Monday, October 18, 2010

The World of a 19th Century Repair Shop (or Zap! You are Now Living in 1860 - What Now?)

Here in the 21st century, to purchase a new car, one goes to a car lot. And when that new car eventually breaks down and needs some form of repair, we either take it back to the car lot where we originally purchased it, or maybe to another independent auto repair shop.
Things were not too different for those who were living in the 19th century. Okay, so they didn't have automobiles back then, but many folks did have horse-drawn carriages, wagons, or carts. And, just like the modern cars of today, those modes of transportation did break down, especially considering that most roads 150 years ago were unpaved, and those that were paved might as well not have been!

Richart Carriage Shop
Known where it original stood in Macon, Michigan as the Richart Wagon, Farm Implement, and Repair Shop, the father and sons team built a wood-framed building in 1847, and it was located just about 10 miles southeast of where the Eagle Tavern originally stood.
Although handcrafted wagons and buggies were the chief product of his carriage shop, Robert Richart (born 1792), along with his two sons, William (born 1832) and Israel (birthdate unknown), produced, as stated in its original title, farm implements, and even furniture. Bobsleds were also a major product made and sold here.
In 1850, the original building made way for a larger shop on a nearby lot. This newer two story building was built with an outdoor ramp that lead to the second floor, where painting of the product took place and allowed easy access to the ground level for the carriages once they were completed. An interesting note here are the paint smears and "1865" upon the walls on the second floor, indicating where someone may have tested colors. It is supposed that painting was done on the 2nd floor to help avoid dust and dirt from mixing into the paint.
It's this 1850 structure, by the way, that is now standing near the entrance inside of Greenfield Village.
Early on, while they were still growing as a repair shop, father and son would hire themselves out when business was slow and would do chores such as thrashing - for the low price of fifty cents a day.
After the Civil War, this trend reversed slowly so that eventually "a third work bench was needed in the shop" for the hired help.
In 1855, Israel moved and opened his own business in the thriving town of nearby Tucumseh, while Robert and William continued on in Macon.
The activity was non-stop inside the shop
Because the Richarts kept detailed ledgers of their everyday activities in this shop, a very unique "window-into-the-past" description of 19th century living comes to life in small-town Macon.
The seasonal nature of life in Macon is one of the most interesting finds while combing the ledgers. Summer typically busied the Richarts with wagon repairs, their own farming interests, and improvements to their respective homes.
As the leaves changed, so did the daily routine in the wagon shop. Summer wagon building and repair slowed down greatly in the fall months while winter construction and repair of sleds and cutters took precedence. William and Robert would also spend many autumn hours with a file in their hands sharpening saws, as their neighbors needed to cut and store wood for the winter. Barrels of apple cider appear frequently in the books as purchases as well as payments in October and November. In fact, in the years before the Civil War broke out in 1861, most of Macon's 1500 residents rarely dealt in cash. Besides, cider, payment transactions included buck wheat, lumber, beef, and other currencies.

What? No Firestone tires?
In the spring, farmers preparing for the summer brought the Richarts their broken wagons, carts, hoes, cradles, and other farm tools.
There's was a seasonal business - they kept busy all four seasons of the year.
Their carpentry skills made the Richarts sort of community handymen. They built picture frames, a dough trough, a dresser, a breakfast table, and bee hives. They also repaired chairs, sawmills, and even a dog house (oh! the wonderful things one can find while looking at old ledgers!)!
Robert hung the blackboard in the local schoolhouse and also worked at butchering. He also, as a hobby, tended bees (hence, the bee hives) and sold the honey to neighbors. William worked on a stoneboat clearing the fields (a stoneboat transported heavy objects such I didn't know that - now I do!), as well as furniture making.
Someone has to do the book work.
.During the last quarter of the century, mass Production, rather than hurt their business as it did to so many other craftsmen, actually helped the Richarts. Now, instead of hand-forming wheel spokes, shafts, rims, and hubs like they did previously, they could order the items from supply houses, which William did more frequently; purchases of "500 spokes" can be found numerously in their ledgers as well. Interestingly, there are only one or two references to carriages' covered in the account books over the five decades they were kept. It seems that William and Robert both considered themselves 'wagon makers,' and wagon construction and repair formed the backbone of their business.
I would like to purchase a two horse farm wagon...
Robert died in 1875 and William carried on. William's daughter, Alva, who was still alive when the structure was moved to Greenfield Village, said that her father worked to within a year or so of his death in 1906.
Authenticity abounds as many of the tools and furnishings now inside the restored shop can be matched to the original photographs from a hundred years ago as belonging to the Richarts.
This building and way of life of 150 years ago can be likened to today's auto repair shop; it was an integral part of the community from which it came.



Mrs. G said...

Ken, interesting indeed! A stone boat is dragged along the ground on a wheel-less bottom. It can be used to give young horses a workout as it isn't so easy to run away with, it doesn't tip over and in Winter it is useful in places where a wheeled conveyance can't go. Thanks for an interesting read!
Mrs. G

Historical Ken said...

Thank you for the additional information Mrs. G.
I knew I could count on you - I appreciate your knowledge!