Horse-Drawn Vehicle Makers in Elkhart County

By Tim Ashley

Elkhart Buggy and Harness Company advertisement from the 1880
Elkhart Buggy and Harness Company advertisement from the 1880 "Goshen Annual and Almanac"

Using hand tools and with intricate craftsmanship rarely seen these days, the makers of wagons, carriages and buggies built the vehicles predating, and for a while competing with, automobiles. The Midwest was a prime location for horse-drawn vehicle builders and many were built in Elkhart County.

While today’s streets and thoroughfares are lined with gas or diesel powered high tech automobiles, yesterday’s streets and roads were filled with wagons, carriages and buggies of many types. Wagons were used by farmers, for making deliveries and more, while carriages and buggies, depending on how detailed they were, were owned by the very wealthy down to the common person. Horse-drawn vehicles were essentially the equivalent of automobiles in terms of value to the owners (understanding the cost of living and inflation need to be adjusted for the different time periods).

Progression in technology meant several horse-drawn vehicle builders evolved into car manufacturers. Wheels, axles, suspensions and braking systems were among the features improved upon and modified for cars. Self-propelled automobiles were a major step forward in technology, but they incorporated technology already used for many years with the horse-drawn variety.

Employees of Whitaker's Carriage & Mfg. Co in Goshen, c. 1880
Employees of Whitaker's Carriage & Mfg. Co in Goshen, c. 1880

Builders in Elkhart County

Likely one of the largest horse-drawn vehicle builders in Elkhart County, if not the largest, was the Elkhart Carriage and Harness Manufacturing Company. It was incorporated under that name in 1888, but the company actually began in 1873 and was known as F.B. Pratt and Sons. Pratt was the founder of the company.

In 1873 Fred Pratt and his son, Bill, occupied a small wooden building on West Marion Street in Elkhart. They hired master blacksmith Charles Hughes to lay up a buggy. Within five years, they had moved to the southwest corner of Pratt and East streets.

Later the company was known as Elkhart Buggy Company before the incorporation and name change in 1888. In 1889 a building was built on the north side of the 700 block of West Beardsley Avenue in Elkhart. This huge facility stood until being demolished in 2013. Details of the Elkhart Carriage and Harness Manufacturing Company can be found in the book “Elcar and Pratt Automobiles – The Complete History” by William S. Locke, which can be found in the research materials of the Elkhart County Historical Museum.

Buggies, carriages, surreys, wagons and harnesses of several types were built at the factory. An illustrated catalog was sent free of charge to anyone who requested one and products were sold at wholesale rates directly from the factory with no traveling agents.

The county history museum has in its archives a copy of an 1897 catalog. For example, there was a Brewster buggy with a leather top, the cushion and back trimmed with all wool dark green cloth and a bottom of velvet carpet. The buggy was listed at $55.

Reproductions of a 1909 catalog can be purchased. Descriptions are more detailed in this catalog and even some of the components are described, too.

Sales were brisk enough the market expanded to the West Coast and into Canada, too. By the early 1900s, changes came when competition from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward meant they could be a middleman and still get a quality product to market at a low price. By 1912, the trend had shifted to building automobiles at the Elkhart factory. Buggy sales that had been 10,000 or more at the turn of the century dropped to 1,345 in 1916.

Dollars generated from car sales exceeded buggy sales even though more buggies were shipped because at the time, only the affluent could afford automobiles. But by 1919, the final buggy was built. August P. Hughes ceremoniously laid up a final buggy for Charles Elliot of Middlebury. Hughes’ uncle had started building buggies 46 years earlier in 1873.

Other Elkhart County builders

Information on other horse-drawn vehicle builders in Elkhart County is not so readily available. There are no books specifically focused on local builders. That does seem odd because carriages, wagons and buggies were the major form of transportation, other than trains, prior to the automobile. Information can be obtained from old city or county directories, newspaper advertisements and newspaper articles. A few references are made in local history books, too.

Whitaker Brothers in downtown Goshen was a major builder of horse-drawn vehicles. They were located in a building no longer standing in the first block west of Main Street on Washington Street.

The brothers were named Welcome and William. It is not clear when the brothers started their business. One source said it was in the 1870s, while an article in the June 23, 1892, edition of the Goshen Times newspaper said it began in 1861. In the 1874 city directory, Whitaker was listed as a blacksmith only.

It is known, though, the company was still building horse-drawn vehicles well into the 1890s. An article in the June 23, 1892, edition of the Goshen Times reported the business was incorporated under the name of Whitaker Carriage & Manufacturing Company. At this time Welcome Whitaker retired from the business. William Whitaker was the senior partner, J.A. Arthur the vice president and L.J. Miller the secretary and treasurer.

Whitaker was given charge of the woodworking department and Miller was the general manager of the business. He had worked for the Whitaker Brothers for four years and also worked for Stutz & Walker Carriage Company in Goshen.

The newly incorporated company built fine carriages on order, a specialty, and at all times carried a full and complete line of their own manufactured products. An article in the April 26, 1894, edition of the Goshen Times reported the company was enlarging the business and focusing more on the wholesale department. As a result, they were closing out their line of carriages, surreys and road wagons at cost to make room for a line of shelf goods.

It is possible the Dickerson Eyelet Company moved into the Whitaker plant on West Washington Street. An Aug. 29, 1896, Goshen Daily News article indicated Dickerson leased the building from Welcome Whitaker. Dickerson came to Goshen from Marquette, Michigan. The Sanborn fire insurance map for Goshen of 1896 does not show a Whitaker Carriage & Manufacturing Company, so it is entirely possible Dickerson replaced them.

Another major horse-drawn vehicle builder in Goshen was the Goshen Buggy Top Company. It was established in 1883 in a building on South Main Street. Later a three-story building was erected at Main and Jefferson streets. In 1905 the Goshen Buggy Top Company purchased the Goshen Woolen Mill plant on the hydraulic at the corner of Second and Clinton streets. At that time, the plant had been idle for a long time due to litigation. But it was resolved and the location proved to be good for Goshen Buggy Top as it had steam or water power.

Until automobiles became more prominent, Goshen Buggy Top made its money by sending catalogs by mail to blacksmiths. Then in 1924, the name of the company was changed to Goshen Cushion and Body Company. The company made tops for touring cars. By the 1950s production was limited to spring cushions for railway locomotives, cabooses, tractors and large road building machines.

In 1967, a new plant was built in the Goshen Industrial Park. The main products were seats and cushions for the RV and boat industries. Operations were expanded in the early 1990s. The company was relocated out of state and eventually went out of business in the mid-1990s.

Still other builders

City and county directories listed several horse-drawn vehicle builders all throughout Elkhart County. The 1885-86 directories for Goshen and Elkhart had, for Elkhart, in addition to the Elkhart Carriage and Harness Manufacturing Company, the Foster brothers at 121 N. Main, David Harman at 121 E. High, Reed and Son at 209-215 E. Jackson, and Jesse Rush at 200 N. Main. Carriage trimmers included Edward Campbell at 120 E. High. Wagon makers were Jones & Reich at 125 E. Jackson and Frederick Merrill at 123 E. Jackson.

Carriage body and gear manufacturers in Goshen included Aaron Delotter on Lincoln Avenue. Goshen Shifting Rail Company, on the southeast corner of Purl and Ninth streets, was involved in carriage forgings. Carriage manufacturers included the Whitaker Brothers referenced above and John W. Zeigler at Main and Jefferson. Carriage painters included Martin Brown at Main and Jefferson, Thomas Carpenter on Lincoln Avenue and Edward Hicks on Lincoln Avenue. Thomas Skeer was a carriage trimmer at Main and Washington. And wagon makers included Edward Carp at Clinton and Main, Cyrus Swank at Clinton and Main and the Whitaker Brothers.

In 1908-09, only a few years before automobiles moved in to the transportation scene, Melvin C. Schrock built carriages and wagons at 228 S. Main Street in Goshen. Lewis and Neville Manufacturing Company dealt in carriage and wagon parts and supplies, as well as wagon repairing, on North Cottage Avenue in Goshen.

Elsewhere in Elkhart County, Sylvester A. Widner built buggies and wagons on Jefferson Street in Millersburg, while in Nappanee the Neff brothers built buggies and wagons on West Market Street. John Doering built wagons and buggies on North Elkhart Street in Wakarusa, while John Myers repaired wagons on South Elkhart in Wakarusa. Solomon Miller built buggies and wagons on East Warren Street in Middlebury.

Newspaper advertisements

A limited amount of information about horse-drawn vehicle builders can be found in newspaper advertisements. The Feb. 22, 1883, Goshen Times newspaper had an advertisement for a new firm made up of Mitch McCrory, V.R. Miller and J.W. Dalrymple who had a line of carriages and wagons and also did horseshoeing. They were located on South Main Street in Goshen.

The same issue of the newspaper cited above had an ad for John Nisonger, who built buggies and wagons in Goshen. No specific location was cited other than “the old stand.” Also in that same edition, an ad for William McAllister claimed it was the oldest established harness store in the county. William was going at it alone in the “old stand” on Main Street in Goshen. The ad also claimed he had the largest stock of harness materials in northern Indiana.

The Goshen Times edition of Jan. 21, 1892, had an ad for Berkey and Stutsman at the corner of Third Street and Lincoln Avenue in Goshen. They were agents for the famous Studebaker wagons of South Bend.