Researching America’s first transportation industry isn’t always an easy task. The whole process can be extremely time-consuming and exasperating; cold trails running this way and that... hearsay, rumors, misinformation, dead ends and mysteries running rampant. Truth is, so much of what once was common knowledge has passed into a hard-to-track category so vague, unfamiliar, and fruitless, we often label it as a four-letter word... Lost. It’s a box canyon we’re continually fighting our way through and, along the way, celebrating when another piece of the puzzle is found.
One of the portals offering insights and clues into days-gone-by is that of obituaries. While it might seem a bit on the morbid side at first, these period documents can contain life overviews that are otherwise difficult to find. Inside those information particulars, it’s not unusual to come across nuggets that help define, date, and even authenticate vehicles. With tens of thousands of carriage and wagon makers dotting the American landscape, we’ll never get to the bottom of the history of each one but, our ultimate goal is to help introduce enough folks to these stories that we save as much of our past as possible.
This factory illustration shows the E.D. Clapp factory in the late 1880’s
To that point, E.D. Clapp (Emerous Donaldson Clapp) may not be very well-known to many of today’s early vehicle enthusiasts. Nonetheless, he and his businesses were an important part of America’s horse-drawn vehicle world during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From wagon-making to manufacturing carriage and saddlery hardware, hauling coal, and running stage lines, Mr. Clapp was an instrumental force in our first transportation industry.
In an effort to share a bit more about this seldom-profiled manufacturer, I thought we’d take a look at the legacy of the man through the words published after his death in the July 1889 issue of The Hub. The story was originally written for The Bulletin in Auburn, New York in that same month...
“The deceased was born at Ira, this country, November 12, 1829, and was consequently 60 years of age. He was educated at the district school and at Falley Seminary, at Fulton. In 1851 he moved to Ira and built a small shop and began the manufacture of farm wagons and other vehicles. He continued doing business in Ira for four years, employing six men and turning out about twenty-five wagons per year, besides a number of light carriages. In 1855 he leased his wagon shop and began running a stage line between Oswego and Auburn, carrying a daily mail from that year up to 1880. He was uncommonly successful in bidding for mail carrying contracts, and until 1865 gave the greater share of his attention to carrying out and sub letting the same.
In 1856, when Auburn contained only 7,000 inhabitants, he removed here, and has since been one of the most active and successful businessmen in the community. He carried on a livery business on Garden and State streets, for several years until 1867, when he sold out and concentrated all his energies in the manufacturing business. In 1864, he leased a small shop on Mechanic street, and having a patent on a thill coupling for vehicles he began manufacturing the same. This was the first institution which manufactured carriage hardware in Auburn, and, as time progressed it grew to be one of the largest factories of the kind in the United States. The business grew to such proportions that in 1867 it was removed to a new factory on Water street, the firm name being Clapp, Fitch & Co. In 1873, Mr. Fitch retired, and the business was continued by Mr. Clapp and F. Van Patten, under the firm name of E.D. Clapp & Co. In 1873 the site on the corner of Genesee and Division streets, now occupied by the large shops of the company, was presented to the firm, and sufficient money was subscribed to build the foundation of the present factory. In 1876 the business was incorporated under the name of E. D. Clapp Mfg. Co., with a paid up capital of $150,000. In 1880 Mr. Clapp organized the Auburn Wrought-Iron Bit and Iron Co., with a capital of $60,000, and in the same year the E.D. Clapp Wagon Co. Limited, turning out the first wagon in April 1881. The company have also done an extensive business in coal, handling from 15,000 to 20,000 tons a year. The various shops under the management of Mr. Clapp at the time of his death gave employment to about 600 hands...”
The E.D. Clapp Wagon Company Limited built its first wagon in 1881. This rare, surviving card was created to promote the brand’s offerings of iron axle and thimble skein wagons.
Filled with dates and other business details, Mr. Clapp’s obituary provides an abundance of leads, helping fill in the gaps of this part of history. We know from other sources that, in 1876, Mr. Clapp and his business partner, Frederick Van Patten, were awarded another patent for a quiet, non-rattling thill coupling. We also know that the company produced a variety of vehicles, including farm, freight, coal, lumber, and ice wagons as well as bob sleighs. They ceased building wagons around 1890, focusing on the expertise they had gained in the drop forging industry. Even so, the same “Auburn” brand and logo was carried on by the Auburn Wagon Company first in Greencastle, Pennsylvania and then moving to Martinsburg, West Virginia, with its charter there issued in March of 1897.
E.D. Clapp’s firm was sold in 1958, marking the first time in more than a century that it was not owned by a member of the Clapp family. Over the decades, the company had provided hundreds of thousands of hardware parts for buggies built by a host of legendary builders. Included among those parts were fifth wheels, axle clips, king bolts, clevises, shaft couplings, doubletree clevises and staples, spring clips, shaft and pole eyes, and more.
During the Civil War, they provided forgings for guns as well as for wagons. They supplied additional hardware for wagons in the Spanish-American War. Likewise, during WWI, WWII, and the Korean War they provided forgings for trucks, tanks, planes, warships, torpedoes, and countless other military needs.
Today, too many folks walk by the old wheels of yesterday, passing off the silent survivors and never asking what real history they’re connected to or hold. Each is filled with information and the stories they tell help us reassemble the road map to our past. Most of the time, we only scratch the surface when we examine a vehicle’s provenance. Digging a little deeper, though, can add greatly to our appreciation of the past while enriching the present and passing along an important heritage to future generations.
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