Submitted by Cliff McCarthy, based on an article by Doris Dickinson, Archivist Emerita, Stone House Museum, Belchertown
“Nothing better reached the markets than the carriages, sleighs and buggies bearing the label with the words ‘Made in Belchertown’,” once wrote the late Arthur F. Bardwell. Of all the trades and industries carried on in Belchertown, none was more important to her economy than the manufacture of wagons, carriages, and sleighs. Not only were the fame and reputation of the product known nationwide, but according to an article written by Lucy Thomson, another early local historian, orders came from as far away as Persia and Australia. Ms. Thomson wrote that Belchertown “for many years stood at the head of the carriage industry in the United States.” Author and publisher Josiah Gilbert Holland, a Belchertown native, wrote in his History of Western Massachusetts (1855), “Belchertown has for many years been noted for its manufacture of carriages. It has probably produced a greater number of single wagons than any other town in the state of whatever size.”
In an article which appeared in the Springfield Republican many years ago it said, “the first one-horse wagon owned in Springfield was owned by Festus Stebbins. It was built at Belchertown and was designed for service rather than for the ease and comfort of those who rode in it.” The vehicle was in existence in the days of James Stebbins, son of Festus, who was born July 17, 1811, for he spoke of remembering this wagon well.
We are told by another writer that “wheeled vehicles were rare in this region before 1750. In 1753, there were only two carriages in Hampshire County, [which then included all of western Massachusetts] one in Hadley and one in Hatfield.”
Of one date in connection with the early wheeled vehicles in Belchertown, we are certain. Among the papers in the Stone House Museum is one reading as follows: “This is to certify that Gideon Stebbins of the town of Belchertown in the county of Hampshire and district of Massachusetts hath paid the duty of $3.50 upon a two wheel carriage called a chaise [shay], owned by himself of Belchertown, having a top, to be drawn by one horse for the conveyance of more than one persons: for the year to end on the 30th of September, 1799. Abel Whitney, Collector of Revenue, 14th Division, Survey No. 2, Massachusetts September 5th ,1798.” History certainly repeats itself — the early wheeled vehicles, like the automobiles of today, were subject to taxation.
But how did this all come about in Belchertown? Why should it be Belchertown that sold Springfield the first wagon owned in that place? In his article, “Former Carriage Industries,” Arthur Bardwell theorized that the carriage industry grew out of the primitive iron works that his ancestors, Jonathan and Simeon Bardwell, owned at Bardwell Hollow (now Jabish Street) in Belchertown prior to the Revolution. It is said that this operation smelted bog iron ore from Granby and worked it into rods and bars and other shapes. During the War for Independence, it is said that this foundry made the links in a chain that was stretched across the Hudson River to prevent the passage of British warships.
The first wagon shops in town are said to have been located on Federal Street, near where Stop & Shop is today. They burned in 1833 or 1834 and were never rebuilt. It was in this part of town, that tradition says, the first decorated and painted vehicle was produced. Mason Abbey is credited with making the first wagon in town in the first decade of the nineteenth century. It displayed the artistic handiwork of Harrison Holland, the father of Josiah Gilbert Holland. It was light blue outside and yellow within and was known as Warner’s Butterfly. It was striped, too — the first wagon ever painted in that style here. The tradition is given that wagonmakers charged $5 extra for wagons painted in this style.
In these first shops on Federal Street, Abbey and Holland, together with Simeon Pepper and others organized the Belchertown Carriage Manufactory in 1822, which did an extensive business. In the late 1820s, Simeon Pepper broke away from the original firm and formed a partnership with Jonathan Wright, creating the Wright and Pepper Carriage and Wagon Manufactory. Advertising in 1829, they cited their long experience and use of only the best material as reasons for future patronage.
In the 1840s, the number of carriage and wagon makers in Belchertown greatly increased. Nehemiah Smith began his carriage company by 1842. The firms of Humphrey T. Filer and Philo Smith were operating in 1847 and Tertius and Samuel D. Cowles in 1848.
Besides the main shops, there were many smaller shops all over town. Usually carriage parts were subcontracted out to different mechanics and craftsmen. The industry employed skilled workmen and among them were workers in wood, ironers, trimmers, and painters. One shop would carve the hubs and spokes for the wheels, another would shape the brass and iron for rims, springs or plates, and a third mill would construct the carriage bodies. Other “piece work” produced in these outside shops included “thills” and “felloes” [shafts and rims], while others made entire wheels. Some would take wheels made in the wagon shops proper and put on the tires and return them. The finished parts were carted to the main company, assembled, painted and shipped for sale.
From those early shops on Federal Street, the industry spread to other parts of town. The principal shops were to be found more in the center of town or adjacent, while smaller shops producing the wheels, hubs, spokes, shafts and other parts were to be found in the outlying parts of the town.
Many of the old carriage shops were of the same pattern. The first floors were used for assembling and fitting the parts. The second floors were for upholstering and painting. An outside ramp was used to elevate the vehicles to the second floor.
In making the wagons, hickory, ash, basswood and oak were among the woods required, and for the most part, the timber used was native, though some of it was drawn from a long distance. The wood had to be seasoned, so many companies had piles of lumber waiting for the right moments to be used. Townspeople, such as woodmen, had something to do, likewise did the log haulers, with their ox teams, which were in vogue in those days for all kinds of work in the country towns. Sawmills were kept busy working up logs into wagon stuff. Some of the workmen at the wagon shops were single and boarded about the village. Others had families and kept house, all creating a demand for groceries and other supplies, and so, making business for the stores. Some even built houses near the carriage shops. Research on the houses of the center, sometimes will say that it was built by someone who worked at the Filer Carriage Shop.
Shaun Bresnahan, in his booklet Visions of a Time Past: Belchertown, 1790-1840, states that substantial number of trades and crafts were created or sustained by the carriage industry in town. Even mills run by water power were built to increase production of the various parts needed for the carriages. In 1832, 600 wagons were made in Belchertown, valued at $18,000, and 30 men were employed at a dollar a day, a good wage for those days. By 1837 the value of 600 wagons manufactured in town increased to $24,000. In 1845 at least 60 men were employed in the making of wagons and sleighs, producing 688 finished products, valued at $40,440, almost doubling the 1837 valuation in 8 years. At one time H. T. Filer employed 50 men and made 300 carriages and 50 sleighs worth $35,000 a year.
It was the workmanship of the carriages made in town, according to Bardwell, that “created a demand for Belchertown’s Best on the southern plantations, for the busy streets of New York city, and in the remote towns of New England and New York state.”
Tradition has it that salesmen would link vehicles together and pulled by a team of horses would head southward until their products were sold. They were drawn over the highways to points as far south as Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. According to Bardwell, his grandfather convoyed such a string in the early 1830’s to Virginia, where he had an established trade. His last trip was in 1834 but how long he had been supplying that market is not a matter of record.
According to Arthur F. Bardwell, “fifth avenue stagecoaches” were made in Belchertown for a considerable period, but there are no records making it possible to fix definite dates in this connection. No one alive will remember the old-time stage or omnibus once so common in Boston and New York or will recall the small oblong panels of the interior, each with its painting in colors of a landscape or marine view, filling in the space above the windows. Artists were called to Belchertown in those busy times and took up residence here, briefly perhaps, in order to do this specialized decorating. Darius Cobb, later a Boston artist of some renown, resided here for a time in order to fill such a contract.
From the close of the Civil War, no Belchertown carriage business was better known than that of T. and S.D. Cowles, whose shops stood on South Main Street. Bardwell said it was the Rolls Royce firm of the business — to possess a vehicle of their make was the height of a young man’s ambition. The three buggies at the Stone House Museum were made by this firm.
The sleighs and carriages of other makes were undoubtedly of high quality and their names are remembered, as well — Hawkes and Smith; Maynard Leach; Joel Packard; T.J.S. Parsons; Humphrey Filer; Stephen Packard; Nehemiah Smith; Burnett, Purdy and Chandler; Solomon Shumway; Seth Griggs; Park Holland, and many others. Legend says that Humphrey Filer’s shop sent a brougham to Queen Victoria as a gift. But the handmade product of the Belchertown shops could not withstand the competition of the highly organized factories of the larger centers where machine work superseded the older methods and the new watchword was quantity production.
The end of the carriage era and the beginning of the era of the automobile mesh together in Belchertown in the Ford Annex on the grounds of the Stone House Museum. In the early 1920’s, when the Belchertown Historical Association had just acquired the Stone House, Henry Ford came to town with Belchertown native, Gaston Plantiff. Gaston was the first northeast regional manager of the newly-formed Ford Motor Company. Ford was traveling throughout New England gathering up materials for his Greenfield Village. The barn at the house was in a poor state. The Trustees were trying to decide whether to repair or tear down and build a new barn. Gaston played on Ford’s generosity and the Historical Association received a check for $5000 and the Ford Annex was built. It houses three buggies made by T. and S. D. Cowles, a Concord Coach, the old Town Hearse, and other examples of sleighs and wagons of Belchertown origin.
At the dedication of the Ford Annex in 1923, Arthur Bardwell, whose ancestors owned one of the earlier carriage shops, presented a paper relating some of the history of carriage-making in Belchertown and, in his closing remarks, had this to say:
“Early in the seventies, the business began to fade away — today scarce a trace of it remains. What a change in 50 years. Belchertown, once the Detroit of the carriage industry, now recalls it with difficulty. Today, that ubiquitous device of delight, demoralization and all too often of destruction, the automobile overwhelms us; what a flight for the imagination from the brook Jabish to the River Rouge; from Belchertown to the millionaire city of Detroit; from the one hoss open shay to the Lincoln SuperSedan — words cannot tell the story.”
And he was right, words cannot really tell the story of those early days in Belchertown history, when the church bell called the workmen to the shops all over town. But the carriages and sleighs in the Ford annex remind those who visit that the works of man are transitory, that what was once the pride of Belchertown — its unrivalled product — now serves to adorn the interior of a museum.