2018-07-07 / Columnists


Two Tales in Two Cities, Michigan’s Carriage and Wagon Makers

I grew up with a father who appreciated my fascination with horses and the contraptions they pulled. In many ways we had shared similarities. He was nuts about automobiles, all kinds. Often I would be eyeing a horse in a field while he was looking at a jalopy under a tarp. He taught me a wealth of information about cars, especially where early ones were manufactured. It made sense, as his company made electric motors. The company was housed in a building that had been designed for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. It stood next door to a former brick stable that was razed in the 1980s.

I still eye horses in fields, old cars, carriages, sleighs, wagons, and jalopies. I also find myself gazing at old industrial buildings that still stand, and I wonder about them. When not on Mackinac Island, I live in Jackson, and for five years our adult son lived in Kalamazoo. I have driven many miles in each city, and I have driven past a few wonderful old brick factories, which I felt I just knew had to be in the carriage trade once upon a time. If only my certainty for winning lottery numbers was as good.

The Commercial Exchange building in Jackson as it stands today. It was once the home of a major Michigan carriage company. The Commercial Exchange building in Jackson as it stands today. It was once the home of a major Michigan carriage company. I am happy to know that in Jackson, an old gem still stands, and Kalamazoo has part of one. These two buildings were segments of empires. Both towns were very important centers for the manufacture and distribution of carriages, wagons, and sleighs. In 1887, 18 firms around Kalamazoo produced 47,000 vehicles for national distribution. Jackson was not far behind, with six companies producing 30,000 vehicles. Jackson was a major railroad center in Michigan, and heading west, the railroad went right through Kalamazoo.

A carriage collector I know winces when I refer to these vehicles as “buggies.” It seems to be such a folksy American term. But buggy and buggies were often the names painted or bricked on as signage for advertising on these structures. I feel that I am justified.

One of the biggest companies who advertised as such was the Michigan Buggy Company of Kalamazoo. The company was established in 1873. Moses Henry Lane founded the Kalamazoo Wagon company. His business expanded when he married Ida Lay of Allegan, whose father went into business with his son-in-law. They built the Michigan Buggy Company factory downtown, right next to the railroad tracks on Willard Street. It was three stories high. Lane and Lay had plans to build the largest carriage factory in the world. The Kalamazoo Gazette was full of speculation, and, ads encouraging potential investors to jump aboard and share the profits in adjoint real estate, it would be a complete one stop store and shop.

Lane and Lay held considerable property in Kalamazoo County, and one of their ideas was carriage horses. They planned to raise and sell a variety of work horses, carriage horses, and ponies. Dubbed the “Tony Pony” line, prospective buyers could purchase the cart before the horse, or vice versa. Another idea was the incorporation of the horse blanket company known as the Kalamazoo Blanket Company Mills. They were based in a section of the buggy works in the large corporation on Willard.

Then the massive recession occurred. The Panic of 1873 put a damper on the buying frenzy of many rural Americans, as well as those in cities. In Kalamazoo, it was reported by the Kalamazoo Gazette, “This company stood up under the financial depression as well as any in the country, and since September 1 (1893) last has been doing nearly as much business in any former year.” That may have been incorrect. In 1896 a massive fire started in the paint department and wiped out the carriage works. They had only been insured for 40%. However, like a phoenix, the company regrouped. The carriage horse line was lessened, and the Michigan Buggy Company decided to make buggies of a “cheaper grade.” The move was a smart one, for soon Lane and Lay were back on their feet.

The company rebuilt. This was a brick factory and included shops from Garland’s and Winans Buggy Company that were also downtown, and then, in 1902, another devastating fire.

The losses were terrible. The Michigan Buggy Company moved to the outskirts of Kalamazoo in the Hays Park area. The new structures were made of poured concrete, and a sprinkler system was installed. South of this, a mill to house the Kalamazoo Blanket Company was set up and the idea was to turn the land between to two for grazing the Tony Pony ponies. The first products produced in the new factory were cutters. Even today, collectors appreciate this nameplate on sleighs. There were enough of them produced that many of them have survived.

But also in 1902, several of the men who made up the board of directors were smitten with the horseless carriage idea. In 1909, the Michigan Buggy Company had a horseless carriage of their own on the streets of Kalamazoo. The car was called the Mighty Michigan. Highs and lows, sales and models continued, along with bankruptcy and demise by 1935. Actually, by 1914, the works laid off 600 of its carriage workers and ceased production on horse-drawn vehicles. The Michigan Buggy Company is a memory, but part of that factory is still standing.

Back in Jackson, in the late 1870s and 1880s, there was a booming trade in horse-drawn vehicles. There was also a talented work force and a vast amount of hickory trees in the area. This wood was valued at a premium for carriages. The main carriage companies, the Fuller Buggy Company and the Ames-Dean Carriage Company, were in competition with the Jackson Carriage Works, owned by Samuel Collins. By 1895, Collins had built the brick building, The Commercial Exchange, which still stands today. Their high-end carriages featured hickory wood and canned seats. Just a block from the company still stands old lumberyards, now defunct. The factory is next to the rail line. In 1895 they had orders for 30,000 vehicles and 7,000 sleighs. They employed extra men in winter, making the payroll more than 400 employees. The Collins Manufacturing Company eventually merged with other smaller makers. The president was G.A. Matthews, who was also the president of the Jackson City Bank. It goes hand in hand that carriage makers were important businessmen.

It is interesting that in 1898, the same year the carriage men of Mackinac Island banned the horseless carriage, in Lansing that September, the major carriage makers of Michigan officially united as the Michigan Carriage and Wagon Association Makers. Their purpose, according to their bylaws, was to “Promote good feeling among the manufacturers and enable them to cooperate in an effort to strengthen and extend the vehicle trade in the State.” G.A. Matthews of Jackson was its first president. At that meeting of carriage makers, three were from Lansing, three from Pontiac, one from Dearborn, five from Flint, five from Kalamazoo, and five from Jackson.

But by 1902, the Collins Manufacturing Company was now turning its attention to the prospect of making horseless carriages. Part of the new idea was influenced from Charles Lewis. Lewis, from Amsterdam, New York, joined his company (which made springs and axels for carriages) with Collins Manufacturing. It did not take long, five years, in fact, and by 1907 Collins Manufacturing became home of the Jackson, an automobile. For much the same ways as the carriage-turned auto makers of Kalamazoo failed, so too in Jackson. The last carriages one could find made here were in the early 1920s, and those were primarily farm wagons and a few sleighs.

The Commercial Exchange, so proudly built in 1895, is a shadow of the past. A few odd businesses rent parts of it. As I surmised, it was once a carriage-works; I bet if you look long enough, in some dusty corner, there just has to be a leftover wagon wheel.

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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