Berman: Claiming a family legacy of big men and trucks

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

Ruth Ann Fruehauf's early life was magical: A chauffeur, a butler, a Scottish housekeeper who could sing and dance. Her brothers' toy trucks were models bearing the family company name: Fruehauf Trailer Company, then the nation's largest semi-trailer company.

When she was 8, that privileged world vanished like Cinderella's coach. Roy Fruehauf, her charismatic father, died: The servants, the cows that roamed the West Bloomfield Township estate, even the magazines on coffee tables were gone, along with her glamorous mother's smile. "It was," she says, "eerily quiet."

For years, she thought little about exploring her family's history. But after the death of her mother, Ruth, she took home to California boxes of her father's papers: an archive that, over the years, she found contained historical glimpses into her father's life: "I never knew what I'd find, but I knew that I didn't want them to be destroyed. Every so often, I would look at them and find a letter from Richard Nixon or a photograph, signed, of President Eisenhower."

Now, with the 100th anniversary of her grandfather's invention of the semi-trailer, she and co-author Darlene Norman have written "Singing Wheels: August Fruehauf & The History of the Fruehauf Trailer Company," a coffee-table book that captures some of the family history in words and photographs — a book that evokes nostalgia for Detroit's manufacturing might, engineering prowess and contributions to American might. The Detroit Historical Museum is hosting a book-signing from 2-5 p.m. Saturday.

But there is darkness in the story, too, that kept Ruth Fruehauf wary over the years — never knowing whether she'd encounter greatness or family secrets.

In 1914, August Fruehauf, a Detroit blacksmith and carriage builder, satisfied a lumber baron's need for more horsepower by hitching a trailer to a sawed-off Ford Model T. That "semi-trailer," as Fruehauf named it, helped revolutionize transport. "You can pull more than you can carry" became the company motto.

The lumber dealer, Frederic M. Sibley Sr., asked Henry Ford's permission to alter the Model T. Less than delighted, Ford questioned the resulting mechanics and canceled the warranty.

The Fruehauf trailer business had controversial chapters: In the 1930s, the company was known for anti-union tactics, including hiring Pinkerton detectives to infiltrate union ranks. In 1957, Roy Fruehauf was investigated by a Senate committee looking into Teamsters corruption and the union's then-president Dave Beck. Beck was convicted of tax evasion, and Fruehauf was indicted and tried on charges that he'd bribed Beck.

"Fruehauf had 16 plants and 48 distributorships across the country, so there was keen interest in the trial all over," says Ruth Fruehauf. Louis Nizer, then the nation's most famous defense lawyer, represented Roy Fruehauf. Although he was not convicted, the charges surely took an emotional toll: He stepped down from his company's presidency in 1957 and resigned as its chairman in 1963. Two years later, he was dead from a fall.

The company collapsed in 1997. While its name lives on internationally, it is defunct in the U.S. Its operations were sold off and absorbed by other firms.

Ruth Fruehauf has spent most of her life elsewhere, pursuing a career in art consulting and sales in New York and California. "I think that after my mother's death, I missed my father," she says. In 2012, the German American Institute asked her to contribute a long essay about her family for a project on 100 German-American entrepreneurs, and that revived her interest in her family legacy and helped propel her forward with the project.

She started a website ( that immediately drew response from former Fruehauf employees and trucking industry followers. "I think we are at a time when people feel nostalgic for the world of manufacturing," she says. That's especially true here, where Detroit's true founders were the "makers" who used ingenuity to fabricate and manufacture the 20th century world.