The Patterson Legacy

C.R Patterson, Born A 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.

Charles Richard Patterson was born into slavery to Charles and Nancy Patterson on a Virginia plantation in April 1833. His early years are undocumented although it’s believed that Patterson assisted the plantation blacksmith in the smithworks and wagon repair shop in the years preceding his escape to freedom.

According to the generally accepted story, in 1861, just prior to the start of the Civil War, Patterson fled from his native Virginia by way of the Allegheny Mountains, passing through the slave state of West Virginia, after which he crossed the Ohio River to the relatively safe free state of Ohio.

Once safely in Ohio he traded his service as a blacksmith and wagon repairman in exchange for room and board and by 1862 had arrived in Greenfield where he found plenty of work awaiting him. At that time Greenfield was a well-known way-station along the route typically followed by escaped southern slaves traveling to Columbus, Ohio, a popular end-point of the pre-Civil War Underground Railroad.

He was subsequently hired as a blacksmith by Dines & Simpson, Greenfield’s best-known wagon and coach builder, and was eventually promoted to the position of foreman of the firm’s small manufactory.

Sometime around 1865 Patterson married Josephine Utz (aka Outz), an attractive Mulatto woman of German decent, and in 1866 their blessed union bore a daughter named Mary. In 1871 a son, Frederick Douglass, joined the family closely followed by another daughter Dorothea (Dollie), in 1873; a second son, Samuel C. in 1875; and a third daughter, Kate in 1879.

Charles’ son, Frederick Douglas Patterson, was unrelated to the man of the same name (Frederick Douglas Patterson, born Oct. 10, 1901 in Washington, D. C.) that later organized the Negro College Fund and served as president of the Tuskegee Institute.

Frederick Douglas Patterson graduated from the Greenfield High School in 1888, after which he embarked upon a course of study at Ohio State University, joining its football team in 1891, reportedly the first African-American to do so. Fred withdrew from Ohio State prior to his graduation to take a job as a high school history teacher in Louisville, Kentucky. His younger brother, Samuel C. remained in Greenfield and joined his father in the family’s carriage works.

The State of Ohio’s 1888 Bureau of Labor Statistics Report lists J.P. Lowe & Co., carriages, etc. with a staff of 10. It is believed that Patterson became a partner in the business that was popularly known as Lowe & Patterson, although its legal name remained J.P. Lowe & Co. until 1893 when Patterson bought out Lowe’s share in the business and reorganized as C.R. Patterson, Son & Co. to reflect the involvement of Samuel C. Patterson, Charles’ youngest son.

During the firm’s heyday 10 to 15 hands turned out 28 different styles of vehicles, whose prices ranged from $120 to $150 each. C.R. Patterson’s doctor’s buggy was its most popular item and the firm’s vehicles were distributed throughout the South and the Midwest United States.

In 1897 Samuel C. Patterson became quite ill, prompting Frederick to resign his teaching position and return to Ohio in order to assist his father in the management of the family’s carriage manufactory after which the firm began operations as C.R. Patterson & Sons Co. Greenfield cemetery records reveal Frederick’s younger brother, Samuel C. Patterson, passed away in 1899 at the age of 23.

Charles R. Patterson was awarded patents for the following devices: a thill coupling (#364,849) in 1887; a furniture caster (#452,940) in 1891; a vehicle dash (#803,356) in 1905. Clay Gordon patented a buggy top (#983,992) that was assigned to C.R. Patterson & Sons Co. (a co-partnership) in 1911 and Homer C. Reed patented a combination ladder that was assigned to F.D. Patterson in 1910.

The 1903 American Carriage Directory lists two carriage manufacturers in Greenfield, Ohio; The Greenfield Carriage Co. (light vehicles) and C.R. Patterson & Son, 2 Hamler (light carriages; wholesale mfrs.). The reference to Hamler, another small Ohio community, is unknown, although it’s possible the firm operated a satellite wareroom in the Northwest Ohio village, which was directly accessible via the railroad.

Frederick was interested in politics and served as Greenfield’s delegate to the annual Ohio Republican Party caucus. As an African-American businessman, Patterson was instrumental in turning out Ohio’s black vote for the Republican Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding and served as an alternate delegate to the 1924 Republican National Convention, which took place in Cleveland, Ohio.

He was a member of the Foraker Club and took great interest in the work of Booker T. Washington, with whom he was associated as 2nd vice-president of the National Negro Business League. In his religious affiliations Patterson was an Episcopalian and served as Worshipful Master of Greenfield’s Cedar Grove Masonic Lodge #17.

C.R. Patterson & Sons were occasional advertisers in The Crisis, the nation’s oldest civil rights monthly and had earlier advertised in Alexander’s Magazine, another early African-American-owned publication. Their first recorded mention in the automobile trades appears in the September 15, 1909 issue of Horseless Age:

“C.R. Patterson & Son, of Greenfield, Ohio, will soon begin the erection of a modern garage at that place. A representative of the concern has been sent to Columbus and Cincinnati to secure ideas for the new structure.”

After Charles R. Patterson passed away in 1910, Frederick Douglass Patterson took over the company and built up a strong business servicing early automobiles for the local community. Some sources indicate that Frederick received a Bachelor’s degree from Ohio State, although surviving alumni publications indicate he withdrew, prior to getting his degree. Regardless, on September 11, 1901, he married Betty Estelline Postell in at Hopskinsville, Kentucky.

Estelline was educated at Hopkinsville, graduated in 1894 from the Fisk Teachers’ College at Nashville, Tennessee, and subsequently taught in the grade schools at Hopkinsville. Their blessed union resulted in the birth of two children. The oldest, Frederick Postell Patterson, was born at Greenfield July 20, 1903, was educated in the grammar there after which he was dispatched to Philadelphia where he stayed with relatives and attended one of that city’s fine High Schools. After graduation he returned to Ohio and embarked upon a course in mechanical engineering at Ohio State University at Columbus.

Frederick and Estelline’s second son, Postell Patterson (b.1906-d.1981), born at Greenfield in 1906, graduated from Greenfield’s McClain High School in 1925 where he served as editor of the Dragon, the school’s newspaper. After graduation he also attended Ohio State, after which he joined his father in the family’s bus body business.

The popularity of the automobile caused Frederick D. Patterson to seriously consider the manufacture of his own vehicle while on a trip with C.W. Napper, the firm’s salesman. Charles William Napper (b.1883) was an African-American Greenfield native who joined the firm after his 1906 graduation from Ohio State University. Patterson reportedly stated the following when questioned why the firm entered the automobile manufacturing business:

“In 1902, there was one car to 65,000 people and by 1909 there was one vehicle for every 800 people and with those kinds of figures … I believe it’s time for us to build a Patterson horseless carriage”

Development of an automobile began in 1914 and the first Patterson-Greenfield rolled out of the company’s Washington St. facility on Sept. 23, 1915. Priced at $850, the Patterson-Greenfield was offered as a touring or roadster and featured a 30hp Continental 4-cylinder engine, full floating rear axle, cantilever springs, demountable rims, electric starting and lighting and a split windshield for ventilation. A surviving picture shows Fred Patterson standing next to a six-cylinder light truck chassis, which may indicate the firm built a limited number of trucks in addition to automobiles.

“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 whose advertisements claimed the car was built:

“…to meet the requirements of that class of users who, though properly able to expand twice the amount, yet feel that a machine should not engross a disproportionate share of expenditure to the exclusion of proper provision for home and comfort.

“You are cordially invited to visit our factory. Glad to have you, Glad to show you how good we make this Patterson-Greenfield Automobile. It will pay you to come and look around.”

Without the financial ability to expand on a large scale, the company built an estimated 30 vehicles (Postell Patterson, Frederick’s son, later claimed 150, hence the 30 to 150 estimate found in most references to the firm) between 1915 and 1918 which were primarily sold to local and regional customers. The firm continued to use the Patterson-Greenfield trade name on the firm’s buses and commercial vehicles up until 1921 when the firm was reorganized.

The firm’s first bus bodies were constructed for local school districts which were beginning to adopt the new mode of transportation. The first mention of a Patterson-built bus body outside of the immediate area can be found in a classified ad placed in the April 18, 1918 Bridgeport Telegram (Conn.):

“JITNEY BUS—For sale, 20 pass. jitney bus,, with Patterson body. Inquire 560 Hancock Ave.”

The last mention of the C.R. Patterson Co. was the firm’s October 22, 1919 Ohio Corporation certificate renewal. By 1921, the firm had been reorganized as the Greenfield Bus Body Company, which was capitalized for $50,000. The Patterson family owned the majority of the shares although a partial stake was held by Ora W. Upp, the firm’s new general manager.

Upp, who was not of African-American descent, was a 1904 graduate of Earlham College who spent a number of years working for his father, J.E. Upp, in the family’s Greenfield, Ohio automobile garage. The March 7, 1912 issue of The Automobile mentioned J.E. Upp & Son’s recent acquisition of the Cadillac franchise and their reorganization as the Greenfield Auto Co.:

“Upp & Son Agents Now—J. E. Upp & Son have closed out their automobile repair business at Greenfield, O., and in the future will only act as sales agents for the Cadillac. The headquarters of the concern will be at the Greenfield Auto Company.”

The Greenfield Bus Body Co.’s primary product was school bus bodies which were sold to school boards in Southern Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. They are mentioned as a supplier of early transit bus bodies to the Ohio Transit Company and are known to have built small numbers of commercial bodies for local and regional businesses.

Since the late teens a fair share of the firm’s business was installing year-round closed automobile tops on existing touring cars. However that once-lucrative trade ended when closed automobile bodies supplanted the touring car as the nation’s most popular body during the early twenties. During 1922-23 the Greenfield Bus Body Co.’s yearly output was stated to be five hundred bodies (of all types) with a monthly payroll of $5,000 and annual sales of $150,000.

Between 1922 and 1925 advertisements and press releases for the Greenfield Bus Body Co. appeared in the nation’s commercial vehicle trade journals, a handful of which follow. Although the firm’s factory was located on Washington Street, near Lafayette, the 90 Webster Ave. address refers to its shipping address, which was located across from the railroad depot at the outskirts of town.

April 1922 issue of Bus Transportation:

“Greenfield Bus Body Company, Greenfield, Ohio, reports an unusually large demand for its product this spring. The bodies manufactured by this company are for all chassis. The organization is one of the oldest devoted to the production of bus bodies. O. W. Upp is in charge of production.”

April 1922 Commercial Car Journal:

“Big Demand For Bus Bodies

“Greenfield Bus Body Company, Greenfield, Ohio reports a very large demand for their different types of bus bodies which are made for all chassis. This company is one of the oldest builders of bus bodies, having devoted practically their entire facilities to the manufacture of bodies of this type for several years. They are pioneers in this line of work and offer a great many different types of bus bodies in many different sizes.

“‘We foresaw the coming demand for bus bodies several years ago and prepared for it’ said an official of the Greenfield Company, ‘and we believe that the bus business is still in its infancy. We are constantly making careful surveys and investigations to determine the best types of bodies to meet particular transportation problems and thus we are able to offer several different types of bodies, each one meeting a particular requirement.’”

1923 issue of Motor Coach Transportation:

“A school bus body which has the knockdown construction as one of its features is now being built by the Greenfield Bus Body Company, of Greenfield, Ohio. This type of body is easily crated and the maker claims this method saves one-third on the freight charges. Easily handled it can also be reshipped with the maximum of convenience. Assembling is very simple and the company claims this can be accomplished without possibility of mistake. These bodies are built in different sizes to suit requirements. This concern also builds bodies for general use on bus lines and adaptable to any make of any make of chassis.

“Greenfield Bus Body Company 90 Webster Ave., Greenfield, Ohio”

1923 Commercial Car Journal display advertisement:

“The Last Word in Fine Body Building
Correct Design – Complete Appointments – Superb Finish
Built by Pioneers in the Bus Body Field
Greenfield Bus Body Co.
‘Patterson Made’
210 Washington Ave., Greenfield, Ohio”

1923 Motor Truck magazine press release:


“A NEW 18-passenger bus body recently announced by Greenfield Bus Body Company, Greenfield. O., picture of which is shown, is used by the White Star Bus Line between Lexington and Winchester Kentucky.”

“This body, particularly easy riding and comfortable, is one of the most popular operated by the company.

“As will be seen by the photograph the tire carrier is swung underneath, where it is easily reached by the operator and takes up little room.”

1925 – Motor Truck magazine display ad:

“GREENFIELD BUS BODY CO., Greenfield, Ohio

“Greenfield Sedan – Built in any capacity for any chassis. One of the best jobs we have ever offered.
Blue prints furnished for any special body.
We are the largest exclusive builders of bus bodies, and are equipped to handle any request.
Send for our illustrated catalog.

“Greenfield Bus Body Co., Greenfield, Ohio.”

A 1926 new item in Automotive Manufacturer magazine mentions the firm’s $400 per body bid on an order of 35 parcel delivery bodies for the US. Post Office:

“Bids on 35 standard mail trucks recently made public in Washington D.C., show a wide array of prices. They are: Fort Smith Body Co., Fort Smith Ark., $380; Greenfield Bus Body Co., Greenfield Ohio, $400; Ford Body Co., Greensboro, N.C. $300; Hugh Lyons & Co., Lansing $483.75; Kratzer Carriage Co., Des Moines $353.85; Woonsocket Mfg Co., Providence, $305; Westchester Auto Body Co., White Plains, NY, $523; Andrew Murphy & Son, Omaha…”

The last mention of the firm in a national publication can be found in the 1929 edition of Chiltons Auto Guide under commercial body builders:

“Greenfield Bus Body Co., Washington & Lafayette Sts., Greenfield, Ohio.”

Greenfield’s buses are known to have been built on Chevrolet, Dodge Bros., Ford, General Motors and International truck chassis and the firm survived the transition from wood to metal body construction although they lacked the capital to invest in the equipment needed to compete on a national scale. In addition to buses the firm’s products include two-wheeled trailers, hearses, moving vans, delivery trucks and insulated bodies for hauling ice, milk and meat.

Frederick Douglas Patterson passed away on January 18, 1932. His obituary was covered in the Ohio State University Alumni Association’s magazine, volume 23, no. 6:

“Fred D. Patterson, w’93, head of the Greenfield Ohio Bus Body Company, and one of the most widely known leaders of the colored race in southern Ohio died at his home in Greenfield, January 18. He was 61 years of age.”

The firm floundered after the 1932 death of the senior Patterson. Statements by surviving family members reveal one of the firm’s final “large” orders was for three 1936 GMC-chassised buses that were built for the Haitian Government. Production continued on a greatly diminished scale into 1938.

Unable to raise sufficient operating capital in Greenfield, the family accepted an offer to relocate to Gallipolis, Ohio. The firm changed its name to the Gallia Body Co. and operated there for about a year before lack of financial support and a shortage of experienced workers caused the firm to cease operations.

The Patterson family was involved in several other businesses in Greenfield other that automobiles, buses and carriages. They were part owners of Cory-Patterson which manufactured life saving nets for fire departments and of Lowe-Patterson who made hand tools including pruning shears and hand sickles.

Carriage building was a seasonal business, with most of the work completed during the fall and winter months. At that time many of the firm’s employees still lived on the farm, and needed their springs and summers free to plant and harvest their crops. During extended periods of downtime, Lowe & Co., C.R. Patterson and its successor manufactured small household goods that were market under various trade names.

The Lowe-Paterson trade-name was used to market hand tools which included sickles, shears and other small hand tools. The Cory-Patterson trade-name appeared on wooden ladders and safety nets that were marketed to regional fired departments. The Greenfield Bus Body Co. also manufactured a line of small household furniture, as revealed by a surviving footstool dating from 1931.

Both of Frederick’s sons left Greenfield after the firm closed its doors. Frederick Postell Patterson relocated to Wilberforce, Ohio, where he worked at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton and Central State University while Postell Patterson relocated to Springfield, Ohio where he became a successful realtor.

C.R. Patterson & Sons was unrelated to the W.A. Patterson Carriage Co. of Flint, Michigan; the Klein-Patterson Body Co. of Cleveland, Ohio; and the Patterson Body Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, the builder of coachwork for the Cleveland-built Woodland automobile of 1909.

© 2004 Mark Theobald –

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