Altamont Carriage Works survived fire and deaths but succumbed to the advent of the automobile

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Altamont Carriage Works employees posed with several of their carriages outside of the factory where they had been made in the newly rebuilt works after the 1886 fire. After being the site of the carriage works, the building was converted to a garage and later was repurposed as a residential building 

During the second half of the 19th Century, New York State was dotted with small factories that had sprung up in both cities and small towns.

VanBenscoten & Warner’s Carriage Works, established on  Knowersville’s Church Street (now Maple Avenue) was one of these enterprises, producing a variety of horse-drawn vehicles for four decades. The carriage shop was built for Henry Lockwood and William and Jacob VanBenscoten on Lockwood’s property.

After Mr. Lockwood’s death, Jacob VanBenscoten formed a partnership with Charles B. Warner, although the site of the carriage shop itself remained at the Lockwood Estate.

Proving to be a lucrative business in that era of horse-drawn transportation, their manufacture of carriages, surreys, wagons, and sleighs on site by skilled craftsmen attracted customers from many towns in Albany and other nearby counties. The shop proved such a profitable enterprise that, instead of turning out the 150 vehicles originally projected for 1885, the owners now planned to produce 200.

Knowersville’s devastating April 1886 fire wiped out several buildings, affecting a number of businesses and destroying the carriage operation at a $3,000 loss. Community members feared the reputable and successful business that provided employment for many workers would relocate elsewhere, but fortunately for the village VanBenscoten and Warner made the decision to rebuild next to its original site.

According to The Enterprise, VanBenscoten was able to buy a building site from the Lockwood Estate adjoining their original location. That November after rebuilding the 40-by-100-foot physical plant, the business began stocking the raw materials needed to begin full production in January 1887. By mid-December 1886, potential customers were being urged to contact the owners with their orders for carriages or wagons.

Such an unprecedented number of orders poured in for carriages and wagons that the carriage works resumed operation at full capacity, hardly able to keep up with the demand. Four departments had workers doing woodworking, “ironing” or attaching metal parts, trimming the upholstery and roof coverings, and painting.

With many made to order for individual customers, these vehicles offered buyers “such springs, trimmings or painted to suit your taste without extra expenses.” Other generic wagons and carriages were made to be offered in the factory repository (showroom) section to potential buyers who simply stopped in at short notice.

The carriage works’ vehicles were described in the special 1897 Enterprise feature “A Tour Among Our Business Concerns” as products that combined “lightness and strength, style and finish, superior workmanship unexcelled.”

The year 1888 brought in orders for 40 wagons, most needed for farmers’ chores or used by grocers or other businesses. In addition to their local area sales, an out-of-town “wholesale house” ordered 35 carriages. The workers had difficulty producing enough to meet the demand, enjoying the most prosperous year yet, to be followed by an even more profitable year in 1889.

Jacob VanBenscoten died in December 1889, dissolving the partnership. Charles B. Warner continued the business on alone, though Mrs. VanBenscoten seemed to be a silent partner.

An astute businessman, Warner promoted the business by exhibiting his product at a New England and New York fair held near Troy in 1892. A quotation from the Albany Evening Journal noting that his display at this fair “cannot be equaled in the quantity of goods,” was reprinted by The Enterprise.

Locally, he entered big displays at both the Cobleskill and Albany County (later Altamont) fairs. His 1894 Albany County Fair exhibit consisted of several two-horse business buggies, top buggies, open buggies, a single pleasure sleigh, a two-horse three-seated surrey, a two-horse business wagon, and a fancy baker’s wagon.

Ever the aggressive businessman, Warner opened a branch showroom in Albany at 100 State Street and a second one in Halfmoon. There is no way of knowing how successful these showrooms were or how many years they were in operation. By 1895, Warner’s annual gross was almost $75,000.


New technology

That changes in technology began to creep in during the 1890s became evident when in 1894 Warner added improved machinery with an engine and boiler to his operation. The Enterprise noted he would be able to “turn out work at a rapid rate.” High-end carriages began to be made with the innovation of rubber tires and ball-bearing axles, appealing to affluent city drivers who could drive them on cobbled streets.

Another major change came to merchandising and production when it was announced that they had just received direct from a Lansing, Michigan wagon works a car load of various types of wagons to be sold at rock bottom prices.

Potential buyers were reminded that all kinds of carriages, surreys, and road wagons were still produced totally and on short notice. Your individual order could be filled as the one of M.F. Hellenbeck who purchased a “stylish three seated sleigh, handsomely upholstered in fine broadcloth” to be used in his Altamont undertaking business and the two furniture vans for an Albany man.

Albany Mayor John Boyd Thacher ordered a two-seated surrey. From the mid-1890s on, Altamont Carriage Works would offer carloads of less expensive wagons, carriages, and sleighs made elsewhere in large factories that had the capacity to mass produce cheaper goods in addition to their own custom-made work.

The 1890s were very good years for the carriage works. That 1897 Enterprise feature on Altamont’s businesses noted, “The quality and method of doing business also serves as the best possible assurance of continued success and permanent prosperity.”


Changing hands

The partnership between Almira VanBenscoten and Charles Warner ended in 1898 when she bought him out and for a short time ran the carriage works with her son. A year later, James K. Keenholts leased the carriage factory and in 1901 sold half interest to Dayton H. Whipple.

They continued the policy of offering lower priced factory-made wagons, carriages, and sleighs, while at the same time continuing to make vehicles to order on the premises such as the blue and gold runabout with rubber tires ordered by the city of Albany for the use of Police Chief James L. Hyatt at a cost of $137.50.

Regular advertisements appeared in The Enterprise offering repairing and repainting services in addition to new horse-drawn vehicles.

Like Charles Warner before him, James Keenholts was a proactive businessman, attending an 1899 carriage and wagon workers exhibit and convention in New York City where representatives from over 300 companies. Each employing three to 35 workers, were in attendance.

As president of the Eastern Vehicles Dealers Association, James Keenholts contracted New York City’s Grand Central Palace as the site for an exhibition of finished vehicles, planned to be the biggest carriage display in the East, plus accessories needed for horse-drawn vehicles, all for their convention.


“The Automobile Habit”

Did either Mr. Keenholts or Mr. Whipple happen to read page 3 in the May 4, 1900 issue of The Enterprise where a brief article appeared titled “The Automobile Habit,” which had been reprinted from The Washington Post?

Telling the story of United States Senator Wolcott of Colorado, an automobile enthusiast who drove an electric car powered by battery, the paper said he believed not only had the automobile come to stay, but “it will increase and multiply until the carriage drawn by horses is relegated into oblivion.”

On the following page, Keenholts and Whipple’s ad was urging people to get their wagons and carriages repaired or repainted at the Altamont Carriage Works. They also advertised in the Albany Argus that they were “manufacturers and dealers in fine carriages and sleighs whose specialties were Helderberg buckboards, physicians’ wagons and open road wagons.”

By the middle of that decade, it must have become obvious that owning a carriage factory was financial woe in the making.

Not only had carriage manufacturing been taken over by large factories in other parts of the country using machines for the manufacturing process to mass produce stock, but more and more attention was being paid to the automobile which was mentioned with increasing frequency in newspapers.

Already in 1905, the New York State Fair was promoting a day set aside as “Automobile Day.” A year later, the Enterprise news notes about local doings began to mention local people who actually had purchased automobiles.

The year 1908 marked the development of the Model T and once prices of cars came down to middle-class levels, there was no holding folks back.

But, in those early years of auto ownership, winter driving in upstate New York was impossible and for a few months it was back to horse-drawn equipages. Keenholts and Whipple were well aware of the automotive trend and diversified their offerings by beginning to carry a line of farm machinery and gasoline engines.

That year, the two announced they would be the agency for an automobile they would have on exhibit in their repository called the “Farmers’ Automobiles,” advertised as being fit for rural roads and at a low price besides. Two months later, their fair exhibit included carriages and wagons, but it seems their attempt as automobile dealers failed seeing nothing was heard of the car again.

Next, local competition began when Sands’ Sons, another pair of active Altamont businessmen, began advertising a variety of automobiles with the slogan, “The automobile is here to stay.”

In spite of the excitement over this new speedy conveyance, people were still buying carriages and wagons from the Altamont Carriage Works, their names listed among local news items. However, Keenholts & Whipple were hedging their bets and advertised heavily their farm equipment to take up the slack.

In 1909, they were optimistic enough to receive five carloads of wagons, carriages, and farm implements, much of which was to be on display at the Altamont Fair. The next year, the Altamont Carriage Works set up the usual display of wagons, carriages, and farm implements, but nearby Sands’ Sons showed “the celebrated Brush and White Steamer automobiles.”

James Keenholts died early in 1912 and, as of March 1, the proprietors of the Altamont Carriage Works became Dayton H. Whipple and Son. Although they continued to retail wagons and sleighs, the added services of painting and repairs of both horse-drawn vehicles and automobiles were also available. Case farm equipment and gasoline engines were also part of their inventory.

The years 1913 and 1914 brought few Carriage Works’ ads in the Enterprise, while in 1915 a “Notice to Farmers” appeared that the Altamont Carriage Works had established a catalogue system: If you hadn’t received your catalog in the mail, let them know.

Wagons and farm implements continued to feature in their inventory, but they also carried auto and machine oils and could repair all makes of automobiles.

The final blow fell the next year when Della Keenholts, the actual owner of the property, sold the premises for $3,500 to Morton Makely who planned to establish a modern garage and machine shop there.

The Whipples moved over to Park Row to continue their business, mainly farm equipment. The last time the words Altamont Carriage Works appeared in an ad was March 1917 from their new location.

After this time, their ads simply read “D.H. Whipple and Son” and the carriage works passed into history along with the carriages, wagons, and sleighs.