C.R Patterson, Born Slave, Built Automobiles Before Henry Ford
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.
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.
Patterson Body Company- C.R. Patterson & Sons – PATTERSON-GREENFIELD- Greenfield, Ohio- (1916-1919) – C.R. Patterson was born into slavery in 1833 and as a free man in 1865 moved from Virginia to settle in Greenfield, Ohio, where he took up work as a blacksmith. His talent served him well. By the turn of the century he was a successful carriagemaker, and his company C.R. Patterson & Sons was thriving. The son most involved was Fred, who was educated at Ohio State University where reportedly he was the first African-American on the football team. He was also, like his father, a natural mechanic. Although the younger Patterson may have built his first car as early as 1902, it was not until 1916 that formal manufacture of an automobile was embarked upon. “If it’s a Patterson it’s a good one” had been a slogan for the company’s carriages, and that was equally true of the company’s automobile. Its engine was a 30 hp four from Continental, and its component parts – cantilever springs, full-floating rear axle, demountable rims – were well put together. “You are cordially invited to visit our factory. Glad to have you, ” advertising said. “Glad to show you how good we make this Patterson-Greenfield Automobile. It will pay you to come and look around.” Patterson-Greenfields were offered as tourers and roadsters, and the price tag was about $850. Estimates of the total number built have ranged from 30 to 150 cars. At least one car is known to be extant. The reason manufacture was discontinued in 1919 was the move of the company into another area of the industry: the production of custom bodies for commercial vehicles. All of the design work for the hearses and buses, moving vans, ice, bakery and milk trucks to follow was seen to by Fred Patterson, Jr., the third generation Patterson in the family business. The company continued in the bodybuilding field until felled by the Depression in the mid-Thirties. – —-Patterson Body Company – Cleveland, Ohio – built bodies for the 1909 Woodland automobiles also built in Cleveland.
The Pattersons of Greenfield, Ohio, were an African-American family who, beginning in 1915, manufactured automobiles, buses, and trucks. They called their line the ‘Patterson-Greenfield’ and produced vehicles until the 1930s, when they could no longer compete with the large Detroit companies. The family was established by Charles Richard Patterson, a blacksmith who escaped from slavery in West Virginia just before the Civil War by running away to freedom in Ohio. He bought into a blacksmith business, took it over, and founded the Charles R. Patterson Carriage Co. which built various horse-drawn vehicles beginning in the 1860s.
When Patterson died, his son Frederick Douglass Patterson took over the company and decided to produce the new “horseless carriage, ” an early name for automobiles. They manufacturer their first car in 1915. It sold for $850.Without the financial ability to expand on a large scale, the company built only 150 cars and began to make specialized buses and trucks. Frederick Douglass Patterson died in 1937.You probably never rode in a Patterson-Greenfield, but the few rare surviving automobiles are now valuable collectors’ items, and you might just see one of these vehicles built by African Americans at an antique car show.
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash