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Walk On Into History
by
Bob Brooke

 

It’s 1883, and the sounds of clip-clopping of horses hooves and the whirr of carriage wheels fills the streets of a Mifflinburg, a small rural town in central Pennsylvania. It’s a special day for William Heiss, who had been working as an apprentice buggy maker with John Rischel, for he is about to open his own buggy shop, the Heiss Coach Works, in the carriage house behind his mother’s home on Green Street, with the help of his mother and sister. It’s Heiss’ story that the Mifflinburg Buggy Museum aims to tell.



The Mifflinburg Buggy Museum is a sprawling complex, consisting of a Visitor Center, the workshops of the Heiss Coach Works, a carriage house, a repository or showroom, and the Heiss’ home, all a few blocks off the main road through town.

The Heiss Coachworks
Heiss had been in business for three years when he married Anna Smith in 1886 and she, too, joined him in the business, working as an upholstery trimmer and seamstress.

Meanwhile, buggy maker Robert Weirick operated a workshop on Quarry Road, a block behind the Heiss Coach Works. In 1889, Weirick sold his workshop and property to Heiss. The first thing Heiss did was add an L-shaped addition that included a carpentry shop, a paint shop, assembly room, and a drying gallery.

Once he moved his buggy operation into Weirick’s former workshop, Heiss used the carriage house for his buggy rental business. He rented buggies with a horse for $1.50 per day. He also tried renting bicycles and motorcycles. Unfortunately, the original building burned in 1928 when Heiss left boiling wax unattended.

Dedicated museum volunteer, Dr. Donald Mincemoyer supervised the reconstruction of the carriage house in 1993. Masonry students of the SUN Area Vocational-Technical School and the Agricultural Studies students of the Mifflinburg Area High School built the components which they then assembled in a barn raising during the Buggy Days Festival. The building holds buggies and sleighs that would have been typical of vehicles rented out by Heiss.

Heiss employed 8 to 12 employees and operated for 42 years, one of the longest operating buggy makers in town. They made only 50 buggies a year compared to up to 2,000 per year by other companies.

It took two to three days to assemble a buggy. Tires came flat and had to hammered in shape around the wheels. Unlike other carriages, buggies had four wheels of equal size. Stuffing for seats consisted of wood shavings or excelsior for lower-end models, horse hair for middle-end models, and pigs hair for top-end models. A completed Rockaway Buggy started at $150 for the base model. Extras cost more.

The workshop was smelly and hot. Heiss paid his workers a $1 a day for 9 hours of work. All were men. Other companies paid their workers up to $1.50 a day. Buggy companies in Philadelphia paid $2.25 for 6 hours work. As his business grew, he hired only men. His wife, by that time, began working as a midwife.

To keep soot from getting into the upstairs paint shop, Heiss wrapped the joices above his workshop with wallpaper. Workers wet down the floor each morning to keep the dust down.
The Paintshop
Heiss took great pride in the painting of his buggies. It was how he separated himself from his competition. Painters, working on the second floor of the workshop, were the highest paid and most skilled employees in Heiss’ buggy factory. While workers could assemble a buggy in two to three days, painting one required 9 to 12 days. Buggies received 9 to 12 coats of paint, some as many as 15. Painters applied each coat by hand using a brush, and each coat required a full day of drying time. Between each coat, paint shop workers wet sanded the pieces with pumice soap. Then they gave each buggy a final two coats of clear varnish to give it a high shine. To keep their buggies’ finishes in top condition, owners would bring their vehicles to Heiss every few years to have the varnish reapplied. Fire was always a hazard, so Heiss closed his workshop for two months in winter because he couldn’t have a wood or coal stove burning in the same building as the paint shop.

Heiss modernized his shop in 1915 by installing a line shaft and a gasoline powered hit and miss engine produced by New Holland in 1910. In 1917, Heiss’ company began making wooden car, truck, and bus bodies. He saw the writing on the wall as automobiles began to replace horse-drawn vehicles.

The Repository
In 1895, when Heiss’ buggy business was at its peak, he had a showroom built across the street from his factory. He paid two men, two buggies to build the three-story structure. He used the ground and third floors for storage and the second or main floor as the buggy showroom. When his business declined after the turn of the century, Heiss rented it to another buggy maker. From 1908 to 1928, he rented the building to an Athletic Club and a hardware salesman. He even let the local Boy Scout troop use it for their meetings. Prior to his death, Heiss began to transform his showroom, or repository as he called it, into an apartment house, but no one ever lived there. The building now houses a Conestoga wagon, a mail wagon, a racing sulky, a democrat, and other horse-drawn vehicles.

As the demand for automobiles grew, the demand for buggies declined. To offset his declining income, Heiss tried doing other things, including repainting automobiles, selling stoves, “Can’t Sag” fence gates, and Valentine’s paints and varnishes. He also made and repaired furniture, sold lumber, baling twine and oil, and even tried his hand at beekeeping. His wife, Anna, also helped bring in income by working as a midwife in the neighborhood, selling women’s hygiene products, and taking in boarders.



Heiss Coach Works became known for its fine quality buggies and sold them to buyers from Pennsylvania and beyond. The buggy works closed upon Heiss’ death in 1931. For years, the buildings and their contents lay undisturbed—until four decades later.

Behind the closed doors of the factory lay 40 years of buggy making history. Heiss’ tools, horseshoes, tires, wheels, dashboards, upholstered seats, paints, catalogs for parts, and his own account books lay where he had left them. Finished buggies in ruins and vehicles barely begun lay scattered about. Among the tools and buggy parts were beehives, honey can labels, farm tools and more. The shop was virtually intact from its original use. It was as if William Heiss had closed the doors after a day of work intending to return the next morning.

Today, the buggy making workshop is practically as it was when Heiss and his workers made buggies there. To walk through it is like taking a step back in time.



At the peak of production, twenty Mifflinburg companies each produced over 5,000 buggies annually, thus giving the town the nickname “Buggy Town.” Every business in town served the needs of the buggy makers. Over time, ninety different companies made buggies and carriages in Mifflinburg.

The Heiss Family Home
The Heiss home, located along Green Street behind the coach works and across the street from the Visitor Center, is a modest two-story affair with five bedrooms. The Heiss family rented some of the bedrooms out to their workers. They charged $5 to $15 for room and board, the equivalent of a third of a month’s salary, with laundry extra. Boarders shared rooms. Heiss’ wife, Anna, joined the family buggy making business as a trimmer or seamstress shortly after their marriage in September of 1896. She also worked as a midwife.



Visitors first enter the small formal parlor with its adjacent kitchen. The front room shows that the Heiss family had varied interests. Anna was an organist for the church she and her husband helped to start. Her pump organ, on which she practiced, sits in one corner of the parlor. Her secretary, where she kept household records and wrote to her family and friends sits on the opposite wall.



Anna Heiss had all the modern conveniences in her kitchen. She wanted an icebox, but her husband thought Sears Roebuck charged too much, so he made one himself. Besides an icebox, she also had a 1915 cook stove with a water tank, and a clothes washing machine. In 1898, the Heisses added running water which cost $6 a year. They added electricity in 1903 and in 1918 they added new flooring on the first floor. In 1920, they converted one of the children’s bedrooms into a bathroom.

The Heisses purchased their oak rope bedroom suite from a local store in 1911. A quilt, made in 1832 by Christine Pontis, covers their bed. The brown fabric used to make it came from Anna’s wedding dress. It’s believed to be the oldest quilt in the country.

Mifflinburg Today
Today, Mifflinburg sits quietly off the main road, its streets relatively silent. The homes of the buggy makers have been lovingly restored, giving the town an old-fashioned charm.

The museum is one of only a dozen craft/industrial museums in the country that preserves and interprets an original site. Visitors can walk through the various workshops, view buggies in various stages of construction and on special occasions, experience the equipment in operation.

The Mifflinburg Buggy Museum complex is open from April through October from Thursdays through Saturdays from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. and on Sundays from 1 to 5 P.M. You must take a tour to see the interiors of the buildings. The last tour begins no later than 4 P.M.

For more information, visit the Mifflinburg Buggy Museum Web site.


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