Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Nissen Wagons

With a history spanning more than 150 years, the Nissen wagon brand (Winston-Salem, North Carolina) was built by one of the longest-surviving wooden wagon companies in America.  The firm made wagons with both straight and curved beds.  Those curved or arched configurations have caused some to misidentify the vehicle as a Conestoga.  The unique designs are more accurately referred to as “Crooked bed wagons,” “tobacco wagons,” or “southern schooners.”  Even though many of the Nissen wagons share similar traits with a Conestoga, they are much smaller and lighter than those legendary heavy freighters so often used on America’s National Road. 

Behind the original Peter Schuttler and Bain wooden signs shown here is a rare, eleven bow Nissen wagon box.  Dating to the 1890’s, its size makes it among the largest examples of Nissen survivors.

Not long ago, I came across some additional history of the Nissen Wagon Works and thought I’d pass some of that along here.  Published in 1913, these primary source details give us even greater insight into a firm with origins almost as old as the American Revolution...

Throughout the Carolinas and Virginia, as well as in other parts of the country, the “Nissen” wagon has carried the name and fame of Winston-Salem as a manufacturing center, and probably no other product of the Twin City is better and more favorably known, certainly none has been known for so long a time.

The first “Nissen” wagon was made in Salem more than one hundred and twenty-five years ago by Tyco Nissen, a native of Denmark and one of the original colony of Moravians that settled that part of the State.  His descendants have nearly all been wagon builders (it seems to run in the family), and the immense plant that has grown through the years is now owned by William M. Nissen, proprietor of the George E. Nissen Co. 

From the time of the building of the first wagon in 1787 is a far cry, and the growth of the industry, backed always by intelligence, industry and fair dealing, has shown more plainly than any written word could do, how people appreciate a really good article.

It was not until 1834, when J.P. Nissen who died in 1874, took hold of the business, that its real growth began, and he is looked upon as the real founder of the enterprise.

The plant now covers about 15 acres, on which have been erected nearly half a hundred buildings and sheds, used for various purposes, but about 50 acres of the surrounding property is owned by the concern, for this is a growing industry, and preparations for future expansion have been made. The capacity of the plant is 8,000 wagons a year, and approximately 200 people are employed, not including the men engaged in selling this standard wagon.

It is only natural that in more than a century the construction would draw near to perfection.  Each generation of the family has contributed a share in one way or another, and every feature that in any way would better the wagon is adopted...  Some idea of its vast increase in the output may be gained by remembering the fact that on December 31, 1912, just one hundred and twenty-five years after the first Nissen wagon was built, a train consisting of eleven solid carload lots, consisting of 314 complete wagons, representing a cash value of $15,000, pulled out of Winston-Salem.  If the wagons in this one shipment were stood end to end, it would have made a solid string almost one and one-quarter miles in length.

These wagons had been produced, one every eighteen minutes of a working day, at the Nissen works.  Some further idea of the growth of the enterprise may be gathered when it is mentioned that in the pioneer days a complete wagon a day, working from sun up to sun down, was considered a great achievement, and the talk of the surrounding country.

Upon the retirement from active business of William E. Nissen, some three years ago, William M. Nissen became proprietor and general manager, and under his able and energetic leadership the enterprise continues to flourish and prosper, the product always being kept up to the high standard that has made the “Nissen” wagon so long famous.  Mr. Nissen was born in the neighborhood and has all his life been identified with the business-life of Winston-Salem.

Today, the rich history and long legacy of Nissen wagons continue to reinforce the brand’s popularity with collectors and enthusiasts.  It’s an age-old story retold every time an old home place is rediscovered, a barn door opened, and someone spots an all-but-forgotten part of America’s past.  Covered in hay, clutter, and generations of dust, these increasingly rare finds still have a way of capturing one’s imagination and appreciation for a well-crafted set of wheels – just the way it was more than a century ago.

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