COLUMNS

As It Were: Ubiquitous buggies spurred Columbus' label

ED LENTZ
Columbus was known as the Buggy Capital of the World in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the Columbus Buggy Co. leading the way in manufacturing the horse-drawn vehicles.
Ed Lentz

Most cities of any size have had a nickname or two over the course of their histories.

Columbus is no exception.

For most of its history, since its creation in 1812 by the Ohio General Assembly, its nickname has been a reflection of its place as the preeminent symbol of state power and authority. That is to say we have called Columbus what it is: the Capital City.

But Columbus has boasted several other unofficial monikers.

In 1888, the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union Army Civil War veterans organization, held its 22nd annual encampment in Columbus. To provide lighting and security, a series of wooden arches, adorned with gaslights, were erected through downtown.

In later years, the wooden arches were replaced by metal arches lit by electricity and carrying power to new electrified streetcars.

For most of the later 19th century, Columbus was known to many people as the Arch City.

But it also was known as the Buggy Capital of the World in the late 1800s.

No, Columbus was not overrun by insects. Rather, a buggy was a specific sort of horse-drawn carriage.

No one seems to know how a four-wheeled carriage with two seats and often pulled by one or two horses came to be called a buggy. But by 1773, the name had caught on -- first in London, then in the colonies.

The word "carriage" comes from Old French and was a term used to describe a vehicle designed to carry a few people in comfort and in style.

Buggies were simpler: They were designed to carry one with purpose but not pretense from one place to another.

They also were a lot cheaper than a carriage and for that reason were more popular with common folk who could afford something better than a farm wagon.

After the American Revolution, most towns of any size had at least one set of craftsmen who were skilled in building, repairing and refitting wagons and carriages. Columbus was no exception.

A later local history noted that in 1828, one "James S. White advertised that he was prepared to make all kinds of coaches, wagons, hacks and gigs" and was considered "the pioneer in the great carriage-making industry" in a village of about 2,000 people.

By 1848, the firm of Blake, Williams and Co. took out a large advertisement in a local city directory with a detailed lithograph of their factory, wood shop and paint shop and billed itself as "Coach and Light Carriage Manufacturers."

A close look at the advertisement reveals the firm was large and busy but was making its product slowly and carefully, almost as one might make a piece of furniture.

What the carriage trade was lacking in Columbus was a company that could industrialize the business. In the Peters family, that company slowly began to be built.

Tunis Peters had come to Columbus shortly after the town was founded and settled along a ravine arching down to the Scioto River behind the Indian burial mound at Mound and High streets. He acquired much of the ravine and established a tannery within it.

The company did well, and George W. Peters, the son of Tunis, found success making leather trunks and other leather products until he died at the age of 35, leaving a wife and two adolescent sons.

The boys, Oscar and George M., were apprenticed to a carriage company. In time, they learned that trade and combined it with the leather craft.

George M. Peters wanted a carriage company of his own. In 1873, he founded one at Hickory Alley and High Street called the Iron Buggy Co. Eventually, that company transformed into the Columbus Buggy Co.

George M. Peters brought his brother into the company and gained a financial and marketing partner in Clinton Firestone. Together, they put together a company using inexpensive wood, iron and coal from the Hocking Valley with an assembly-line approach to construction.

By 1900, the Columbus Buggy Co. was one of the largest in the world. Columbus was home to 22 buggy companies, and one of every five buggies made anywhere was made in Columbus. Columbus had earned its nickname as the Buggy Capital of the World.

But the end of the buggy era was near.

A workable automobile was constructed by the mid-1880s. Initially toys for the wealthy, automobiles soon were seen as the vehicle of the future.

Columbus Buggy, among other companies, tried to make the transition to motorized transport. But the company's factory was damaged heavily in the 1913 flood and incurred other difficulties, as well. By 1914, it was gone.

At the same time, for different reasons, Columbus officials decided to replace the High Street arches with cluster lights.

The old nicknames were gone. But in a new century, new ones would be sought.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.