As it were
Industry, vision led to Buggy Co.
Columbus is a city laced with ravines carrying swift-moving water down from the heights to both the Olentangy and Scioto rivers. We can still visit some of them -- Glen Echo, Walhalla and Overbrook -- to name just a few. At one time, similar ravines could be found in downtown Columbus as well. To cross Spring Street on High Street required a bridge until the 1830s.
To the south of Downtown was another deep ravine carrying a large stream to the Scioto. Most of it is gone now. Intercepting sewers, freeways and pavement have removed most of the ravine. But if one stands at Front Street and Livingston Avenue and looks south, it is still possible to see the low ground where water once flowed.
It was called Peters Run. The hollow at the base of the ridge was home to a number of small businesses and the homes of a number of free African-Americans who worked in Columbus enterprises. But mostly it was the home and enterprise of Tunis Peters. Born in 1789, he had come to Columbus shortly after it was founded and built a house just outside the city limits on the southeast corner of Beck and High streets. He also bought most of the land at the base of the ravine -- land nobody else really wanted.
But Tunis Peters had a purpose in mind for that land. He was a tanner by trade and soon he had the biggest tan yard in Columbus. Tanning leather is a business not for the squeamish or the fastidious. It is dirty, smelly and dangerous. But Tunis Peters was quite good at it. And he soon had most of the base of the ravine to himself and his family. One of his sons, George W. Peters grew up learning the business, married local girl Sarah Merion and soon had a family of his own.
George Peters took his wife to Chillicothe and opened a tan yard of his own. It was successful at first, but then failed as many other businesses did in the Panic or Depression of 1837. Undeterred by his loss, he built small houses on his tan-yard site and made enough money to support his wife and two young sons. But by 1845, George W. Peters had had enough of Chillicothe and returned to Columbus. He bought a house at 518 S. High St. and in the basement of the house began making iron-bound leather trunks. It was the first trunk factory in Columbus. With his business growing, he moved to the southeast corner of Long and Front streets and built a new trunk factory at the rear of his house. His family and a number of employees worked long days in the factory, but no one worked longer or harder than George W. Peters. Then in 1852, when success seemed to be at hand, Peters died from overwork. He was 35 years old. His sons were 12 and 10 years old.
To support their mother and young sister Lucy, George M. and Oscar Peters were apprenticed. George went to work for a carriage company and learned how to carefully craft fine vehicles. He became an accomplished carriage painter and soon was doing scroll work, lettering and ornamental painting for a number of other cabinet and furniture businesses as well.
What George M. Peters really wanted was a carriage company of his own. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, he joined with two brothers named Benns and formed a small company to do blacksmithing and ornamental painting. In a short time, they acquired a small carriage company and began making carriages -- slowly, carefully and piece by piece.
But George Peters had a vision of a different kind of carriage. He believed the use of steam power, division of labor and standardized parts could produce a carriage twice as fast at half the price. Contracting with shops at the Ohio Penitentiary, Peters ordered standardized parts for 300 buggies. He built them rapidly and they sold even more rapidly. But his partners believed their reputation for high quality would be lost and refused to make any more.
Scrambling for the next two years, George Peters finally put together a new company consisting of his brother and Clinton Firestone, the son-in-law of Peters' pastor. The firm called itself the Iron Buggy Co. and soon was selling a buggy made mostly of iron. The company enjoyed some success, but then its factory burned to the ground. Undaunted, the partners formed a new company and began making a variety of buggies using what would later be called an "assembly line."
It was called the Columbus Buggy Co., and by 1890, it was the largest buggy company in America. Columbus became for a time the "Buggy Capital of the World." Tunis Peters would have been proud.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.