Semi-trailer inventors who paved way for international trade are subject of museum display

By: K. Michelle Moran | C&G Newspapers | Published October 6, 2015

 Family historian and author Ruth Ann Fruehauf stands in front of a Detroit Historical Museum showcase that looks at the Fruehauf Trailer Company, which revolutionized the transportation of goods through the creation of the semi-trailer and many other inventions.

Family historian and author Ruth Ann Fruehauf stands in front of a Detroit Historical Museum showcase that looks at the Fruehauf Trailer Company, which revolutionized the transportation of goods through the creation of the semi-trailer and many other inventions.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

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DETROIT — Global trade is so normal now, we take it for granted, but the transportation and sale of goods over long distances might have never been a modern reality were it not for a couple of men with local ties.


When lumber industry leader Frederick M. Sibley needed a way to haul an 18-foot boat to his lakefront Michigan summer home with a Ford Model T in 1914, he turned to the inventive minds of blacksmith and wagon maker August “Gus” Fruehauf and his business partner, Otto Neumann. A horse-drawn wagon would take days to make the trip, but Fruehauf and Neumann were able to modify the Model T and attach a trailer that could handle this heavy load. Thus was born the semi-trailer, an invention that paved the way for interstate and international trade as we know it today.


“Fruehauf: The First Name in Transportation” at the Detroit Historical Museum explores the invention of the semi-trailer and the founding of the Fruehauf Trailer Company. The display is part of “America’s Motor City Showcase.”


Instrumental in putting the showcase together was Ruth Ann Fruehauf, the granddaughter of August Fruehauf. Her late father, Roy, was the youngest of August Fruehauf’s children, and he ran the company from 1949 to 1963. By 1997, the Fruehauf Trailer Company was ranked as the 75th largest company in the world. Although internal and external challenges forced the company into bankruptcy in the mid-1990s and it was purchased by Wabash International, Fruehauf’s international subsidiaries became independent. To this day, trailers with the Fruehauf name continue to be made in Mexico, Germany, France and New Zealand.


August Fruehauf, who was of German ancestry, grew up in Fraser and later lived on Detroit’s east side. Although Ruth Ann Fruehauf, an art consultant who lives in California, grew up in Oakland County, her father had lived for many years in the Grosse Pointes before he married his second wife, Ruth Ann’s mother, Ruth. Members of the prominent Fruehauf family still live in the Grosse Pointes and elsewhere in metro Detroit, where many of them have been involved in philanthropic and other community efforts.


Ruth Ann Fruehauf became the keeper of the family history as a way to connect with her roots. She never knew her grandfather, who died in 1930, and she was only 8 when her father died in 1965 at the age of 57. When her mother died in 1997, she received her father’s files.


“His entire office archive was boxed up and sent to my mom” after he died, Ruth Ann Fruehauf said. “I didn’t want those records to be thrown out. As an adult woman, I wanted to understand my father as a businessman … and in the process, I developed a fascination with the engineering aspect of Fruehauf and their contributions to the country.”


The invention of the semi-trailer “affected all industries, from food to clothing to furniture,” she said. “The impact on commerce is considerable.”


She said the lumber industry was the first to support her grandfather’s invention, but he and Neumann continued to innovate, using double axles and double tires to give their trailers greater strength and hauling capacity.


Once goods could easily be shipped to places outside of their immediate geographic place of origin, businesses could develop larger and broader customer bases.


Another key invention of August Fruehauf and Otto Neumann was the refrigerated, motorized semi-trailer, which by the early 1920s was being used to carry ice cream and then other perishable goods.


Like her grandfather, Ruth Ann Fruehauf said her “visionary” father embraced technology and started using materials like plastic and titanium in the company’s vehicles.


“My dad understood that trailers needed to become lighter, more efficient,” she said.


The Fruehauf Trailer Company was responsible for more than 150 inventions for the military as well, including the creation of a shipping container that was used during the Korean War, Ruth Ann Fruehauf said.


Visitors who see the Detroit Historical Museum exhibit will find old family photographs, images of various Fruehauf trailers and other innovations, scale models of Fruehauf trailers, old blacksmithing tools and more. With Darlene Norman, Ruth Ann Fruehauf co-authored “Singing Wheels: August Fruehauf & the History of the Fruehauf Trailer Company” in time for the 100th anniversary of the semi-trailer in 2014, and Ruth Ann Fruehauf said she’s currently working on two other books about the company’s history and its contributions to the military.


“I just am really happy that the company and my father are getting the attention they deserve,” she said.


Rick Neumann, of Grosse Pointe Farms, the grandson of Otto Neumann, is happy about the exhibition and learning more about his grandfather, who died when Rick Neumann was only 3 years old. Rick Neumann has appeared during speaking engagements with Ruth Ann Fruehauf and, like her, he’s proud of the role his grandfather played in transportation.


“Most of my memories (of Otto Neumann) are from pictures and stories my parents would tell me,” he said in an email interview. “He was considered a real family man. Of the many and varied positions he held at Fruehauf, his favorite was going to all the local truck transport companies and selling them Fruehauf trailers.”


The legacy of working at Fruehauf didn’t end with Otto Neumann.


“My father worked at Fruehauf for many years, and I received several large toy Fruehauf trailers as a young boy,” Rick Neumann said. “I saved those trailers, and some of them, I’m pleased to say, are in the display. I also worked for Fruehauf during summers while in college. My uncle and cousin worked for Fruehauf for many years (as well), so you could say it was in our blood.”


They may not be glamorous, but semi-trailers have played a critical role in business.


“Nobody ever talks about trailers,” Ruth Ann Fruehauf said. “But trailers were really a huge unsung hero (in the business world).”


The Detroit Historical Museum is located at 5401 Woodward Ave. in Detroit’s Cultural Center. Admission is free. For more information, call (313) 833-1805 or visit www.detroithistorical.org.

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