The Remarkable St. Louis Wagon Builders

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Variations in condition, originality and completeness can affect resale values of vintage wagons. This Linstroth wagon not only benefits from vibrant original paint and sound wheels, but also retains its original seat and folding end gate.
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This early color image shows an artist's rendering of the Luedinghaus "tower of wagons" displayed at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.
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Color advertising was expensive: It was used sparingly by wagon makers. This Luedinghaus image was part of a promotional flyer outlining the brand’s advantages.
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Colorful and attractive promotional items such as this Gestring wagon watch fob garnered plenty of attention while helping reinforce the desirability of the brand.
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This Weber & Damme wagon is being unloaded at a local train station. Period photography helps us better understand how early vehicles were used while often eliminating misconceptions and stereotypes.
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Located at the Santa Ynez Valley (Calif.) Historical Museum, this Gestring wagon features a 43-inch box width, St. Louis seat risers and contoured woodwork on the spring seat. The third set of sideboards (top box) are original. Designed to slope downward from a near 7-inch height in the front to just over 2 inches at the back of the wagon, they are extremely rare.
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Many of St. Louis' early wagon makers were positioned near steamboat landings. Such areas were a hub of activity, where supplies were unloaded and others were shipped west.
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These rare, original letters from Joseph Murphy date to 1883 and 1887. Each has helped solidify his reputation for expert woodwork and high-quality vehicles.
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Wagon makers often used practicality to their advantage. Functional items like this Luedinghaus-Espenschield tape measure were a creative and effective form of early vehicle advertising.
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By the last decade of the 19th century, Espenschield had joined forces with Luedinghaus to create an ultra-historic and formidable brand name.

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.

Location. Location.
Location.

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.

J. Murphy & Sons

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.

Espenschied Wagon Co.

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.

Luedinghaus Wagon Co.

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.

Linstroth Wagon Co.

“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.

Gestring Wagon Co.

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.

Weber & Damme

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.

Power of place

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.

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