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Tuesday, April 2, 2013


In 1834 John Philip Nissen, at the age of twenty-one years old, purchased a lot in Waughtown, North Carolina.  Constructing a small log structure to house his wagon shop, the modest business grew to become the thriving business of  Nissen Wagon Works.  Although the son of a farmer, John's grandfather, Tycho Nissen was a wheelwright and wagon maker. Tycho was born in Denmark l732 immigrating to the Americas settling in Charlestown, North Carolina in 1770.  The following year he went to Bethania and worked as a wagon maker until his death in 1789.  Tycho's son, Christian left wagon making to others preferring the farm.  Although his son John, fascinated about the craftsmanship of his grandfather soon tinkered with the family wagon showing great mechanical aptitude.  By age 15, John had built his first horse drawn wagon by hand.  Though his father, Christian desired him to remain working on the family farm,  it was young John passion to build fine crafted wagons.    

Soon,  John's products were in such great demand, he added powered steam machinery quickly out growing the small shack.  Farmers often carting goods to market along the Fayetteville and Western Plank road paraded the Nissen logo that's John's wagon each portrayed. While Nissen built many different types of wagon, influenced by both English and German designs, one popular cargo wagon of the 1700's was a Pennsylvania Dutch wagon known as the Conestoga.  This design would model the plans for a wagon of multiple use that Nissen's reputation of quality work grew from. 

The Conestoga, having a curved floor in the bed of the wagon bowed at each end. This prevented shifting of cargo making it exceptionally idea for handling freight along the Appalachian trail.  Though sometimes constructed as large as 26 feet in length, the average length was 18 feet, 11 feet high, and 4 feet in width. Since the Conestoga's could carry loads up to 16,000 pounds, it required the minimum use of six full size draft horses to haul such loads.  Nissen saw where he could build this in a smaller yet more practical scale constructing his wagon 11 feet 6 inches in length, 42 inches wide in the bed and able to carry loads of 7,500 pounds. This “light and sturdy” design allowed for a mere two horse team for normal loads and was well suitable for traveling over poor roads. 

The superior craftsmanship and practical design allowed for general use hauling freight and farm corps. Readily available, many migrating Carolinian's in search for new lands or gold, could purchase a new wagon for $53 often traveling in groups convoying as a wagon train across the western frontier.  The wagon was often referred to as a Prairie Schooner due to the large canvas cover resembling a sail while the bowed wagon bed resembled a ship like appearance.  

John would be joined by five of his sons in the wagon business. During the Civil War, the Nissen Wagon Works supplied gun carts and wagons to the Confederacy. After the Civil War, tobacco peddlers would go out on month-long journeys using their Nissen wagons for transportation as well as for their sleeping quarters.  In time, the wagon business gained two primary in-state competitors: Piedmont Wagon Company in Hickory and Hackney Wagon Company in Wilson, North Carolina. 

By the mid-1870s, the Nissen Wagon Works occupied over six hundred acres in Waughtown. Sons George E. and William M. Nissen took the company over and renamed it George E. Nissen Wagon Works, John Nissen remained involved until his death in 1874.   Nissen always insisted on the best quality of materials and workman­ship, and when his boys, George  and William took over, they continued to build the finest crooked bed wagons that man and materials combined could make.   

One trait of many wagon makers, was the use of  a linchpin (similar to a cotter key) that is fitted through a slot on the end of each axle. While this feature can be indicative of wagons built prior to the Civil War, there were several companies building wagons towards the late 1800’s that offered thimble skein wagons with a choice of either threaded nuts or linch pins on the axles. Nissen was one such company.

Waughtown in Forsyth county North Carolina today has grown to become the Winston-Salem, thought Waughtown's growing stature as a village was its incorporation in 1891 with support from many of its best-remembered citizens. The town's mayor was W.H. Sheppard and the commissioners were W.L. Link, W.L. Cook, P.E. Leight, C.F. Nissen, and W.M. Nissen.  In 1896, however, the incorporated status was lost because residents refused to tax themselves.   

John's youngest son, Samuel Jacob Nissen, had ventured in 
the tobacco business for sometime before opening his own wagon shop in October,  1890 with the purchased of a large lot on the corner of East Third St and Depot St (now called Patterson Avenue) and erected the building originally called the S. J. Nissen Carriage Repository and Repair Shop. The goal was to build and repair wagons for the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Wagon building was an extremely important industry in the development of Winston-Salem, and S. J. Nissen built wagons at this factory from 1895 through 1929. At this time it finally became clear that trucks were replacing horses forever, and Nissen closed his factory and sold the building.

Although between 1909 and 1911, William M. Nissen bought out George’s share and also purchased his brother J. I. Nissen’s wagon company and merged the two into a new Nissen Wagon Works. A large brick factory was completed by 1919, housing “all the modern appliances and machinery for turning out finished wagons.” With a staff of about 200 men, the company produced over 15,000 wagons per year, or about fifty per day. 

In 1919 the Nissen Wagon Works burned to the ground. Instead of laying off - Will hired one outside man to head up the reconstruction-then put his own crew of over 200 men to work, building a bigger and better facility. This, for a period of four months before production resumed.  Will Nissen is remembered as a giant of a man, who was soft spoken and even tempered. He dropped out of school at an early age to appren­tice his father's business.  Nevertheless, successful operated the business.  Often, Will eat lunch with the men he employed followed by a game of pitching horse shoes during the lunch hour.  It was said he pioneered the industrial retirement plan. When his workers got too old to perform their tasks, Will would keep them on doing handy work around the factory. 

Due to failing health, William Nissen was forced to retire and sold the business in 1925 to F. B. Reamy for about one million dollars. The end of a long family tradition which started through Tycho Nissen followed by his grandson John P Nissen came to and end with the sale of the family business.  Reamy continued to manufacture and sale Nissen Wagons until the 1940s, when the rise of the automobile had rendered the old manufacturer a remnant of the past.
Nissen Wagon Works manufactured well made wagons from carriages, buck board, light frieght, farm and also wheel barrows and other goods including repairing wagons.  Some double side board wagons have been converted into chuckwagons and many of these are still found today.  

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1 comment:

  1. i have one and would ike to know what year