Category Archives: On Carriages

Rauch & Lang electric cars

At my launch event for The Last of the Blacksmiths, during the question and answer period my friend Larry raised his hand.

“Was Rauch a real person in history?” he asked.

Yes! Charles Rauch was a real person, a contemporary of Michael Harm in Cleveland in the 19th century who built fine carriages, ice wagons and buggies. Of course, my book being historical fiction, I surmised his personality, likes and dislikes, but the real historic Charles Rauch, son of Jacob, did gravitate toward factory-style manufacture of carriage-making. The Rauch & Lang factory took up several blocks on Pearl Road on Cleveland’s west side. At the start of the 20th century, he stayed on the cutting edge of vehicle manufacture with the production of a state-of-the-art electric automobile. Like the fine carriages, the Rauch & Lang electric cars were popular with Cleveland’s wealthier, Millionaire’s Row set.

Rauch & Lang electric carAt a recent visit to the Western Reserve Historical Society’s Crawford Auto Aviation Collection, I was delighted to find this example, circa 1916, of a Rauch & Lang electric car.

It’s a privilege

The Carriage Association of America is a terrific organization that puts out glossy, full-color publications, e-newsletters and more, keeping its membership informed and inspired by carriage history and restoration. It’s a privilege to be included in the March 2014 issue of The Carriage Journal alongside Dr. Thomas Kinney, author of The Carriage Trade. I’m doubly pleased to announce both books are carried in the CAA store along with a lot of other terrific, unique offerings. Purchases from their gift shop benefit this worthy organization. Special thanks to Jennifer Singleton for this great review.LOB Carriage Journal Review

Sleigh rides

My grandmother was a young girl in Cleveland in the 1890s. One of her favorite memories of that time was winter sleigh rides, her parents tucking her into the sleigh seat with a lap robe and fur coat, her hands toasty in a beaverskin muff. I imagine her sleigh rides were more staid than this scene in a Currier and Ives print I saw recently on display at the Museum of the City of New York. This one is called “A Brush for the Lead: New York ‘Flyers’ on the Snow” by artist Thomas Worth. The image, poorly rendered by my non-flash camera in the museum, is still “Christmas-y” enough that I wanted to share it.

Currier and Ives New York Flyers on the snow

Of course, nothing is ever idyllic as it first sounds. There were inherent dangers, just like our car accidents today. Here is “‘A Spill Out’ on the Snow” done in 1874.

Currier & Ives "A Spill Out on the Snow" 1876

Happy holidays. Stay warm.

Carriage relics and amusement rides

I’ve been following the posts at The Slower Road, a blog by the Carriage Association of America chronicling a trip of members who have been touring antique carriages all over Argentina.

The photos have reminded me how old carriages can appear in the most unlikely places, at the most unexpected times. I was just beginning research on my novel about a 19th century blacksmith and carriage maker, The Last of the Blacksmiths, when our family made a high school graduation trip with our daughter to Knott’s Berry Farm — for the amusement park rides, mind you.

But surprise, surprise, Mom got a kick out of it, too. And a leg up on my research. Knott’s Berry Farm’s Old West town and museum kept me happily preoccupied, along with the relics of old carriages everywhere I turned, mixed right in with the roller coaster rides. Even hearses, the irony of which was not lost on me as I waited in line to take the Rip Tide and the Supreme Scream.

Knott's Berry Farm wagon

Wagon interior
Enormous conestoga wagon
Conestoga wagon
Black hearse
White hearse
Wells Fargo wagon
Youngstown fire engine from 1853

World on Wheels

I always dreamed of being a writer, but somehow imagined the profession would mainly involve writing. As in, sitting alone at a desk all day scrawling words on a page. Dreaming up stories to tell, and telling them the best way I knew how. Now that I’m actually pursuing my dream, I’m figuring out there’s a whole lot more to it.

Specifically, the journey. In just a few months my book The Last of the Blacksmiths will become a physical reality (available February 15, 2014), but I’m beginning to understand it’s not just about the book. It’s equally about the journey, all the things that have led up to the moment when the book hits store shelves. The days and weeks and months and years of writing, but also of learning things and meeting people and experiencing the unimaginable.

For instance, back in May of 2011 as I was frantically finishing up my MFA thesis based on 19th century Cleveland wagon makers, I sought the assistance of a professor of history at Bluefield College, Thomas A. Kinney. I had come upon his book The Carriage Trade and couldn’t believe how beautifully it filled huge gaps in my knowledge of 19th century carriage-making. So I emailed to thank him, and to ask him a question or two, and the correspondence has continued ever since.

World on Wheels biennial publicationThe most recent communication arrived via snail mail just yesterday: a marvelous letter from him, as well as a publication by the Carriage Association of America called World on Wheels Number 4 2013: Studies in the Manufacture, History, Use, Conservation, And Restoration Of Horse-drawn Vehicles. The lead article is by Dr. Kinney, a piece called “Looking Back at Horse-drawn Commercial Vehicles.” The article includes not only mention of Michael Harm of Harm & Schuster Fine Carriages of Cleveland, but also two of my family’s antique photos, one of the Harm & Schuster carriage works and one of the men who worked there. World on Wheels also includes terrific articles about carriages and gender, about Holy Roman and Habsburg carriages, about royal coaches and European Harness Horses. Interested? Order one here.

world on wheels photo page

Opening the package, I got goosebumps as I realized how much more full of such rewards my life has become since starting this project. In our original email correspondence back in May 2011, Dr. Kinney wrote: “One of the pleasures of writing for publication is the often surprising responses it elicits from people one would never otherwise know.” Hear hear. My head spins with delight like a world on wheels.

“The Next Big Thing” interview

Mary Biddinger, author of Prairie Fever, St. Monica, and O Holy Insurgency, has started a self-interview series called The Next Big Thing. I’ve been tagged to participate by the awesome memoirist and writing teacher Janet Buttenwieser, author of Guts.

Michael Harm, circa 1862What is the working title of your book?
The Last of the Blacksmiths.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
Originally, I wanted to write a book based on several dozen letters in my family dating back to 1840, written by German immigrant blacksmiths and wagon-makers in Cleveland. The letter writers lived at a time when the city population was approximately one-third German. Since I had unique primary source material, I pondered making the book non-fiction. But every time I researched a clue in the letters, it led me to new layers of history – the “mean-spirited” monarchies of Europe, the recurrent bank failures in the U.S., the short-lived era of travel by canal, the apprenticeship system that had faded to non-existence by the twentieth century. I came to understand that my great-great-grandfather lived at a key point in the nineteenth century, when Cleveland was on the cutting edge of worldwide trade, westward expansion, the advent of modern technology, and the discovery of oil.

What genre does your book fall under?
In the end, I chose to write historical fiction, in order to create characters and scenes and dialogue, to flesh out history into three-dimensions. Even so, The Last of the Blacksmiths is based on a true story and real events.

What actors would you choose to play the parts of the characters in your book?
The German men would all have to be bearded and wear suspenders, like the Amish guys in the movie “Witness.” They would need to be broad-shouldered, too, what with all the blacksmith hammering.
James Marsden — protagonist Michael Harm.
Ron Perlman — Singely, Michael’s fellow blacksmith apprentice. Or possibly Sean Astin, since Singely has no neck.
Bernard Hill — Johann Rapparlie, Michael’s master and antagonist.
Bradley Cooper — Charles Rauch, Michael’s rival in carriage-making and in love.
Jodie Foster – as a young actress, Jodie would have made an excellent Elizabeth Crolly, with her piercing eyes and strong set to her jaw. Hilary Swank would be a good choice, too.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
In 1857, Michael Harm leaves behind his family farm in the German Palatinate dreaming of wilderness, prosperity and freedom, to apprentice as a blacksmith in Cleveland, Ohio, wholly unprepared for what he finds—-strong prohibitionist and anti-immigrant sentiment, civil war, and an accelerating machine age that will wipe out his livelihood forever.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
About 18 months. I spent over a year in research alone. I had much to learn about history, like blacksmithing for instance. I took a four-day beginning blacksmithing workshop, which gave me a profound respect for this ancient artisan craft (and I forged a fireplace poker, besides). I wrote the first 150 pages or so in the first year, then had the opportunity to spend a month in Germany. My “research trip” (which involved much wine-tasting) was graciously hosted by my German relatives. They escorted me to museums and castles and on bicycle tours to Roman ruins, and also translated for me during meetings with German historians. It was awesome, and a humbling experience. When I returned, with so many new insights, I realized that despite my best efforts I’d been incredibly naive. So I tossed everything out and started over on page one, cranking out a full first draft in five months.

What inspired you to write the book?
With the discovery of the letters, previous assumptions about Cleveland (where I grew up), about my family’s past, about my understanding of the nineteenth century, all took on new meaning. To hear in the letters from the people who actually lived it was inspiring. I felt compelled to tell their stories. We live now in such a technological, material age. How did we get here? Much of it began back in the nineteenth century, a pre-petroleum era we know so little about.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
My protagonist, Michael Harm, witnessed some amazing moments in history: When he was only seven, his rural village in the Palatinate was occupied by Prussian troops who had come to crush a democratic rebellion against the feudal monarchies. At age 15, Michael arrived in New York City as a major riot broke out between the Irish and the police in the Five Points Slum. Almost as soon as he reached Cleveland, a financial crisis sank the country into a deep depression. He saw the new Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln rise to power, the onset of the Civil War with its tragic loss of life. Then came Cleveland’s “Gilded Age.” The book explores not just my ancestors, but the German American immigrant experience.

Will your book be self-published or are you being represented by an agency?
My book will be published in the coming year by Coffeetown Press. My release date is February 15, 2014 — I’m really excited for that day to arrive.

My tagged writers for THE NEXT BIG THING are Connie Hampton Connally, Don Crawley, and Sandra Sarr.

The Rheinpfalz ladder wagon

A couple of years ago on the way to the Bewartstein Castle (near Erlenbach in the southern Palatinate forest), my cousin and guide Matthias got excited at the sight of this wagon sitting in a meadow by the side of the road.

“Oh look, it’s an old Leiterwagen,” he said, careening the Opel over to the shoulder. “I want you to see it. It was once very common in our region. The design is very clever– it can be used as one wagon with four wheels, or pulled apart into two separate drays. When it wasn’t in use, they would collapse it for easy storage.”

This Leiterwagen appears to be from the 19th century. Note the iron tires, iron fittings and chains, no doubt pounded into place by the village blacksmith. These wagons could haul hay or timber. With boards fitted over the side ladders, they hauled manure to the fields. This one is more elaborate for its covered top — most were left open to the air. The sleekness of the design was important for fitting the wagons down narrow village streets.

and grape rows.

At my relatives’ house in Freinsheim, they still keep their Leiterwagen, mainly as ornamentation.

In the New World, economy of space was not so important, so ladder wagons did not come into vogue. It seems the heavy-duty drays, Prairie Schooners, even the massive Conestogas (precursors to semi-trucks) were the wagons of choice.  At the Colonial Williamsburg web site, I came across this slide show about early American wagons.

Carriage history collaboration: An Interview with Thomas A. Kinney

I first learned of Thomas A. Kinney‘s research on horse-drawn carriages when roaming around the The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. In the section on the Wagon and Carriage Industry, I discovered a fascinating write-up about the prevalence of German carriage-makers in Cleveland, Ohio in the 19th century. Dr. Kinney had written the article. The information supported what I was learning from the letters of my ancestor, Michael Harm, once a carriage-maker in Cleveland, and so I emailed Dr. Kinney to share with him my photos of Harm & Schuster Carriages. We have been in correspondence ever since. Recently, Thomas A. Kinney spoke at the International Carriage Symposium in Williamsburg, VA.


Thomas A. Kinney is Associate Professor of History at Bluefield College in Virginia and author of The Carriage Trade: Making Horse-Drawn Vehicles in America (Johns Hopkins University Press). He earned a B.A. in History from the University of Maine, then went on to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland to earn his M.A. and Ph.D., also in history.

How did you first become interested in the wagon and carriage industry?

My research specialty was the history of technology. I came from Maine, a state with deep roots in the timber industry, and from a family with some involvement in that as well as in woodworking. I wanted to research something to do with logging, the woodworking trades—something like that. Acting on a chance conversation with a fellow graduate student, I began investigating wagon and carriage making. This was a woodworking trade, which like most crafts, underwent the process of industrialization. I became interested in the craft-to-industry transition, and it appeared horse-drawn vehicle manufacture would be a good candidate for such a study. I wasn’t disappointed.

No doubt you found a whole lot more than you bargained for. The Carriage Trade does such a great job of exploring more than woodworking: blacksmithing, painting, trimming, the growth of the industry on the eastern seaboard and in the midwest. But you started with Cleveland?

Yes, my dissertation “From Shop to Factory in the Industrial Heartland” looks at the industrialization of wagon and carriage manufacture in Cleveland. I focused on Cleveland partly because that was where I was living, but also because it was an iconic Midwestern industrial city—-one I hoped would have sufficient sources for my study. The end result, my dissertation, explained how the craft of wagon and carriage making became a full-fledged industry there.

The thesis was not published in book form, but my research attracted the attention of Johns Hopkins University Press. On the basis of their interest, I ended up taking my dissertation’s interpretive structure and expanding the focus to include the entire United States—-in other words, several more years of research, in this case in Washington D.C. and New York. Johns Hopkins University Press published The Carriage Trade: Making Horse-Drawn Vehicles in America in 2004.

And you had a best seller on your hands …

Well, that would have been nice, but that usually doesn’t happen with research monographs. It was well-received–co-winner of the 2005 Hagley Prize in Business History, and I’ve received numerous compliments from readers and fellow historians since then. Most books on wagons and carriages concentrate on the vehicles themselves, an artifact-based focus. The Carriage Trade is the first to focus exclusively on how they were actually built, a manufacturing-based focus. I think this fills some significant gaps in our knowledge of horse-drawn vehicles, but also in our understanding of nineteenth-century crafts and industry. So I’m pleased with it.

It filled in significant gaps in my knowledge. I was delighted to come across it in my research about my great-great-grandfather. Now, about the Third International Carriage Symposium, held at Colonial Williamsburg last month. What is this, and how did it get started?

The Carriage Association of America (CAA) is an organization of horse-drawn vehicle enthusiasts—-people who collect, restore, and drive wagons and carriages. Established in 1960, the association has sponsored driving events, competitions, tours of public and private collections, in addition to publishing an informative illustrated journal. They’ve always had an historical focus, but in 2008 they decided to try hosting a scholarly symposium where professional historians and museum curators could share new research on horse-drawn vehicles. Working in conjunction with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, they held the first such event in 2008 at Colonial Williamsburg. They even started a journal, “World on Wheels,” to publish the papers. It’s become a well-attended event, held ever other year.

Who attends? Scholars? The general public?

The Carriage Symposium is a venue for scholarly research, and while some like myself are professional historians teaching at colleges and universities, others are museum curators, vehicle restorers, preservationists, and the like. But it is also open to the general public, whoever has an interest.

Colonial Williamsburg is an important contributor in a number of ways, not least of which are staff members who present on eighteenth-century carriages and related subjects. The CAA aims for an even mix of American and European presenters, the latter including historians and curators but also those in charge of horse-drawn vehicles owned by various royal families. The latter have fascinating hands-on experience with working vehicles in addition to a deep knowledge of carriage history. So the presenters come from a wide background, the common denominator being serious research on the history of horse-drawn vehicles.

There are also “horse people” who participate in competitive equine events, horse-drawn vehicle collectors both casual and advanced, and just ordinary individuals with an interest in historic transportation, horses, farm wagons-—that sort of thing. It’s a really worthwhile experience: first-class researchers from around the world, an engaging assortment of attendees, a marvelous conference setting, and the opportunity to not only see Colonial Williamsburg but also to take a behind-the-scenes looks at that vast operation.

And you spoke at this year’s Carriage Symposium, drawing from your research on commercial carriages? Business wagons and such?

Yes, I had the privilege to be invited to speak. I say privilege because it’s such a delight to speak to large audiences of people who are really interested in your work, and because both the Carriage Association and Colonial Williamsburg are such generous hosts. I spoke on horse-drawn commercial vehicles, focusing on their increasingly forgotten role in American cities. “Looking Back at Horse-Drawn Commercial Vehicles” draws heavily on my Cleveland research, both old and more recent, and I was pleased to include newly-identified photographs from the Smithsonian Institution as well as images from private collections. The Carriage Association will be publishing the conference papers as well as a summary of the event in their journal, but they’ve meanwhile posted some photographs on their blog.

I understand my great-great-grandfather made an appearance.

That’s right! One of the pleasures of publication is the unexpected letters one receives from readers who have something to share. I can’t say enough how thrilled I was to hear from you, a descendant of one of those Cleveland carriage makers I researched in graduate school. In the course of that project I studied more than a hundred small firms, and it’s funny, but the names still rattle around in my head: Jacob Hoffman, Kredo & Ott, J. J. Eberle, Schoonard & Dulin, Gustav Schaefer, Griese & Deuble, Jacob Lowman, Stoll & Black—-a veritable lexicon of European names. So when you said “Harm & Schuster,” not only did I recognize it, I knew I had a file on it—-just like I do on dozens and dozens just like them. But while I had information from the trade literature, the only visuals I’d managed to locate were fire insurance maps. To see photographs of the outside of the shop and of the men who worked therein—-well, that’s just priceless. Like putting a face to a name you’ve known for a long, long time. Since Michael Harm made commercial vehicles as well as passenger carriages, I used two of those images in my presentation: one of the workmen and proprietors holding representative tools of their trade, the other showing the shop hands around an express wagon. It looks like they’ve just finished resetting the tires and are about to remount the wheels. Great stuff, and a perfect example of the things that can happen when collectors and ordinary people share their resources with scholars. I spent years combing libraries and archives for material on the Cleveland trade, but I never found anything quite like what you shared with me.

Nice to hear. So what’s next? Are you working on another book?

I’ve been accumulating material on the Brewster companies for several years. In fact, at the first Carriage Symposium in 2008, my presentation was “Beyond the Builder’s Plate,” a look at Brewster carriages from a manufacturing standpoint. Carriages built by a couple of different firms of that name were some of the leading luxury brands in the trade, and they retain an avid collector interest today. I’m in the process of researching them for a second book. However, in order to write that I need to get back to New York to finish researching some important sources there. It’s a matter of obtaining grant money and such.

In the meanwhile, I continue to write on related subjects. I’ve just completed an article on the history of ready-made paint; that contains some information about the wagon and carriage industry as well.

Well then, you’ll want to hear about my grandfather, who worked at Sherwin Williams in Cleveland for fifty years — haha. Seriously, thank you for taking the time for this interview.

You’re most welcome. Thank you for taking an interest in my work and for sharing your rich family history. I think we all benefit from such collaboration.

Coming up: Carriage Symposium in Williamsburg

“Ruts, Roads, and Runabouts: 200 Years of Horse-drawn Transportation” is the title of an International Carriage Symposium to be held January 11-15, 2012 in Williamsburg, Virginia. The Carriage Association of America (CAA) and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF) are gathering together fourteen leading European and North American scholars to lend their expertise “on a wide variety of topics that touch on all aspects of horse-drawn transportation.” Follow this link to the brochure to learn about the many events being offered. The Carriage Association of America also has a web site packed with historical and current photos and great information.

Phaeton — a gentleman’s buggy, and ancient myth

Here is a photo of my great-great-grandfather’s Harm & Schuster Carriage Works on Champlain St. in Cleveland, Ohio. (Champlain Street was located downtown where the Terminal Tower now stands.) Lined up in front of the shop are signature carriages of the day, of the Phaeton class. Phaetons came in a variety of sizes and suspension systems, designed for pleasure riding and competitive racing. Had you lived in Cleveland in the 1870’s, you might have seen gentlemen the likes of John D. Rockefeller Sr. (of Standard Oil) or Jeptha Wade (of Western Union Telegraph) riding down Euclid Avenue in one of these contraptions.

Here is a fashion plate of the Diamond Phaeton, found in the Coach-Makers’ International Journal (circa 1867), courtesy of the Archives/Library of the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus.

Below is an interpretive sign photographed at the Northwest Carriage Museum in Raymond, Washington, where there is a Spider Phaeton on display.