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History – Buggy Town

In 1792, Elias and Catharina Youngman (Jungman) settled on land given to them by Catharina’s father. They divided Youngmanstown into 60’ x 120’ plots to sell to other adventurous settlers. Buyers were also offered the option of purchasing outlots in one acre increments. To the east, George Rote (Rhoade) began selling plots in Greenville or Rotestown as it was called after George’s death. Through the years, the villages grew until 1827 when they merged and were renamed in honor of Governor Thomas Mifflin, first Governor of Pennsylvania after the constitution of 1790.

The growth of Mifflinburg remained slow and steady until a new industry took hold in the mid 19th century. The buggy business began with George Swentzel, who built the first carriage in Mifflinburg in 1845. Daniel Moss and his sons went into the business, while Thomas Gutelius taught his brothers, John and Jacob who in turn opened their own shops. The 1855 assessment shows Mifflinburg, with its 800 citizens, had thirteen coachmakers. In the 1880s, Mifflinburg Telegraph publisher, George Schoch wrote an account on the buggy industry in town. His findings, that 597 sleighs had been made in one month, led him to conclude his article with the question: “Is there a town in the state the size of Mifflinburg that has a better record?” (Mifflinburg Telegraph, Feb. 9, 1881) Since the 1880s, Mifflinburg has been known as Buggy Town because its buggy makers produced more horse-drawn vehicles per capita than any other town in the state.

Why did Mifflinburg have so many buggy makers? Certainly, the railroad’s arrival in 1871 helped to speed the delivery of parts to the buggy makers and the delivery of finished vehicles to their markets. Known for their fine quality vehicles and ability to meet customer requests in an economic manner, Mifflinburg buggy makers sold their vehicles throughout the state, east coast and as far away as Kansas. Henry Gast Wolfe and S. W. Snodgrass, local merchants helped by selling buggy parts to the builders at wholesale costs. In addition, James Ritter, salesman extraordinaire took many Mifflinburg vehicles to distant markets.

When the coach making industry started in Mifflinburg, the manufacturers hand-fashioned many of their parts: the oak axles and hubs, the seats and gearing. Following the industrial revolution, buggy makers began to purchase “ready-made” parts from companies that specialized in these parts: axles from the Keystone Forging Company in Northumberland, fifth wheels (turning circles) from the Millersburg Fifth Wheel Company and bent wood from the Empire Bending Works of Lancaster. As time and technology changed how horse-drawn vehicles were made, it also ended the “Buggy Era”. From the 1760s when Cugnot first demonstrated his unsuccessful self-propelled vehicle to the 1880s when Karl Benz invented the 1 ½ horsepower gasoline powered car, man has been driven to travel faster and more comfortably. When Henry Ford made the Model T affordable, people abandoned their horse-drawn vehicles. The dawn of the automobile age ended Buggy Town’s reign in transportation. One by one, buggy makers closed their doors. Only one, the Mifflinburg Buggy Company had prepared itself for the advent of the horseless carriage.

The Mifflinburg Buggy Company, started in 1897 by the “Big Three” Robert Gutelius, Harry Blair and Alfred Hopp, was the largest buggy manufactory in Mifflinburg. In 1903, Alfred Hopp left the company to open his own factory (making the two companies fierce rivals). In 1911, The Mifflinburg Buggy Company purchased the Mifflinburg Gear Company, which allowed them to make the running gear of their buggies. Under the leadership of William Sterling, the Buggy Company built and delivered its first auto bus body in 1913. Gradually the company ceased production of horse-drawn vehicles and concentrated on wooden car, truck, and bus bodies. By 1917, the Buggy Company became the Mifflinburg Body Company making as many as 10,000 car and truck bodies annually. The company produced bodies for Ford, Chevrolet and custom bodies. During the Great Depression, the company split its production to half automobile bodies, half furniture. But the company could not withstand the depression and went bankrupt in 1940.

Today, the buggy’s influence in Mifflinburg can still be seen in the preserved history at the Buggy Museum, the buggy traffic of the Amish and Mennonite and the logo of businesses and the town.

 


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