Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

Now largely bred for recreation and sporting-jumping, foxhunting, dressage, training, trail riding, and racing (which alone contributes ten billion dollars to the Commonwealth’s economy each year!) – horses were critical to the settling and development of the United States, essential to commerce, transportation, communication, and trade. For more than two centuries, they carried mail, hauled goods and provisions, tilled farmland, dragged logs for buildings and structures, and provided power for farm and factory equipment. It was only natural that the horse would make an impact on Pennsylvania, particularly on a fledgling settlement in the central region.

In 1827, the small rural villages of Youngmanstown and Rotestown in Union County were merged and named in honor of Thomas Mifflin (1744-1800), a member of the Continental Congress and governor of the Commonwealth from 1790 to 1799. The growth of Mifflinburg remained slow and steady until a new industry took hold in mid­century. George Swentzel built the first horse-drawn carriage in Miffiinburg in 1845, prompting, over the following eight decades, more than fifty buggy makers to open shops in the community. Between 1880 and 1910, Mifflinburg earned the nickname “Buggy Town” for the staggering number of horse-drawn vehicles – estimated between four and six thousand – manufactured each year. In time,though, the increasing popularity of the automobile forced the closing, one by one, of the factories that had once formed a stable industry.

Today, the Mifflinburg Buggy Museum preserves the William A. Heiss Coach Works, the country’s only intact historic carriage factory open to the public. As business declined, Heiss turned to other pursuits, pushing aside his carriage making supplies and equipment. His son Norman never discarded his father’s tools, equipment, or supplies after he inherited the property at his mother’s death in 1946. In 1978, a group of citizens in Mif­flinburg were interested in establishing a museum to commemorate the community’s heritage. Norman Heiss, then in his eighties, and his sons Owen and Glen responded, offering the use of the Heiss property. To the astonishment of everyone, when the door of the coach works was opened after fifty years, the workshop remained virtually intact, just the way William A. Heiss had left it in the 1920s. The museum organizers were further amazed to discover that the 1870 family residence and the repository, or showroom, remained untouched as well.

The museum complex today includes a visitor center with a permanent exhibit on buggy making and Mifflinburg; the Heiss family home, replete with original furnishings; the original buggy factory; and the repository. The museum’s collection of horse-drawn vehicles includes a Berry Brothers spring wagon. The wagon took its name from the springs interposed between the body and the axles to form elastic supports. William Berry began making buggies at the outbreak of the Civil War, and his sons Hebron and Fletcher Berry carried on the trade until 1918. The versatile spring wagon is still used for special events.

The museum is restoring the original factory building, which will reopen in May 2005. During the restoration, visitors may visit a temporary exhibit of factory tools and equipment installed in the visitor center. For more information about seasonal visiting hours and directions, write: Mifflinburg Buggy Museum, 598 Green Street, Mifflinburg, PA 17844; telephone (570) 966-1355.