On a morning in early 1857, there arrived in Pitts, Missouri a man on a well-crafted new wagon ready to begin his new life on an eighty-acre farm. Fred Nieburg was an industrious young 22-year-old who had just emigrated from Germany three years prior. He was a bachelor, a woodworker, a craftsman, and every bit an American entrepreneur.
He had come to start anew and it would not take long to find success on the western frontier. His ambitions matched the vast expanse of the western frontier. Within a mere two years he had started the Nieburg Manufacturing Company, producing hand-crafted wagons, farm implements, and caskets.
The seemingly unvoncential range of products proved shrewd in a time when westward pioneers sought the essentials and nothing more. What people needed, Nieburg manufactured. By 1870, his property holdings amounted to $2,600, or about $111,773 in 2024 dollars.1
Each day he tended to his farm, assembled wagons, and built implements while the whole world seemed to transform around him. In 1850 he married his wife, Caroline, a local of Warren County. In 1860 Missouri rose to become the 8th most populous state in the nation, ahead of even North Carolina and just behind Massachusetts. Farmers made up 58% of the entire labor force, and soon newfangled gang plows and sulky plows were in use, putting Nieburg on the cutting edge of the western frontier and agricultural technology. The first railroads and steam tractors were only a few years away, which would forever change his business. Business was booming, and so was his family with his six surviving children: Lottie, Charles G., Otto F., and William H. — all of whom would follow in Fred’s footsteps.
Within his casket-crafting business, Fred Nieburg developed a reputation for meticulous planning and care after a death around Warren County. “If some person died late in the afternoon,” a report in the July 29, 1928 Warrenton Banner recalled, “a measurement was taken off the body. Then, during the night, with the help of his wife and sons, who held the lights, Fred Nieburg would build the crude coffin.” By morning the deceased would be dressed and in their final resting place for the family to mourn and bury.
Fred Nieburg leaves Pitts for Wright City and prepares for the next generation of manufacturing
After twelve years in Pitts, Fred moved to Wright City, Missouri in 1874 to meet the growing demands of his business. Wright City, it was decided, was a logical choice as railroads snaked westward and placed him closer to larger markets like St. Louis. In a relentless pursuit of knowledge and mastery of his craft, Fred spent several months between 1879 and 1881 in St. Louis learning the fine art of carriage painting. It wasn’t enough to simply paint a wagon, he thought. New high-end buyers demanded intricate designs on their carriages.
Soon, distinctive “Nieburg Wagons” began making a statement for the company and its customers around Missouri. Through it all, Fred imparted the skills and techniques of painting wagons and carriages he learned in St. Louis to his sons when at their shop in Wright City.
In 1892, his eldest son Charles married Marie Vitt, a native of Washington. It was said Charles was a loyal Lutheran and Republican who proudly cast his first vote for Rutherford B. Hayes.
Otto F. Nieburg was born in June 1866 while his father still lived in Pitts. He began working in the shop with his father at thirteen and developed an interest in the blacksmithing and ironworks side of the business. Otto married Elizabeth Gerdemann, a native of Hickory Grove Township on April 7, 1892. Otto, like his eldest brother, proudly voted in his first presidential election for James A. Garfield.
Last among the eldest brothers was William H. Nieburg, also born in Pitts, January 27, 1869. A stellar woodworker in the shop, he, too, proudly cast his vote for Republican Benjamin Harrison when he turned 18.
The death of Fred Nieburg leads to specialized manufacturing divisions
Fred Nieburg died on May 8, 1889, leaving the Nieburg Manufacturing Co. to his wife and sons, who operated it under the same name for two years before the brothers, Charles, Otto, and William assumed full responsibility for the operation in January 1892. They divided the work so Charles handled the books and management, Otto the ironworks, and William the woodworking department. With its new specialized divisions, the company expanded into more lines of manufacturing.
Though no one knew it at the time, the potential of horse-powered farm equipment had reached its peak, with motorized, steam-powered, and later gasoline-powered combustion tractors and plows arriving in the next two decades. The automobile and its combustion engine defined an enormous change in the United States and for the Nieburg brothers.
The start of Nieburg Funeral Home
In 1903 the family established the Nieburg Funeral Home, a logical expansion of their casket-making enterprise, and expanded from Wright City to Warrenton. The brick building at 201 E Main Street in Warrenton, which still bears the family’s name today, was the family’s first funeral home business until 1951 when they moved to a then newly-constructed 510 East Main. The Nieburg Funeral Home business passed through successive generations and sales until it was sold in 1969 to Paul Funeral, Inc.
Carriages give way to Nieburg Automotive sales
While the funeral business proved steady and necessary, the Nieburg Manufacturing side of the business continued to house most of the family’s innovations and entrepreneurial spirit. Charles continued in his father’s tradition of traveling to St. Louis for training and identifying the newest trends in woodworking and artisanship and stewarded the company into other lines of woodworking.
By 1912 the carriage-making business looked bleak. The brothers abandoned carriages in favor of automobiles, but the shift to manufacturing automobiles required more capital and investment than the local enterprise could support. Industrialization had started to centralize in big cities like St. Louis and smaller, and regional operations like the Nieburg’s began to notice. Becoming salesmen for autos manufactured elsewhere in 1913 was all they could afford. Suddenly the “Nieburg Manufacturing Co.” would be a car dealership and repair shop competing with the nearby Isenmann Brothers Garage.
The shifts in American manufacturing, industry, and business seemed to reverberate in the family as the company reorganized again in April 1922. This time Otto Nieburg and business partner Walter Kamp began operating a new Nieburg Garage and Auto Sales room divisio of the company.
The end of three generations and a way of American business
Brothers Charles and William Nieburg maintained ownership of the manufacturing and funeral operations of the business. True to the original intent of their father, they began manufacturing stoves, modern furniture, and assembled it all at their modest factory in Wright City. It continued operation through the 1940s until the brothers decided to retire, leaving the Wright City Manufacturing Plant and the funeral business to their children. William died in 1953 at the age of 84 and Charles at age 77 in 1941.
As American manufacturing further centralized in larger metropolitan regions, Nieburg Manufacturing Co. increasingly resold items made cheaper elsewhere, like rugs, until electric stoves and appliances pushed the company’s long line of iron stoves out of favor with consumers. The company continued to produce wood furniture and hand-crafted furniture until market forces forced that line of work out of favor with customers.
Otto Nieburg, the eldest brother, finished his career owning the garage and car dealership, succeeded by his son, Julius, who led operations until selling before his retirement. Otto died in 1956 at the age of 91. Julius died in 1975 at the age of 72.
The family developed quite a reputation, having sold caskets, wagons, stoves, furniture, and later selling rugs, Chevrolets, and other home goods, but eventually gave way to the forces of industrialization and specialization.
The beautiful Nieburg Home in Wright City no longer stands today, though the funeral homes continue operations under new owners. The Wright City Manufacturing Plant caught fire in the 1990s and no longer remains.
After the second generation of brothers died in the mid twentieth century, most of the operations shuttered. Today, the Nieburg name is still present on some area funeral homes. The family surname remains on buildings along Main Street in Warrenton and some of the furnishings can still be found in the attics and homes of area residents. An early Nieburg Wagon is on display at the Warren County Historical Society’s Museum, too.
1 Portrait and Biographical Record of St. Charles, Lincoln, and Warren Counties, Missouri (Chicago, 1895), 464-65. 1860 U.S. Census: Elkhorn, Warren, Missouri; Roll: M653659; Page: 145; 1870 U.S. Census: Hickory Grove, Warren, Missouri; Roll: M593824; Page: 752A; Available online at http://www.ancestry.com