People like to collect things. My father collected pipes; my mother collected buttons. As a boy I collected butterflies. Now I collect carriages. I am not an expert nor is my collection extremely large. I have learned over the years from those who are the experts: Ken Wheeling, Jack Day, the late Thomas Ryder and the many others who shared their knowledge in articles and books full of information. I’ve sought out old and reproduced carriage makers’ catalogs, and studied fashion plates. Becoming knowledgeable has brought a lot of pleasure.

I started with the horse. I bought her, complete with driving lessons, from a man who then enticed me into buying an antique carriage he had. “It would look so nice with the horse!”

The little brass nameplate on the back identified the maker as “Mitchell & Lewis L.T.D. Racine, Wisconsin.” It was a surrey with a nice leather auto-top. I knew my wife’s grandfather drove a Mitchell touring car in his early 1900s jitney service and I was attracted to the name. It was fun to drive the horse with this interesting carriage and take friends with us, especially after we had rubber put on the bone-rattling metal wheels. In the Racine Historical Society’s archives, I found the history of the Mitchell & Lewis company. It went back to the 1850s when H. Mitchell Wagons had 30 employees and made far more wagons than carriages. They supplied wagons for the Civil War. It became the Mitchell & Lewis Company in 1867.

Then I became a member of the Carriage Association of America. In 1989 they published a book, The Coson Carriage Collection at Beechdale. The range of horse drawn vehicles presented with historical background by Thomas Ryder was fascinating. James Coson had collected what HRH The Duke of Edinburgh called “the pride of North America.” Sections in the book are devoted to Coaches, Sporting Carriages, Two-Wheeled Carriages, Coachman Driven Carriages, Family Carriages, and Sleighs. These collected and beautifully restored vehicles were then displayed in equally beautiful surroundings at Beechdale. This is as good as it gets in collecting.

But then there are those of us who simply want to learn, enjoy, and display our collection of whatever size tastefully. Start with the terminology. ‘Buggy’ and ‘carriage’ are generic terms; people will ask about your ‘buggy’ collection. But is this four-wheeled vehicle with two seats a surrey, a phaeton, a trap, or something else? Take just these three examples: A surrey is a vehicle with two seats named after Surrey in England, the county where it was first built. Most people know the surrey with the fringe on top, but it can have an auto-top like our Mitchell & Lewis or a canopy as well. A phaeton is a light, open, quite elegant four-wheeled carriage, named in France. The style is vague enough for the name to be used indiscriminately and often. You will see lots of phaetons and begin to wonder. A trap has two seats, but access to the back seat is gained by lifting the front seat up; the back seat occupants are thus ‘trapped.’ Think modern two-door cars.

Much like car makers today, carriage makers tried to differentiate their styles, often with distinctive names. To sort this out there are informative articles in magazines like Driving Digest and The Carriage Journal. Many books on the subject have been published by groups such as the Carriage Association of America (CAA) and Carriage Museum of America (CMA). The CMA has a trove of historical information available in its archives, including original and duplicate copies of The Hub and The Carriage Monthly, the two leading trade journals of the era. Their collection of carriage makers’ catalogs provides examples of what different kinds of vehicles were being made by different companies. You might also find this sort of information in your local public library or historical society. I like to attend carriage auctions to see what’s available and what the vehicles are selling for. This is a wonderful way to see a whole range of vehicles up close. Twice a year I travel out to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, for Martin’s large auctions. I enjoy meeting other collectors there and learning what they know. Most are happy to talk and many of them know a lot. Even if you don’t bid it’s a great place to be with like-minded people.

There are many ways to collect. Focus on what interests you personally. I was first interested in Wisconsin carriage makers from my start with the Mitchell & Lewis. I have yet to find another carriage by Mitchell & Lewis, but “Racine Wagon & Carriages” vehicles began to turn up. They were a large operation, and I now have a pleasing piano box buggy, an elegant phaeton, and a fringed-top surrey of theirs.

Collecting carriages is something like car buying, in that there’s a desire to get the best. In carriages, many people would argue that that’s Brewster, known for their fine workmanship and engineering. James Brewster opened his shop in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1810. In 1827 he opened a sales room and repository in New York. The company went through various family transitions and names over the years, and the company has been studied and written about a great deal.

I wanted a Brewster! I was so excited when I found a Brewster game cart close by in Wisconsin. It was painted a terrible orange-red, but it was all Brewster quality underneath. The brass hubs identified it as a Broome Street Brewster, and we were able to learn more about its history by matching the serial number on the vehicle with information from the company’s sales and specification records, which are available through the CMA archives. Restored to its dark Brewster green with soft gray-green upholstery and it was elegant once more. Deciding on vehicle color and fabrics for a restoration is part of the collecting pleasure. I was driving a wonderful pair of Arabians at the time and they made the perfect picture with the now elegant cart. We had that smooth Brewster ride, too.

My favorite Brewster is one I have never driven. I bought it at auction already restored to perfection. It is called the Norton Phaeton for its first owner. It was later owned by Richard Canfield, famed for introducing lavish Monte Carlo Casino style gambling to Saratoga Springs, New York. In Casino style, house-banked gambling, one bets against the house. Until then, the custom was poker table gambling. He must have had some challenges because a gun rack is fastened to the dash, along with a small box for bullets. Naturally I had to find an appropriate gun, a Winchester repeating rifle, to fit into the rack. The Norton Phaeton has the most interesting provenance of any vehicle in my collection, though I have some eight other Brewsters that I thoroughly enjoy, including a racing sleigh.

Now that my Arabians are gone, I have Welsh ponies and have become interested in pony-size vehicles. The type of horse or pony you plan to drive can play a major role in the type of vehicles you choose to collect. The best known maker of pony vehicles was Walborn & Riker in St. Paris, Ohio. St. Paris is famous as ‘Pony Wagon Town.’ Freeman Riker perfected the proportional sizing of pony vehicles. A pony is not a small horse; it has different proportions. Cutting down a full-size carriage with smaller wheels and shorter shafts doesn’t work, though that was customary at the time. In the Walborn & Riker catalogs the vehicles are shown sized to the height of the pony measured at the withers in inches: below 34” or 34–40.” This was their pride and the catalog was adamant about it. Riker took six of his pony carriages, including his first “Little Princess” model, to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 with a life-size, paper mache pony. They were a success and henceforth the main business of Walborn & Riker. I have two carriages made by this company – one is wicker, which one can see is woven right on the vehicle. The other is a natural finish runabout. Both indeed are well proportioned. As you look for vehicles, it’s important to pay attention to the details. How will you know if a vehicle really is a Walborn & Riker or a Brewster? Name plates help, but they are not permanent and can be moved from one vehicle to another. Makers’ names or serial numbers are sometimes found on metal parts: the axles, or the steps or on the wood under the seats. You can perhaps find the same model in an old maker’s catalog. Often, it is simply “Maker Unknown.”

You also want to consider the condition of the vehicle. Is it not bad, or really grim? Perhaps you will leave the ‘not bad’ as is. Others will have been restored but not well. Remember our orange-red Brewster. The choice to restore will involve possible repairs, painting, and upholstery. Upholstery is usually Bedford cord or broadcloth wool, available from a few suppliers and expensive. Leather is elegant when indicated. Develop your eye. The wicker on our little pony cart looked drab and old, because the wheels and ironwork had been painted bright blue and yellow. With a dark green undercarriage and wheels, and soft green upholstery, the wicker bloomed! Restoration is expensive and must be factored in to the value of the vehicle to you. The soundness of the vehicle is first and foremost. Are you going to be driving it or will it sit in your collection? Paint finish, striping, and upholstery all require skill, and skills vary among restorers. How upscale do you need? If you intend to drive it, there will be wear and tear and dings on that mirror finish.

Carriages require adequate storage. I was lucky to have the space to put a carriage room addition on my barn. How far will you go? A dedicated building with climate control? Or part of the barn? At least, it must be under cover and not out to the front lawn with a potted geranium.

Collecting is a pleasure. On a large scale, it can be the Coson Collection and a published work. On a small scale, maybe a few well-chosen vehicles and the fun of the search. Each vehicle in my collection has a special attraction and a memory. The cherished Brewsters are the best, yet our favorite carriage to drive was a look-alike Studebaker trap, maker unknown. It is a sharp and sporty vehicle. We enjoyed it. And that’s the point!

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