Monday, October 18, 2010

Bringing Historic Structures To Life: The Richart Carriage Shop

Open-air museums such as Greenfield Village are windows to the past,  and the first-time visitor can be awe-struck and overwhelmed at the size and amount of history gathered and relocated here.  And,  what they may notice as they move about the acreage containing structures from another time and another place is that the greater majority of the past being presented is not from famous people,  but from those who are virtually unknown to the country at large.  But as Henry Ford famously said nearly a hundred years ago,  "...history which excluded harrows and all the rest of daily life is bunk, and I think so yet."
Yes,  we need to learn of war,  of politics,  and of the great men and women who are noted for doing extraordinary things,  but we must not forget the populace of their time who continued to live on in relative anonymity,  for it's these folks,  which time has passed by,  who did as much in creating America as those whose faces we see often in old paintings and photographs.

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19th century wheelwright
(No, this is not Robert Richart)
As we should all know,  the majority of citizens in the 19th century were farmers,  and were pretty much self-sufficient.  I say  "pretty much"  because they were not totally on their own.  For instance,  what would the farmer do should his hay wagon wheel break?  He doesn't always have the time or even the necessary knowledge or tools to repair it,  so he may need to take it to town to either have it repaired or have a new one made.
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!
And whereas we now have a gas station or car repair shop on every corner,  'twas not so back in the 19th century,  and to have someone who could repair what needed fixing,  especially in a small town,  was of high importance.
The Richarts were such men.
Known where it original stood in Macon,  Michigan as the  Richart Wagon,  Farm Implement,  and Repair Shop,  the team of Robert Richart  (born 1792),  a wheelwright,  built his first wood-framed wagon and repair shop building in 1847,  along with his two sons,  William  (born 1832)  and Israel  (birthdate unknown),  and it was located just about 10 miles southeast of where the Eagle Tavern originally stood.
Now,  how cool is that to think of the very strong probability that the Richarts may have actually visited the Eagle Tavern?  Or,  at the very least,  had known about it.
And here they now both sit together inside historic Greenfield Village!
Now,  although handcrafted wagons and buggies were one of the products of this carriage shop,  the men also did repairs,  produced farm implements,  such as plows,  hay rakes,  and cradles  (used to cut grain),  as well as furniture,  and even bobsleds for the populace of Macon.
As William's  daughter Alva noted,  "Everything needed about the farm and home that's made of wood was made in this shop such as picture frames,  baby cradles,  kitchen and dining tables,  and occasionally a coffin.  In fact, too many things to mention."
But we can add that they also built a dough trough,  a dresser, and bee hives. They also repaired chairs,  sawmills,  hung the blackboard in the local schoolhouse,  and worked at butchering.  They even built a dog house  (oh!  the wonderful things one can find while looking at old ledgers).
Their carpentry skills made the Richarts sort of community handymen.
The Richart Carriage Shop
Times were good for the Richarts and,  in 1850,  the original structure made way for a larger shop on a nearby lot.  This newer two story building was built with an outdoor ramp that lead to/from the second floor,  where painting of the carriages and carts took place and allowed easy access to the ground level 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.
There is a photograph of the shop as it looked in the 19th century 
showing the ramp,  though in a dilapidated condition,  looking 
much the same as the reconstructed ramp in the Village.
I do not have a print of it, but rest assured, this is how the shop 

once looked.
Early on,  while they were still growing as a repair shop,  father and sons would hire out to do odd jobs when business was slow and would do chores,  including farm work such as threshing,  for the low price of fifty cents a day,  as we can see from their account books:
To one day thrashing  .50
To one day butchering  .75
To William 1/2 day thrashing  .31
The activity was non-stop inside the shop
In 1855,  Israel moved and opened his own business in the thriving town of nearby Tucumseh,  while Robert and William continued on in Macon.
After the Civil War,  business inside the shop began to pick up and eventually  "a third work bench was needed in the shop"  for the hired help.
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.  For instance,  according to Alva,  "In this wagon shop the aim was for perfect work.  No green wood was used - every piece must be perfectly seasoned;  no wood with flaws was used,  it must be without blemish,  where one piece of wood joined another,  the seam must be as air tight and weather proof as accurate measurements and paint could make it.
From the seasoned piles of lumber,  the necessary pieces were taken into the shop,  sawed,  planed,  and smoothed or polished by hand,  bent into shape by steam,  and worked up into wagons,  buggies,  wheelbarrows,  bob sleighs,  cutters,  etc.,  etc.,  as ordered.
Repairs of all kinds were made for farm implements and household needs,  and no matter how old or worn out the article that needed repair was,  no shoddy work was allowed."
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 buckwheat,  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.
Robert 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,  as well as the aforementioned furniture making.
Someone has to do the book work.
William's daughter Alva mentioned that,  "The children of the Village and of the surrounding farms loved to visit this shop and watch the activities.  They were always welcomed.  The boys liked to hear the sound of the hammer and saw,  and the girls loved to doll up with the curls of the shavings,  which fell to the floor from the long plane."
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 in October of 1941,  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.
The large workbench seen here, which is still inside the shop, is 
almost certainly one that belonged to Robert and William.
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.

I certainly do enjoy diving into the musty old papers and ledgers of times past to learn of the lives lived by our ancestors,  for now,  upon entering the historic building of Greenfield Village,  I see them with new eyes  (old eyes?);  they come to life for me in a different way than,  I suppose,  most people who just see  "old things."
Just imagine the local children,  hanging out in this building as the men pound and saw away,  the young girls picking up the shaved-wood curls...just imagine...

Until next time,  see you in time.

To learn more about the Daggetts and their home, click HERE
To learn more about the Giddings and their home, click HERE

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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!