August 2008 Issue
C.R. Patterson, an escaped slave, founded the company that became the first and only known African-American automaker in the U.S.
Tom Smith isn’t really certain how he came to be so caught up in the story of C.R. Patterson, but thinks it has to do with the fact that they shared the same business. “My dad was in the car business, and I grew up in the car business,” he muses. “I guess it was interesting to me. I’ve been searching for stuff on the guy since the mid-’80s.” Today, he has a large collection.
Henry May, on the other hand, is quite sure how he became attracted to Patterson’s story: “He’s a distant, distant, distant cousin,” he says proudly. “My grandmother’s sister was married to Frederick Patterson, one of C.R. Patterson’s sons, and my mother used to visit them all the time as a girl.” When he was researching his mother’s history, he ran across the Pattersons and was hooked enough to write a book.
Who is this figure who’s has been able to inspire such fascination across the decades that he’s driven two such different men to such similar pursuits and passions?
He was a simple businessman who lived an uncluttered, productive life and carved out a unique historical niche with his business in the rolling hills of southwestern Ohio.
C.R. Patterson to those who knew him — and he has the distinction of creating the company that, thanks to the efforts of his son Frederick, became the only known African-American automobile manufacturer in the early, formative days of the industry during the early 20th century.
That was an era in which car makers sprouted across the country in cities large and small, and when blacks had an uphill climb in starting and nurturing any business of their own, in the days within memory of the Civil War. The town in which Patterson and his business sprouted was Greenfield, Ohio, a rural village in the northeast corner of Highland County, near the county seat of Hillsboro, roughly between Cincinnati and Columbus.
Patterson ended up there by accident. He was born a slave in Virginia and ran away from his owners sometime before the Civil War — his origins and early story, understandably, are murky. He is believed to have hiked over the Allegheny Mountains and what is now West Virginia, made it across the Ohio River and realized, as escaped slaves tended to, that the farther you made it into Ohio, the safer you were from marauding slave-catchers.
Patterson had learned blacksmithing and metal- work from his time as an owned man, so he arrived in Ohio able to make a living for himself. “He was about 18 or 19, but he was a relatively rare thing — a fugitive slave with skills,” says Henry May, a retired industrial-arts teacher from Mount Vernon, New York, who has become a writer and historian.
“That was his saving grace, that he arrived to freedom with a big bag of tools,” May adds. “He became a journeyman, repairing barn doors, fixing latches and broken farm equipment— always earning his keep as he kept moving farther and farther north. When he arrived in Greenfield, he had a pocket full of money.” That was around 1861, according to various sources, who agree that Patterson settled quickly and impressed folks with his smithing skills. After the war, he joined the Dines and Simpson Carriage and Coach Makers Co.
“He was very well liked,” May says. “It’s ironic that he became the foreman of this company while he was an escaped slave, and knew he had to keep his head down. He was respected, but he knew he couldn’t fully assert himself; he stayed quiet and worked hard.”
In the early 1870s, he went into business with a white partner, J.P. Lowe, in their own carriage works. When Lowe died a few years later, Patterson bought up his half of the business and was set to get going on his own.
He and his wife, Josephine, had four children, two sons and two daughters. Son Frederick Douglas Patterson was the one who not only carried forward the family line most prominently, but also helped convince his father in the early 1900s to do as many others in their business were doing: Transform their carriage concern into an automobile business. And so C.R. Patterson & Sons got into the car business.
“Fred said later that C.R. wasn’t really wanting to do cars,” says Smith, an auto dealer in Greenfield who owns Smitty’s Auto Sales. “But he told him that buggies were going out of style and that people wanted cars.”
It seems a quaint struggle now, but it was one that was being played out in carriage factories across the nation at about the same time. Frederick was just the man to make his father see the light after more than 30 years of running a business he knew well; Frederick and his brother, Samuel, had been well-educated thanks to their father’s prodding, and his money. Frederick was the first black to graduate from Greenfield High School, and went on to Ohio State University, where in 1891, Smith says, he became the first black football player.
Patterson carriages, which were known for their quality and black-enameled elegance, had paid for all that. The company started experimenting with adding engines to them between 1902 and 1909, Smith says, and most sources say the first Patterson-Greenfield automobile was produced on Sept. 23, 1915 — a two-door coupe that eventually had a companion roadster that sold for $850.
The senior Patterson, alas, never got to see either one. He passed away in 1910 at the age of 71.
Frederick took the company forward, as far as he could, into a gasoline-powered future. He earned a number of patents along the way, one for car-window design, and kept pushing his crew in the big factory on North Washington Street in downtown Greenfield to keep making better and more beautiful custom cars. The Pattersons, meanwhile, became one of the wealthiest and most respected families in town — appreciative, no doubt, of the opportunities that their patriarch, C.R., had to make something of himself there.
“Why did it happen there?” May asks. “I think it was as with any successful business — location, location, location. I give Greenfield a lot of credit. There were lots of abolitionists among the townspeople when he arrived there, and they didn’t see him as a threat, but as a positive impact on the town. I found the same thing when I was there, people enthusiastic about helping me get the story. C.R.’s success has a lot to do with where he was at the time.”
That story turned out to be his book, First Black Autos, which he published in 2006. The book recently had a second printing (for more information or to purchase, visit www.stalwartpublications.homestead.com).
May’s book describes the high quality of the Patterson-Greenfield roadsters and four-door touring cars, of which some 150 may have been made before the company turned to the more profitable business of making trucks and buses around 1919. Competition in the car-making business had arrived from Detroit in the form of Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model Ts, and making high-quality, hand-built custom vehicles became a rough go for Fred’s company, as for many others like it. Interestingly, the Patterson Co. never completely gave up making wagons and doing farm repairs. Way to hedge a bet.
Buses turned out to be a big success;
Fred sold them to the Greenfield and Cincinnati schools, and according to May “sold the first buses on the streets of Detroit.” He also did well with panel delivery trucks. The company employed up to 30 people and paid good wages.
However, it eventually ran out of money and steam. Frederick died in 1932 and the business passed to a third generation — his sons, Postell and Frederick Jr. They closed the factory on North Washington Street in 1939. The family spread out across southern Ohio, with several of its members settling in Dayton. Smith, in his collecting of information on the company, interviewed Kathleen L. Patterson, Postell’s wife and an accomplished writer and painter, before she died in 2003 at age 94. Henry May said his mother recalled playing with Kathleen when they were children, “running all around the factory and having a wonderful time.”
The plant was torn down to make way for a bank building about six years ago, and Smith says he feels a little bad that even though most folks in Greenfield know about the Pattersons, there isn’t a monument or plaque
for C.R. or Frederick downtown. There is a family monument at the local cemetery.
Apparently, no Patterson-Greenfield cars still exist. Collectors and historians occasionally chase down reports that become dead ends, and Smith has managed to possess the roof of a school bus, which he keeps in his house along with other memorabilia. He owns two Patterson buggies; a postal wagon is owned by the Greenfield Historical Society; and an elegant buggy is on display at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton. Looking at it, one can easily imagine a happy family inside, father snapping the reins, out for a pleasant Sunday drive across the gentle green countryside that once welcome the vehicle’s maker, and provided an outcast with a home.
“He hasn’t really gotten noted for what he did and all he accomplished,” Smith says. “But I’ll tell you, I admire anybody who could come up from the way he did, raise his kids so well, and become what he did.”