When Elvin Eberly's Mennonite family moved from Pennsylvania to Withee, Wis., seeking better farming opportunities, he took a different path. "We can't all be farmers," he says. "Some of us have to be buggy builders."
In 1992, he started Eberly Coach Works in a garage on his parents' farm. Experience became his primary teacher. "I had to learn it just by doing it," Eberly says.
Eberly eventually bought his family's farm and converted a machine shed there to a 4,500-square-foot shop where he and three full-time employees build, restore and repair horse-drawn vehicles.
"Seventy-five percent of our work is for the local plain people, Mennonites or Amish," Eberly says. Mennonites drive single-seated courting buggies and two-seated family buggies. Wisconsin Amish also prefer two buggy styles.
"The 25 percent that's left over is for what I call 'English' (non-Amish or non-Mennonite) customers, who usually have restoration jobs like old sleighs or buggies," Eberly says, "and occasionally orders for new vehicles such as buggies or wagons." Most business comes via word of mouth.
Except for some pre-made components, Eberly builds the entire vehicle, which requires metalworking, woodworking, painting, electrical and upholstery skills.
His shop is divided into paint rooms, metalworking/wheel area, woodworking area and finished work/showroom. A barn and the garage where he started his business function as storage areas. Key equipment includes a Bridgewood edge sander; Conestoga 16-inch planer; Craftsman table saw, radial arm saw, 12-inch band saw, staple guns; DeWalt radial arm saw, chop saw; and Performax 24-inch drum sander.
Buggies in batches
Mennonite buggies are his biggest seller, so Eberly builds cabs in sixes and stores them until needed. He buys the buggy tub, a single piece of molded Fiberglas that forms the dash, sides and floor. He and his employees frame out the rest, using white oak and yellow poplar for the frame and plywood for the top.
Eberly buys springs, axles, wheels and other components from suppliers in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. For larger units, such as running gears, he buys the components and assembles them.
When a customer orders a Mennonite buggy and puts 50 percent down, employees pull two framed cabs from storage and bring them into the shop. Building buggies in pairs increases efficiency; Eberly completes new buggy orders in two to three months.
Employees sand the cab and apply up to five coats of primer. Eberly's work starts with the painting. "I do the enamel painting because if it runs or sags, it's my own fault," he says. He applies three coats of Schwartz Carriage Black enamel with a spray gun.
When painting is completed, he brings the cab into the finished work area and installs the wiring and the lights, which run off a battery. The driver attaches wire clips to the battery to turn on the lights, which run for "a good half night" before the battery needs recharging.
Eberly glues carpet to the dash and floor, and covers the floor with a clear plastic mat. He upholsters the seats and the rest of the interior with crushed velvet.
The side curtains, which are made of vinyl or Naugahyde over a thin insulating material, are fastened with black-painted tacks, staples and Velcro. Water-resistant vinyl covers the outside, and a heavier vinyl protects the top.
After upholstering, Eberly bolts the cab to the gear and attaches the remaining components and trim to complete the buggy. He notifies the customer and asks that the buggy be paid for and picked up within 30 days.
Building a buggy takes about 120 hours. The shop produces about 20 new vehicles and completes 25 major repair/restoration jobs annually. It also handles a steady stream of repair projects, such as fixing and replacing tires on buggy wheels.
Because Mennonites and the Amish rely on their buggies for daily activities, repair projects take precedence over new buggy building. "A wrecked or burned buggy gets top priority," Eberly says.
Custom work, such as building and repairing sleighs and wagons, accounts for about 10 percent of Eberly's business.
Business eases in late winter and spring. "During the slow times we work ahead," Eberly says. "We usually have two to three months' work lined up, so that helps take care of the slow periods. By the time it starts to get busier, we're usually about caught up."
Employees typically are young, single Mennonite men. They start with tasks such as disassembly, paint stripping and sanding.
"They know eventually they're going to be doing cleaner, more complicated work," Eberly says. On average, employees stay four years. "Most young men need a job before they get married," Eberly says. "Once they get married, they have a business or a farm of their own." An employee who quits needs to find a replacement.
"Most of the time that works out well," he says.
Eberly says his biggest challenge is to produce quality work at an affordable price.
"We have to keep our price in tight control and the quality at a consistent level or else we lose out," he says. "We have to keep our reputation up so that we can get word-of-mouth advertisement.
"We try to remain flexible because we get into all different types of work, even in just the horse-drawn vehicle industry," Eberly adds. "We try to be a jack of all trades and a master of them all."
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