By Rick Dapp
Those feeling adventurous and willing to head north from Harrisburg for parts unknown don’t have to even leave Dauphin County. One can follow the river and stick with familiar names like Dauphin, Halifax and Millersburg, or, choose the path less traveled and head inland.
A variety of small communities, each with a singular history and legacy are dotted throughout northern Dauphin County. Carsonville (population 830 – if you consider it part of Halifax) has the Carsonville Hotel and excellent cuisine; Gratz (population 765) draws another 25,000 people into its fold during the week of the Gratz Fair (always starts the Sunday after Labor Day and lasts a week). This year’s Gratz Fair will be featuring the “World Famous Wallendas” during the venue. Pillow, named for General Gideon Pillow and celebrating its bicentennial this year, is smallest of the boroughs with barely 300 residents, and Lykens is one of the larger with 1,800 residents. But, it’s nearby Elizabethville (population 1,510) that has been home to a true American success story for 150 years.
The Swab Wagon Company is believed to be one of the oldest continuously operated manufacturers of transportation vehicles in the world. Founded in 1868 by Jonas Swab, the Swab Wagon Company is also believed to be the oldest North American coachbuilder remaining in business today. Coachbuilding’s origins began with horse-drawn vehicles ranging from utilitarian farm wagons to elegant carriages. As time moved on coachbuilders applied their skills to “horseless carriages” and names like Fisher and Derham became synonymous with elegant automobile bodies. The “Body by Fisher” plate appeared on various General Motors cars as late as the 1990s.
Jonas Swab was born on March 1, 1843 in Washington Township, Dauphin County. He was raised, and worked, on his family’s farm until he was eighteen when he was apprenticed to a tanner from Pillow named Isaiah Matter. But, young Swab decided within a year that tanning animal hides was not for him and moved to an apprenticeship as a carpenter in a nearby factory that manufactured farm implements. His second apprenticeship was abbreviated by the Civil War and Swab enlisted in Company C of the Pennsylvania Volunteers in September of 1864. He saw action in Virginia at Petersburg, Hatcher’s Run, Bellefield, Gravelly Run, Five Forks, and was present at the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
Returning to his home after being discharged from the army in May 1865, Swab returned to his former employer, Riegel & Emerich, now as a blacksmith rather than as a carpenter. In 1867 he resigned and embarked upon a journey across the United States and its territories, ending up in Nebraska which had just been granted statehood. In his perambulations across America, he was seized by the notion that in order to succeed he would need to create a business of his own. And upon returning to Elizabethville he opened his own blacksmith shop and began repairing farm implements and wagons. He also manufactured his first vehicle, a sleigh, according to his ledger, for a “Daniel Matter” and for a price of $10.00. His growing business success led to marriage with Ellen Mattis in December of 1869. They had three children with only a daughter, Etta, surviving childhood. Etta, who would play a significant role in the family story, lived to the age of 80, passing away in 1968.
In 1870, Swab and another man, Emanuel Forney, were awarded a patent for their design of a horse-drawn hay rake. Emboldened by the success of the hay rake, Swab branched out into other types of farm implements, as well as building wagons, both to company specification or to customer design. At this point, the young manufacturer, not yet 30 years old, released his most enduring personal invention: the Chilled Box Solid Steel Axle. Prior to that time, wagon axles were made of cast iron and relied on excessive applications of grease to keep them turning freely and not wearing out prematurely. Swab’s new foundry process created an extremely hard and durable steel bearing surface for the axles, resulting in minimal wear and greater rolling freedom. The success of these axles gave the Swab Wagon Company its very first advertising slogan, “Wagons That Wear,” and a product that was adopted by most of the company’s competitors.
By 1899 the average output of Jonas Swab’s enterprise was five wagons a day and, being a seasoned entrepreneur with 31 years’ worth of business experience, he incorporated the company with capital of $50,000. In truth, the amount doesn’t sound like much in today’s business climate, but at the end of the nineteenth century, it was equivalent to $1,378,565 in 2017 dollars; not too shabby for a blacksmith from Elizabethville. Curiously, Jonas Swab’s younger brother, Aaron, also operated a carriage business in Elizabethville from 1885 through 1919 that was called the Swab Carriage Company. Little is known as to why the two brothers competed with one another in such a small arena and with such a specialized product, but Jonas Swab’s company was producing 20-25 wagons per week, while Aaron Swab’s company probably produced no more than 20 vehicles per month.
Jonas Swab died in 1913 at the age of 70 and control of the Swab Wagon Company reverted to his only child, Etta. Married to Frederick Potter Margerum, a businessman from Bucks County. Etta Margerum was mother to three children: Dorothy, Esther and Jonas Benjamin. The Margerum family maintained residences in both Elizabethville and in San Bernardino, California. Day-to-day control of the Swab Wagon Company was assumed by its secretary, W.P. Lehman, who was assisted by Jonas’ brother Aaron after the younger Swab’s own company went bankrupt in 1920.
By this time, the 1920s, the writing was on the wall and, even in remote places like northern Dauphin County, the horseless carriage had come to stay. The ever-enterprising Swab Wagon Company shifted focus, becoming the local dealer for Chevrolet, Saxon, Studebaker and eventually Plymouth vehicles. As time went by, the Swab/Margerum family decided to deal primarily in Studebaker, selling autos and trucks, and fitting Swab bodies on various truck chassis. When Studebaker merged with the Packard Motor Company the Swab Wagon Company became the Packard dealer in that part of the world. And, when Studebaker-Packard obtained the rights to distribute Mercedes Benz cars in the U.S., yes, Swab Wagon Company became the Mercedes dealer in Elizabethville. With the demise of Studebaker on the horizon in the early 1960s, Jonas Margerum had the presence of mind to obtain a Chrysler-Plymouth franchise that replace the Studebaker business in 1966. They remained a dealer for that brand until 2003.
Perhaps what allowed the Swab Wagon Company to defy the odds as a business – the dreaded “third generation curse” (according to Forbes, less than one third of family businesses survive the transition from first to second generation ownership and another 50 percent don’t survive the transition from second to third generation) or an irresistible buyout offer – was the fact that the Swab/Margerum family continued to innovate and infuse it with unique vigor. For example, during the less-than-positive times created by the Great Depression of the 1930s, the company found itself on the verge of bankruptcy. At that point, Jonas Margerum, newly graduated from the University of Southern California in 1932, returned to Elizabethville and took over the management of the company. In the 1930s the company continued to increase its presence in the manufacture of fire emergency vehicles and continued to produce a variety of commercial truck bodies through the 1960s. However, two design innovations, one occurring in 1963 and the other in 1973, set the direction for the future of the company. The first was the first Type 1 ambulance body that was truck-mounted and allowed the vehicle to serve as an emergency room on wheels, rather than the prevailing means of transporting a patient to a hospital; a converted station wagon. The other was an animal transport body manufactured in fiberglass that provided a cost-effective alternative to modifying existing large SUVs for the same purpose.
Still managed by fifth-generation family members directly descended from the company founder Jonas Swab, the firm continues to thrive and innovate. No offshore manufacturing, no foreign ownership, just plain old American ingenuity coupled with an ability to adapt to changing technology and economic conditions. And, in the same, small northern Dauphin County, town for a 150 years.