Gerstenslager’s history begins in 1860 when a 19 year-old German immigrant named William T. Wehe established a wagon works in Marshallville (formerly Bristol), Baughman Township, Wayne County, Ohio. Wehe was active in the community affairs serving as treasurer of Marshallville during the 1870s and by 1880 the Wehe Company was one of Baughman Township’s largest employers.
By that time two brothers, John (b. 1843) and Jacob (b. 1845) Weimer had assumed control of their father’s hardware store, which had been established before the Civil War. Their father, John Weimer Sr., was a skilled cabinetmaker who had emigrated from the Alsace region of France to Marshallville with his brother Martin in 1834. Back in France the elder Weimers’ father had served with honor as an officer in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Marshallville was the first town laid out in the county after Wooster, having been laid out and surveyed by James Marshall in 1817. When the elder Weimers came to the village there were but ten houses there, but the community grew and was incorporated on February 10, 1866.
The elder Weimers served on the village council and John Sr. served as treasurer for a number of years. In addition to their hardware store, the Weimer’s established Marshallville’s first funeral parlor and furniture store and were investors in William T. Wehe’s Carriage Works.
In 1882 a young blacksmith of German descent named George Gerstenslager (b.1863) went to work for the Wehe Company. His younger brother Barney (b. 1868) became associated with the firm and George eventually became its manager. Sometime around 1890 William T. Wehe retired, and the two Gerstenslager brothers purchased his share in the business which became known as Weimer & Gerstenslager.
John Weiner Jr. was elected Mayor of Marshallville on April 8, 1896, about the same time that a third Gerstenslager brother, Henry (b. 1877), joined his brothers in the carriage business. At that time the firm was still quite small, employing less than 25 hands. The 1902 Price & Lee American Carriage and Wagon Directory lists Weimer & Gerstenslager as manufacturers and repairers of light carriages and wagons.
In 1904 the Weimer’s retired and sold their share in the firm to the Gerstenslagers who reorganized it as Gerstenslager Bros., manufacturers of Buggies, Phaetons, Surreys, etc.
The brothers knew that in order to expand the firm they needed more skilled hands than the small community of Marshallville could supply, so in 1907 they relocated to Wooster, Ohio, a much larger city located 15 miles southeast of Marshallville. With financial assistance from the Wooster Board of Trade, a new plant was constructed at the corner of Spink and Liberty Sts. right across the street from the main line of the Pittsburgh, Ft. Wayne & Chicago Railroad.
The brothers reorganized as The Gerstenslager Company, 572 E. Liberty St., Wooster, Ohio. They continued to manufacture the same high-quality vehicles that they had built in Marshallville, only on a much grander scale. Commercial delivery vehicles were in great demand at that time and Gerstenslager gained a reputation as a premiere builder in the field.
The emergence of the automobile, and in particular, Henry Ford’s Model T did not go unnoticed by Gerstenslager and in the mid-teens, the firm began offering commercial bodies for the popular horseless carriage.
Although some very early Ford trucks were sold with commercial bodies, Ford discontinued the program in 1913; leaving the field wide open for enterprising commercial body builders through 1924 when the first factory-built Ford Model T pick-ups were introduced.
Early on, Barney Gerstenslager had been convinced that the firm’s future lay with the automobile. As they were already building bodies for the horseless carriage, a logical step would to become automobile dealers, which they did, as distributors of the Overland (Indianapolis, Indiana) and Inter-State (Muncie, Indiana).
By that time the second generation of Gerstenslagers - Harry M. (b. 1900), George Jr. (b. 1902), Frank (b. 1905), and Robert L. (b. 1909) became connected with the firm, outside help was enlisted to run the now substantial business as its founder, George Gerstenslager Sr. had passed away. George’s younger brother Barney’s interests lay in automobile sales and only the youngest brother, Henry, remained involved with the firm.
Barney and his son, George Gerstenslager Jr., went on to create a successful string of dealerships as Barney Gerstenslager & Son, Co. By the late thirties they owned Ford dealerships in Wooster, Cincinnati and Cleveland, which were operated as Barney Motor Company, Inc. in order to avoid confusion with the family’s truck body business.
By 1929 it had become apparent to Gerstenslager management that their small Liberty Street factory was ill-suited to manufacture truck bodies in the quantities needed to fulfill incoming orders so they relocated the business to a larger facility with room for expansion at 1425 E. Bowman St.
The start of the Depression was not the best time to be expanding a business, but Gerstenslager’s high quality truck bodies remained in demand and they were able to survive the Depression.
Early on, the firm’s body designers had favored cab-forward and cab-over-engine (COE) chassis and a circa 1938 Gerstenslager catalog was filled with pictures of attractive aerodynamic vans:
By the late 30s the US Post Office’s existing fleet of Model A Parcel Post delivery trucks were on their last legs and in 1940 the Government began a replacement program which included new ¾ ton Ford trucks with bodies supplied by Gerstenslager and Proctor-Keefe.
Mounted on Ford’s 134" ¾-ton chassis, the Gerstenslager-made units were produced using the Ford chassis-cowls with standard Ford doors and A-pillars while the Proctor-Keefe bodies used a Ford cowl and chassis but included custom-built commercial glass front doors.
The multi-year contracts were cancelled at the start of the war and the firm ramped up for wartime production, producing cargo boxes and trailers such as the G569 6-ton shoe-repair semi-trailer and the G518 1-ton cargo trailer. Other unknown types of vehicle bodies were also built by Gerstenslager during the war, for instance U.S. Army Technical Manual #9-2800, Military Vehicles, lists a 1-ton Dodge carryall fitted with Gerstenslager body.
Gerstenslager was just 1 of 28 firms selected to manufacture the G518 1-Ton cargo trailer for the US Army in 1941.
The “Ben Hur” trailers (named after its most
prolific producer, the Ben Hur Mfg. Co.) were typically towed behind
2.5 ton trucks but during the war could be found being towed behind 1
ton to 7.5 ton trucks and even some Armored Vehicles. The G518
typically consisted of an 8’ x 4’ steel or wood box mounted on a
heavy-duty 1-ton single axle trailer. Most were covered with a wood or
metal frame and tarpaulin. Variations of the trailer were used to haul
fire pumps, mobile kitchens, generators, and other goods
Gerstenslager’s W.D. Johns served as president of the National Truck Body Manufacturers & Distributors Association immediately after the war.
The US Post Office resumed its pre-war program of replacing old Parcel Post delivery trucks in 1949 and the Highway Products Company of Kent, Ohio and Gerstenslager received large orders for the new bodies which were built on ¾-ton and 1-ton chassis supplied by Dodge, Ford and International.
“It was after the war that we really got into this business,” says Robert L. Iceman (b. 1926-d. 2006), Gerstenslager’s president during the 1970s and 80s. “The postal business was okay while quantities were small: 2000, 4000 units. As the quantities increased and the design became more standardized, we got out of it.” According to Iceman, the firm produced 25,000 units for the Post Office Department between 1949 and 1963, mostly on Dodge and Ford chassis.
Although Gerstenslager was poised to post their best year ever, a 53-day strike held by the United Steel Workers brought the plant to a standstill in the fall of 1949, wiping out any hopes for a profitable year.
Gerstenslager catalogs dating from the early 1950s picture mainly large furniture delivery trucks and moving vans, built on a wide variety of chassis, most of which were of the cab-over engine variety. A large number of large White Series 3000 COE-based vans were depicted and a special White-Gerstenslager catalog was distributed to the nation’s White dealers.
The July 19th, 1951 issue of the Zanesville Signal, Zanesville, Ohio included a picture of their new fleet:
Following the war, Gerstenslager was faced with stiff competition from firms mass-producing delivery vans, so they looked for new niche markets, and hit a home run with the Pioneer Bookmobile. Early Pioneers were based on their standard Parcel Van body, one of which was featured in the June 11, 1948 Mansfield News Journal of Mansfield:
During 1949 Gerstenslager’s A.W. Baehr organized a national library tour that created lots of attention for the firm’s new Pioneer Bookmobile wherever they were exhibited as evidenced by the following article in the December 13th, 1949 issue of the San Mateo Times, San Mateo, California:
The success of the bookmobiles led the firm into other niche markets and starting in the early 1950s Gerstenslager began to market their purpose-built civil defense, ambulance and rescue bodies to municipalities and volunteer fire departments in nationally-distributed periodicals as well as in dealer-only truck equipment catalogs such as Chevrolet’s Silver Book.
In the late 40s, the “Red Menace” brought Civil Defense to the national forefront just as 9-11 resulted in a rush to provide Homeland Security a half century later. Money suddenly became available to help prepare municipalities in the event of an “attack” and Gerstenslager was on of the first firms to take advantage as evidenced by the following article which appeared in the October 10th, 1951 Lima News, Lima, Ohio:
Although most of Gerstenslager Civil Defense trucks were less elaborate, they built large numbers throughout the 1950s and 1960s. They incorporated many of the Civil Defense body’s features into their new line of fire squad and rescue car bodies that debuted in the early 50s.
Gerstenslager’s Rescue Car and Fire Squad bodies were typically multi-passenger units designed for fire department and municipal use. Medium-sized models were built using a large capacity parcel delivery body with a bi-level rear compartment with seats and windows on the top and cargo compartments below.
Larger rescue bodies were constructed using the firm’s large Transit Van body shell and were available with a choice of chassis, either COE or conventional. Much more popular were Gerstenslager’s smaller panel-truck based Emergency Rescue Units and Ambulances which were built using high headroom long wheelbase panel vans with a one or two trapezoidal windows installed on both side of the rear compartment. Also popular were their Conventional Closed Box Rescue Cars, true modular units built using 1- and 1½-ton cab and chassis.
Gerstenslager’s Transit Van squad bodies were easily adapted for other uses. A number of beverage truck bodies were built using the same basic design which included large doors and compartments that could hold full pallets of beer or soda. Another variation featured smaller compartments that could hold cases and kegs.
Another adaptation of the firm’s large Transit Van body shell was the remote broadcasting truck, which were introduced by the firm in the early 1950s. Typically sheathed in stainless steel, Gerstenslager’s broadcasting vehicles were the firm’s most expensive products, as each one was custom designed and built from start to finish.
Gerstenslager regularly advertised to potential customers in targeted advertisements placed in ALA Bulletin (American Library Association), Broadcasting, Civil Engineering, Commercial Car Journal, Distribution Age, Fire Engineering, Fleet Owner, Library World, Railway Age, School Management, Traffic World and other industry-specific periodicals and publications.
Gerstenslager’s sales staff even had a Cessna airplane at their disposal which could be used at a moments notice to meet with prospective customers anywhere in the country. They also emphasized the fact that each and every Pioneer bookmobile was custom-built and encouraged prospective customers to tour their facilities as seen in the October 16th, 1953 edition of the Athens Messenger (Athens, Ohio):
Gerstenslager’s influence with American libraries was so great that they even had a representative, Paul Wyer, on the ALA (American Library Association) board of directors during the late 1950s and 1960s.
The following article, from the March 9th, 1957 issue of the Morning Herald, Hagerstown, Maryland included a detailed description of a Bookmobile interior:
The years from 1950 to 1954 brought five new versions of the Oscar Meyer Company’s Wienermobile, one of which is in the permanent collection of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.
The museum’s 1952 Weinermobile, the focal point of its popular Wienermobile Café, was built by Gerstenslager, as were all five of Oscar Meyer’s early 50s advertising vehicles. Built upon a Dodge chassis the hotdog on wheels featured a high-fidelity public address/sound system and “bunroof”.
In 1956 Gerstenslager received their largest single order ever from their Ohio neighbor, the Railway Express Agency (REA), who ordered 3000 new 1½-ton pickup and delivery trucks at a cost of $9½ million. The Commercial Car Journal noted that:
Gerstenslager’s Transit Van body shell produced one unusual variation called the “Chapel On Wheels”. During the 1950s the firm produced a handful of the traveling buses which were equipped with public address systems and wide side entrances that converted into an altar. Another version contained a rear-mounted altar, and both styles allowed a traveling minister to preach to several hundred people at a time, weather permitting.
Another Transit Van variation was the Mobile Medical Unit, which was introduced in the early 1950s. By the end of the decade they were producing a fair number of the vehicles for county health departments and rural and inner city hospitals. A dedicated Mobile Medical Unit catalog included Mobile X-Ray units and Dental Clinics built using the firm’s Transit Van and Parcel Delivery bodies.
Gerstenslager also produced small numbers of Transit Van-based Product Demonstration and Display Vans for well-heeled manufacturers as well as a handful of Mobile Canteens for the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Also pictured in their catalogs were mobile shoe stores, field offices and motor homes.
Gerstenslager produced large numbers of truck bodies, trailers and shipping crates for the US Armed Forces during the 1950s and 1960s. Most were unmemorable; however, one of their bodies, designed in co-operation with the Aluminum Corp. of America, was truly remarkable. The December 19th, 1956 edition of the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Long Beach, California included the following Associated Press feature:
The expansible trailer was powered by an on-board generator which powered the lighting and hydraulic expansion system. Insulated from both cold and heat, the van, when equipped with a heating and air conditioning system, could withstand temperature extremes ranging from 40 degrees below zero to more than 120 degrees.
The high cost of the expansible trailer produced few takers, although a small number were built for use as portable class rooms. Another unusual Gerstenslager-built military trailer was produced in very small numbers staring in the mid 1960s. Staff reporter Dave Arnold wrote the following article for the October 22, 1967 issue of the Mansfield, Ohio News Journal:
The gradual expansion of Gerstenslager’s Bookmobile business during the 1950s and 1960s was no accident. In fact, Federal and State tax dollars were used to purchase a portion of most Bookmobiles produced by the firm from 1956 onwards.
The program was funded by Title 1 of the Library Services Act, which starting in 1956 provided funding for extending library services to rural areas of populations of 10,000 or less.
375 new bookmobiles were funded by the 1956 Act, most of which were produced by Gerstenslager, however new competition in the form of the Boyertown Auto Body Works in Boyertown, Pennsylvania prevented Gerstenslager from having a complete monopoly.
A revised Library Services bill was enacted in 1964 that removed the population limits of the previous Act, providing funding for inner-city and suburban libraries to purchase bookmobiles. The 1964 bill resulted in an increase in Bookmobile orders at Gerstenslager, and the firm now controlled approximately 90% of the market.
Sales of bookmobiles began a steady decline starting in the early 1970s due to increasing gasoline prices and revised library agendas. In 1986 Gerstenslager halted production of their classic bookmobile and the once common library service experienced a rapid and ultimately fatal decline during the early 1990s.
Total number of bookmobiles in the United States 1912-2000 Graph points - 1912, 0; 1937, 25; 1950, 550; 1956, 900; 1963, 1400; 1965, 2000; 1992, 1000.
During the 1960s, 70s and early 80s, A.W. Baehr was in charge of the firm’s custom body division which oversaw bookmobile production, and he wrote a number of articles on the subject of purchasing and outfitting bookmobiles for various national and regional library publications.
During the mid 1960s Gerstenslager expanded into the steel sheet-metal stamping business and began supplying bodywork to the automobile industry. Their stamping business grew very quickly and the firm was soon split into two parts, one for custom body fabrication, the other for sheet-metal stamping.
During the 1980s Gerstenslager pioneered cathodic primer application was also heavily involved in legacy automotive panel production. Today the firm maintains large warehouses full of legacy dies, allowing it to produce small runs whenever a client’s supply runs low.
Ernest P. Martin served as president of Gerstenslager from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s. He was replaced by Robert L. Iceman, who remained in charge of the firm until the early 90s. Iceman had been with the firm since the mid-60s when he served as sales manager of the firm’s stamping division.
Richard Fishburn, Gerstenslager’s chairman during the 1970s, started his career at the firm as an hourly worker, gradually worked his way upwards, first as foreman, then plant manager, and eventually as part owner and chairman of the Gerstenslager board. The following roster dates from 1979:
“Richard Fishburn, chairman; Robert L. Iceman, president; James R. Fishburn, vice-president general manager; C.E. Fisher, vice-president finance (replaced V.J. Flickinger); K.L. Vagnini, assistant vice-president finance; Thomas L. Iceman, sales manager stamping division; A.W. Baehr, sales manager custom body division; A.W. Baehr, advertising manager; Steven W. Pool, director of purchases (replaced John Lawrence); Donald Freeman, assistant to general manager.”
The firm’s custom body division was dissolved in 1987 and the firm became a dedicated exterior sheet metal body parts supplier to the nation’s auto, truck and agricultural vehicle manufacturers.
In 1997 Gerstenslager was purchased by John H. McConnell’s Worthington Industries, a leading diversified metal processing company headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. The February 4, 1997 issue of the New York Times reported on the acquisition:
The following information was culled from Worthington Industries’ fiscal 1997 Security and Exchange Commission Filing:
Gerstenslager's annualized sales in fiscal 1996 were approximately $120 million. Gerstenslager's customers include Ford, Chrysler, General Motors and other original equipment manufacturers including foreign automotive transplants.
In 2000, Gerstenslager constructed an 180,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art stamping facility in Clyde, Ohio that featured an all-hydraulic press line which allowed the firm to grow its existing business and expand into new areas. Today the Clyde facility produces car, light-truck, SUV and minivan door panels and side panels, fenders and structural parts.
From its headquarters in Wooster, Ohio, Gerstenslager now employs over 1,000 people and occupies over 800,000 square feet of manufacturing, warehouse and office space. It remains a leading independent supplier of current and past model exterior body panels to the automotive industry providing services including: stamping, blanking, assembly, painting, packaging, warehousing and distribution to customers such as General Motors, Ford, Navistar, Chrysler, Freightliner, Mitsubishi, Honda, Nissan and Isuzu.
The old Gerstenslager factory at 572 E. Liberty St., Wooster, also known as the Reed Warehouse, was entered into the National Register of Historic Places on February 13, 1986 as Building #86000240.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com