Back Row: Ted Orscheln, Al Orscheln, Louie Orscheln Front Row: Ed Orscheln, William (Bill) C. Orscheln
In the 1930s, brothers Ed and William Orscheln established a trucking business. As maintenance supervisor for Orscheln Brothers Truck Line, it was brother Al’s job to fix any problems on the fleet. Parking brakes failed quite often and one day in 1938, driver Gus Williams came in complaining, "You’ve got to fix the parking brake on old Six Speed." Al sketched out a design (the first "overcenter" parking brake), built one in the shop and installed it on a truck going to St. Louis.
Orscheln’s creation was the first "overcenter" parking brake, which used a pull-up handle and magnified leverage to help the driver lock the brakes in place. It also allowed the driver to adjust the brake tension from inside the cab. Patented in 1939, the levers were only installed on the family’s fleet of delivery trucks. In 1946, Orscheln Brake Lever Manufacturing Company was incorporated to build the brake system for sale to others. Decades later Orscheln’s overcenter parking brakes are still a leader in the industry.
It wasn’t an accident that led the Orschelns into the brake business, but it was something of an accident that got the family into the trucking business two decades earlier. In 1919, brothers Ed and William Orscheln left their family farm near Tipton, Missouri, and bought one for themselves near Sturgeon. Bad weather and poor cattle prices soon sent the two young farmers scrambling for cash. Inspired by the portable dance floor that they hauled around to area farms on a hay wagon in their teenage years, Bill and Ed opened a dance hall near Sturgeon in 1921 and called it "Orscheln Heights".
The dance business had some success, but farm folk without transportation had trouble getting to Sturgeon. In 1924, the brothers bought an old Model T pickup, installed benches in the back, and made a circuit for miles around, hauling people to dances at Orscheln Heights. Several years passed and the dance transportation business was still limping along, when a grocery store owner in Renick offered Bill Orscheln 25 cents to bring him a box of bread from Klein’s Bakery in Moberly on his next run. Bill made that delivery and started soliciting other hauling business along his dance route, and soon they had so much business they had to take the benches out of the back.
The next year, they bought a second truck, hired another driver (brother Al) and a bookkeeper (sister Jo). Ed managed the farm. Bill managed the hauling. Three or four nights a week, they had dances at Orscheln Heights. Their dance hall became a regular stop on the Chicago-St. Louis-Kansas City entertainment circuit, and big bands like Benny Goodman’s played the pavilion at the Heights. Even with big names, the dance business was marginal. The invention of the jukebox in the mid-1930s was the death knell for live entertainment dance halls, and in 1936, Orscheln Heights was closed.
Bill’s son Don came on board after graduating from Northwestern in 1949, "missionarying" as he calls it. "I was on the road, selling brake levers. I was still on my honeymoon in June 1949, in Buffalo, New York, when I called on a jobber who sold to the trucking industry. I sold my first order for 25 brake levers to that man. I left my new wife at the motel, with three or four dollars in quarters, so she could feed the coin operated radio while I made sales calls. It didn’t sit too well with her, but she knew what she was in for!"
In the 1950s, the Orscheln brake lever became optional equipment for several major manufacturers. International Harvester added Orscheln to its catalog, and later General Motors Trucks did the same. Brake Lever's first big order came in the late 1960s, when American Motors added the Orscheln brake lever as standard equipment on the Dodge truck.
In the early 1960s, the five Orscheln brothers divided up the family businesses. The largest portion was the truck line and was given to brothers Ed, Ted, Al, and Louie. Bill took over the remaining businesses; Orscheln Brake Lever Manufacturing, an equipment dealership, a real estate venture, and a few farm stores. Orscheln Brothers Truck Line grew to be the largest trucking company in the region from Kansas City to Chicago. However, the 1970s brought a number of management and operational challenges and the business ended.
Bill Orscheln’s son, Jerry, a successful businessman in his own right, took over the farm supply business in the mid 1960s, creating an enterprise which has grown to more than 150 stores today, with annual sales exceeding $300 million. Bill’s elder son, Don, concentrated on the brake lever company. He and Jerry also operated many other businesses. Asked to categorize the family operations from the mid-60s to the mid-80s, Don Orscheln laughed, "I’ve got a whole box of corporate seals here that we no longer use. We’d try one thing, and if it didn’t work, we’d try another."
Bob Orscheln, son of Don and grandson of founder Bill, started Orbseal Inc. in 1983 along with two partners. They were problem solvers in automotive sealants and adhesives, and Orbseal shortly became a major supplier to the U.S. market. As the business thrived, operations expanded into Europe and Australia, and in 2004, Orbseal was sold to German conglomerate Henkel International. Bob later took over the helm as president of Orscheln Products LLC.
Today, Orscheln Products supplies and develops numerous products for the heavy truck, aviation, military, agricultural and recreation vehicle industries. Operations have expanded from a domestic focus to international, with locations in Europe, India, and China, as well as a growing network of over 100 distributors throughout the world.
Barry Orscheln, also a son of Don, started a commercial leasing company in the late 1970’s, which became an industry leader prior to its sale to Chase Manhattan Bank in 1986. After completing a one-year commitment with Chase, Barry returned to the Orscheln Group as its Chief Financial Officer in 1987. He became president in 1990 and today oversees Orscheln’s widely diversified enterprises. Barry Orscheln sees a course for the next 10 years not too much different from the last 10, " We want to continue to grow in businesses where we can make a difference and add value."