The following article appeared in the January, 2005 issue of African Americans On Wheels magazine. 

   
 
 

CoverStory

 
Written by Monette Bailey

Black History: The Past

CR Patterson & Son
America’s Only African-American Automobile Manufacturers

Some of the finest buggies made in the late 1800s came out of a small, black-owned company in Ohio. Charles Rich Patterson's Company later made motor vehicles, and history, by founding the country’s only African-American-owned automobile manufacturing company.

To hear Tom Smith tell it, had Patterson been a white man, Greenfield, Ohio could have been another Detroit. Smith - car dealer and life-long resident of Greenfield - has spent years compiling mementos and information about the historical family.

Just before the Civil War, Patterson left slavery and headed north, bringing blacksmithing skills he learned in Virginia. Not long after settling in, Patterson began working at a carriage company. By 1870 he was a foreman and by 1873, Patterson had gone into business with J.P. Lowe, a white carriage maker.

“When Lowe died about a decade later, Patterson become the sole owner. He made 28 different horse-drawn vehicles; doctor buggies, backboards, phaetons, rockaways and surreys,” says Smith, who managed to find and buy three Patterson buggies.

FRED Patterson in Patterson car in front of N. Washington St. business of C.R. Patterson & Sons. (top)
Automobile Centennial magazine featuring Patterson as a trailblazer among automakers. (middle).
Patterson Bus No. 17 belonging to Greenfield School district. (bottom)

By 1883, Patterson’s two sons, Frederick Douglas and Samuel, could help dad work at what had become C.R. Patterson and Son Carriage Company. “They became natural mechanics and even built some of their own designs,” says Smith. Sam died in 1889. Fred went on to make his own history by being the first black person to graduate from the town’s high school in 1888 and the first black football player at Ohio State in 1891.

Fred left Greenfield to teach history in Louisville, Ky. after graduating from Ohio State. He rejoined his father in 1897 and began taking a greater leadership role in the company. “In 1902, there was one car to every 65,000 people. In 1909, there was one to every 800,” says Smith. “Fred could see the buggy was a dying industry.”

After C.R. died in 1910, Fred began tinkering with motor-driven vehicles with a goal to build a car that could rival anything produced by the new automotive industry. The company still made buggies, but also turned its attention to creating the Greenfield touring car and a roadster.

“There are different reports, but [it seems] on Sept. 23, 1915, the first car rolled off the line,” says Smith. According to advertisements, the two-door vehicle featured a full floating rear axle, cantilever springs, electric starting and lighting and a split windshield for ventilation. “They didn’t make the engine. It was a Continental, capable of up to 50 miles per hour.” The car cost $850. “I’ve read in several places that it was superior to Henry Ford’s Model T.”

A lack of capital stopped production of the cars in 1919, but Fred moved on to producing trucks and buses. “It was the backbone of the business in the ‘20s and ‘30s. They used wood frames with metal skins, on mostly Dodge chassis,” says Smith. Estimates say that between 30 and 150 vehicles were built, “but my guess is toward the lower number, looking at what they had to work with and the people here at the time.”

As far as Smith can tell, there aren’t any left. He’s managed to find the top of a school bus and he videotaped an interview with C.R. Patterson’s grand daughter-in-law before she died last year at 93. In it she talks about the company driving two buses to New York to be shipped to Haiti. However, as with nearly everyone, the Depression in the ‘30s dealt a fatal blow to Patterson’s company.

Smith thinks it’s a shame that more people aren’t aware of C.R. Patterson’s place in history. He invites visitors to Greenfield to see a small display he set up at the historical society on the east end of town. 

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