts to talk to you. Those pieces of its background aren’t just trivial details. They’re vital parts of historical DNA and they can be the first step to recovering history or, just maybe, the last chance to discover a true legend. FC
David Sneed is a writer, author, speaker, historian and collector of early wagons and western vehicles. He writes a weekly blog featuring scarce information on wagons and stagecoaches and is the founder of the Wheels That Won The West® western vehicle archives. Contact him at PO Box 1081, Flippin, AR 72634; online at Wheels That Won The West.
A year-long celebration of St. Louis’ 250th anniversary will be held in 2014. For more information on dozens of special events and activities, visit stl250.org.