The Fruehauf story, at least as it relates to the trucking industry, begins in 1914 in Detroit, Michigan when a local lumber baron strode into August Fruehauf’s blacksmith shop. The lumber dealer, Frederic M. Sibley Sr., needed to move an 18-foot sailboat to his summer lake home. As it would take days to move the boat by horse and wagon, Sibley asked Fruhauf to rig up a device that could hook onto his Model T Ford roadster.
After a few days of planning, Fruehauf and his partner Otto Neumann proposed cutting off the back of the roadster then attaching a coupling to the frame to pull a 20-foot flatbed trailer. When Henry Ford was told of the plan, he canceled the roadster’s warranty. But this “semi-trailer,” as Fruehauf called his invention, changed not only the focus of his company, it also revolutionized transportation.
After the boat was delivered, Sibley commissioned a stronger trailer to use in his lumberyard. Sibley figured that he would save more man-hours and horse feed, thus making trips more efficient.
Orders for more trailers followed, to be pulled by larger truck tractors instead of improvised automobiles. Recognizing Sibley’s technical advantage, his competitors rushed to catch up.
By the next year, Fruehauf had received $22,000 in orders for his semi-trailers, thanks largely to advertisements in newspapers and magazines that carried the message: “A truck is like a horse…it can pull more than it can carry.”
Fruehauf hired a full-time engineer, and by 1916 his company was producing three types of trailers: two-wheel, semi, and four-wheel. With more orders coming in that could be produced in the blacksmith shop, Fruehauf bought land and built a new plant in 1917.
Fruehauf Trailer Company was incorporated that same year, with August as president; his wife Louisa was vice president; their son Harvey as treasurer and sales manager; and Neumann as the factory manager.
Although others were building versions of trailers during this time (Hermann G. Farr’s fifth-wheel hitch and Charles H. Martin’s rocking fifth wheel), Fruehauf continued introducing new products throughout the 1920s: van trailers, hydraulic lift gates, carryalls, and refrigerated trailers.
By 1926, August’s sons Harvey, Harry, and Roy had joined him in the business. Sales soon surpassed the million-dollar mark, and by the end of the decade, Fruehauf had distributorships across the county.
The family’s social position mirrored its growing personal wealth. August joined the Free Masons/Knights Templar, and the Fruehauf’s socialized among Detroit’s elite. Meanwhile, the trailer business kept cranking out one new product after another: the automatic semitrailer, in which coupling and uncoupling were accomplished mechanically; tank trailers to haul liquids such as petroleum, oil, or milk; hopper bottom trailers for agricultural products that could be reconfigured to haul palleted or crated freight on the return trip. Fruehauf also designed and built a variety of trailers for military uses.
August Fruehauf died on May 11, 1930, at the age of 63. When August built the first semi-trailer in 1914, there were less than 100,000 trucks registered in the United States. By 1937, there were nearly four million in use, and by 1955 about 10 million trucks and trailers carried freight over America’s highways.