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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gruber Wagon Works

We've been having summer weather so far this month. It felt more like July than October this week. We took Saturday afternoon off to attend the Berks County Heritage Festival. We didn't see a whole lot there because we spent most of the time touring the Gruber Wagon Works which is on the grounds. I've wanted to do that for years and today seemed like the perfect opportunity.

The Gruber Wagon Works was built in 1882 by Franklin H. Gruber who had begun making farm-use wagons in the 1870s. As demand increased, he built the Wagon Works. It remained a family-owned business until it closed in 1971. It was unusual for its time because all of its processes, from start to finish, were under one roof.
Originally, the Wagon Works was on the Licking Creek, about 1000 feet from where it flows into the Tulpehocken Creek. The Licking Creek was used to supply power for the machines in the early days of the Wagon Works. Part of the creek was diverted to run through the basement, turning a small water wheel before flowing back into the creek.
With increases in business, the Wagon Works modernized. A steam engine was installed in 1896, replaced in 1906 by a gasoline-powered engine, which was used through the 1950's. The water diverted from the creek was still used, only now to cool off the engine.
Because the Wagon Works was along a dirt road, painting was done on the second floor where there was not as much dust. An elevator, designed by one of the Gruber sons, was built in the building in 1905. With the installment of the elevator, two men could lift the wagons into the upper levels of the shop in a few minutes, a process which had previously taken five to six men half an hour.
In 1912, E. I. Shower put in electric lighting. It was the first electric lighting in the rural Berks area, and Shower encouraged people to go to the Wagon Works to see how it worked. This was also beneficial for the Grubers, as they could show off their wares while the people were there.
At its peak period, between 1910 and 1920, up to 20 men worked there at a time. They worked for 11 hours a day, six days a week, and were paid 15 to 20 cents an hour. At this time, approximately 100 wagons were being produced each year. Here is the price list from 1917 on the blackboard in the paint shop.

One of the keys to the success of the Wagon Works was its use of patterns. Having a pattern for each part meant that less work had to be done in sizing the pieces and the wagon could be built faster and more efficiently. With more wagons being built, more orders could be taken, and more money flowed into the business. During slow times, they would build extra parts to have some ready for the future.
As a family business, the Grubers were very concerned about the safety of their workers. They put in special safeguards, such as barriers on saws and other machinery to keep workers from cutting their hands while using them. During its entire operation, there were no major accidents.
No glue was used in the wagons; instead, the parts were fitted tight enough that they stayed together by themselves. This cold press, used to permanently weld the metal rims to the wooden wheels, is one of only a few to survive in the country. It was featured on the Smithsonian calendar.

The paint they used was linseed oil-based and had to be mixed every morning. The body of the wagon was always painted green, while the chassis was always painted red. Intricate scrollwork was painted by hand on the sides of the wagon by hand. Leroy remembers helping a neighbor load hay on one of these which had been modified to be pulled by a tractor.

With the advent of the tractor and automobile, demand for horse-drawn wagons decreased. To keep in business, the Grubers began making wooden truck bodies and socket wrenches for cars. One auto dealer had a deal where he would give a complete set of wrenches, made at the Wagon Works, to everyone who bought a Model-T. A set of Gruber tools would last a lifetime.
After 1956, until it finally closed in 1971, the Wagon Works was a wagon repair shop. The ultimate dominance of the automobile and modern farm equipment meant that the services of the Wagon Works were no longer needed. The last man to operate the Wagon Works was Franklin Gruber's grandson. When he retired in 1971, he simply closed the doors and left everything in place.

When the Army Corps of Engineers, in charge of the Blue Marsh Project, went into the Wagon Works a few years later, they realized they had found a national treasure. Over 19,000 tools, supplies and inventory was all left in place, as if the workers had simply gone home and would be back the next day. The machines and gas engine that runs them are all operational. Someone could go in there and build wagons the same way the Grubers made them.
The building was moved to the Heritage Center in early December 1976. It was cut into four major sections and moved about five miles down the road to the Berks County Heritage Center. Restoration on the building began immediately and the Wagon Works got a second life. The building and everything inside it, including the placement of tools and materials, is as it was when the business was operating. In 1977, the Wagon works was designated as a National Historical Landmark.



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