Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Espenschied & Luedinghaus Wagon Companies

Several years ago, I wrote a feature article on a half-dozen of the most legendary wagon makers in St. Louis.  Even though some vehicle builders in Mound City (as St. Louis was once called) were in business for close to one hundred years, automobiles and the Great Depression ended the dreams of most of them.  Among the wheeled icons in the city were two names with establishment time frames dating to the 1840’s and 50’s.   Today, both are tough-to-find examples from America’s first transportation industry.

Once a common sight, high-wheel Luedinghaus brand wagons are hard to come across these days.

The Espenschied Wagon Company

Of all the early St. Louis-built wagons, there is likely none that gave mega-legends like Joseph Murphy greater competition than those made by Louis Espenschied.  In the city directory of 1859, sixty-five wagon makers were listed but only two paid for advertising space – Murphy and Espenschied.

Established in 1843, the Espenschied Wagon Company is eternally tied to the growth and history of America’s movement west.  From emigrant travel to the needs of the gold fields, freighters and army, Espenschied wagons carried a huge reputation for quality and dependability.

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 two-and-a-half-inch iron axles.  The wagons were designed to carry five to six thousand pounds and the same configurations were said to have been used by freighters traveling to New Mexico and Utah.  Espenschied priced them at $125 each and pledged that they were better than Army regulation wagons.  The proposal noted that the companies’ “many years’ experience in making Wagons for the Great Plains” enabled the four of them to craft the very best vehicles.

According to period reports, the proposal was immediately accepted and an order for 200 wagons was placed within ten days of the July 6th offer.  No other bidding took place as the needs of the Civil War were urgent and the reputations of the four wagon makers – Louis Espenschied, Jacob Kern, Jacob Scheer, and John Cook were unquestioned.  The wagons were promptly built and, by December of the same year, Espenschied made another proposal to the Army for another one thousand wagons at the same price.

Like other makers of his time, Espenschied’s attention to detail not only showed in quality but also in design innovations.  In 1878, he was awarded a patent for a built-in grease reservoir on the axle skein.  That feature allowed the wheel to go longer periods with less worry over the need for lubrication.  Furthermore, in an 1882 company profile, Espenschied is also given credit for an even earlier advancement in wagon design – the thimble skein.  Dating to the 1840’s, this invention was adopted by virtually all wagon makers.

Louis Espenschied passed away in 1887, leaving an estate valued at almost a half-million dollars (close to $13 million in today’s money).   Soon after, his firm merged with that of Henry Luedinghaus, forming the Luedinghaus-Espenschied Wagon Company.  Today, there are still a few existing Luedinghaus-Espenschied wagons, but an Espenschied dating to the original firm has yet to be identified.  Complicating this point a bit more is the fact that Luedinghaus appears to have resurrected the stand-alone Espenschied brand for a brief time during the 1920’s.  So, determining whether an Espenschied is a nineteenth or twentieth century survivor requires awareness of the product’s features and evolution.

As with most major wagon makers, Luedinghaus also built a popular line of huge freight wagons.

The Luedinghaus Wagon Company

Henry Luedinghaus started his own wagon manufactory in 1859.  The Luedinghaus Wagon Company was located just across the street from his original partner in the business, Casper Gestring, – pronounced “Guess-String” – founder of the Gestring Wagon Company.  In fact, the areas once occupied by Luedinghaus, Gestring, Espenschied, and Weber-Damme were all within blocks of each other.  I’ve had the privilege of walking the grounds of three of these builders and it’s hard to imagine how challenging the competition was with each of them so close to the other. 

Henry Luedinghaus’ company distinguished itself by making high-quality farm, freight, business, log, and lumber wagons.  Within his second decade of operation, Luedinghaus was not only building to order but also maintained an inventory of wagons that could be purchased on-site.  Around the same time, the company began bidding on government contracts but, by this time, there were a number of builders vying for the same business.  An 1880 Luedinghaus proposal of $61.50 per wagon was soundly beaten by the Austin, Tomlinson & Webster Manufacturing Company (Jackson Wagons).  The winning bid from this Jackson, Michigan company was $57.  It was a price advantage that was hard for traditional makers to overcome – primarily because Jackson wagons were built by state prison workers operating at a fraction of the labor rate paid to law-abiding citizenry.  Ultimately, these unfair practices would be frowned on by the courts – and the general public.  For a number of years, though, the use of prisoners to gain a competitive edge was a serious problem for many wagon builders. 

In spite of the challenges associated with nationwide competition, Luedinghaus continued to grow.  One company motto was, “The wagon will speak for itself.”  It’s no wonder the vehicles were so popular.  Luedinghaus claimed to be the first major manufactory to offer the exceptional strength and reliability of bois d’ arc (Osage Orange) wheels.  All wood in the wagons was said to have been thoroughly seasoned for two years before use and the paint was painstakingly hand-brushed, not dipped.  Dipping was a faster process but some found the resulting paint adhesion to be inferior. 

At the 1904, World’s Fair, Luedinghaus displayed a pyramid of eleven wagons.  The massive exhibition dominated the competition and generated a huge amount of 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 even trucks.  It was a valiant attempt to change with the times, but the challenges of the Great Depression were just too much to withstand.  The firm closed its doors in 1934.

Shown in 1904, this tower of wagons was a head-turning display for the Luedinghaus Wagon Company of St. Louis, Missouri. 

For years, I’ve been interested in finding examples of as many old St. Louis brands as possible.  As the ‘Gateway to the West’ and home to so many early vehicle builders, it would seem that these brands might be fairly easy to locate.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  We do have quality, early examples of both Gestring and Weber-Damme wagons in our collection.  However, we continue to search for significant pieces from the Murphy, Linstroth, Luedinghaus, and Espensheid firms.  It would also be a  bonus to someday find an original piece built by John Luking or Peter Wagner.  It’s entirely possible.  Patience, diligence, and keen observation are among the greatest assets to locating the rarest of rare survivors.

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