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Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company — adapted business to take advantage of growing popularity of “horseless carriages”
Mar 21, 2013

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
It became increasingly obvious to more astute carriage and wagon makers at the turn of the 20th century that their industry would eventually be deposed due to the growing popularity of the “horseless carriage.” 
“Adapt or perish” was the phrase noted by the carriage and wagon makers who did accept that their industry had been irrevocably changed by the advent of the Motor Age.
Noting the growing transportation trend, Gordon Morton McGregor, a Walkerville, Ontario, wagon maker, signed an agreement with Henry Ford in 1904 to manufacture the same Model A cars being produced in Detroit. And when Ford changed his line-up of automobile models for U.S. consumers, including the production of the famous Model T “Universal” car, McGregor followed his lead to satisfy demand in the Canadian marketplace. At one time, over 50 per cent of the automobiles purchased in Canada were Model Ts.
In Oshawa, Ontario, the McLaughlin Carriage Company, under the guidance of Colonel Sam McLaughlin, joined with William Durant of Detroit to manufacture the famous McLaughlin-Buick series of cars with a Detroit-built Buick engine matched to a McLaughlin body and chassis manufactured in Oshawa. McLaughlin founded and became CEO of the McLaughlin Motor Car Company on November 20, 1907, which later formed the basis for General Motors of Canada.
In 1905, when carriage makers were establishing their fledgling automobile factories, there were just 565 cars in Canada. On May 23, 1903, the Winnipeg Telegram provided a list of all the 19 automobiles then plying the city’s streets.
But despite the scant numbers, visionaries such as McGregor foresaw the day when “every farmer will soon be using an automobile,” so he reasoned that it would be practical to “build them here in the wagon factory.”
That is not to say that horsemen were ceding defeat and giving up their battle with automobiles for dominance of city streets. The Telegram on June 9, 1904, mentioned a Winnipeg court case during which horsemen claimed the “noisy autos frightened their horses and have caused them no end of inconvenience.” The horsemen said the “choo-choo” of automobiles made their horse bolt in fear.
But the case had nothing to do with the “choo-choo” noise generated by cars. Instead, the complaint from the horsemen was about a parked automobile on Vaughan Street covered by a white tarp to protect it from the elements. The complainants alleged the white apparition spooked their horses.
Winnipeg Police Court magistrate, Thomas Daly, agreed with car owner Fred Grundy that his automobile didn’t obstruct traffic, but still found him guilty and fined Grundy $1, citing the white cover as the sole cause of the trouble between the two parties.
While the horsemen won this case, it was inevitable that they would lose the battle as the automobile became more ubiquitous.
Meanwhile, Robert “Bob” Lawrie, a Scottish immigrant, who had formed a Winnipeg-based wagon and carriage company bearing his last name in 1890, also wanted to take advantage of the transition to internal combustion engine powered vehicles. But while McGregor and McLaughlin had begun manufacturing cars from the wheels up, Lawrie hit upon the idea of taking an existing automobile chassis and engine and then building a body to suit the needs of his customers. In effect, he was reinventing his carriage and wagon making business in order to adapt to the growing public infatuation with a new mode of transportation.
Lawrie, born on March 9, 1863, at St. Boswell, Scotland, had actually came to Winnipeg on May 9, 1882, and was a blacksmith by trade. The Canadian militia veteran (Winnipeg-based F Company of the 90th Regiment) of the 1885 North-West Rebellion, which was fought against the Métis led by Louis Riel in what is now Saskatchewan, added greater diversity to his smithing skills by first setting up a shop on Pacific Avenue in 1887  to facilitate the more complex manufacturing tasks involved in wagon and carriage making. 
“In those days, most of the employees — about a dozen — were blacksmiths who could double in all the skills related to turning out wheels or building a wagon or carriage,” wrote John McManus in a January 23, 1971, Free Press article.
The Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company then moved to larger premises at Rupert Avenue in 1903. The Henderson Directory for Winnipeg in1907 listed Robert Lawrie’s trade as “horseshoer,” with the Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company having premises at 182 Rupert Ave. A year later, the same directory listed the company as being located at 163 and 182 Rupert Ave. The company’s last move occurred in 1909 when it relocated to 583 Wall St.
“Around the time the move was made to Wall Street,” wrote Edith Paterson in a November 16, 1974, Winnipeg Free Press pictorial feature about the company, “it became evident that motorized vehicles were soon going to replace the horse-drawn ones that Robert Lawrie has specialized in with such success. He saw that even greater opportunities lay ahead and began turning out truck bodies made to customer’s specifications to fit on various types of chassis they purchased from automobile companies. The idea caught on immediately and grew.”
While the internal combustion engine was revolutionizing personal transportation in the early 1900s, wagon and carriage manufacturers still had a market for their products, especially among those who considered the newfangled contraptions too noisy as well as smoke-belching monstrosities. Among the elite, elegant handcrafted horse-drawn carriages were a sign of their status in the community. 
During the first decade of the 20th century, it was primarily more wealthy private citizens along Wellington Crescent, Roslyn Road and Wolseley Avenue who used a horse and buggy. To house their horses, they had stables beside or behind their homes.
In reality, few could afford carriages. “Back in 1900,” according to the March 9, 1956, Ontario-based Buckingham Post, “not one in 100 urban people had a horse and buggy and families travelled by rail only on rare occasions.”
Because there were few individuals able to afford carriages, the mainstay of the industry was manufacturing wagons for freighting. In Canadian cities, “Old Dobbin” pulled wagons that delivered products for bakeries, dairies, lumber companies and department stores.
A February 22, 1913, Free Press article entitled, Horseless Age Not Yet Reached, argued that it would be another five years before “motor trucks” would replace horses in the big cities.
“The horseless age has not been reached, but it is approaching surely and steadily, although at this time it must be confessed that the exit of the horse is centred mainly in the principal large cities ...
“The mechanical wagon is the next link in the chain of transportation evolution just as the railroad was the next step in the evolution from the stage coach.”
While Lawrie’s company was transforming itself during the first lurching years of the Motor Age, it was still churning out carriages and wagons, as well as sleighs for winter use. Horse-drawn delivery wagons remained a moneymaker for the company well into the first decades of the 20th century. The company produced a keg wagon to deliver E.L. Drewry’s beer, baggage wagons for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR),  a furniture moving wagon for Union Transfer Ltd., a wagon to deliver meat to the Winnipeg customers of  butcher William Blewett, and a wagon used by Canada Packers at the Union Abattoir, among many others.
“The streets of Winnipeg glittered with the variety of carriages, bread wagons and freight hauling wagons produced at Lawrie. They complemented the great horse-flesh that drew the rigs for profit or pleasure” (McMannus).
Edward Boyce, who founded the Boyce Carriage Works Company in Winnipeg, 316-324 Ross Ave., said in 1907 that when he came to the city 28 years earlier, “there were one or two carriage shops ... but the principal work was done by the Thompsons, a well celebrated firm with some reputation (Manitoba Free Press, July 11, 1907). “I saw, though, where the results they were getting could be bettered in efficiency, and, after some hesitation, opened my first ship.”
D. Aukland & Son on Higgins Avenue provided most of the “wheels, shafts and other bent wood carriage material” for the wagon and carriage manufacturers.
“There are several other shops through the city and its suburbs, chiefly engaged in repair work, but where complete vehicles are also manufactured,” the article noted. 
“Wagons for groceries, butchers, bakers, and the several retail lines are built (by the Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company)  to the aggregate of about 125 the year.”
Despite competition from Eastern Canada, where the majority of the carriages and wagons sold in Winnipeg were manufactured, Lawrie was able to carve out a market niche for himself, which provided a rather significant $125,000 in annual wagon sales for the company.
In 1911, about 160 men were employed in the carriage industry in the city. At the time, the Lawrie company actually had two shops, one on Rupert and a two-year-old three-storey facility on Portage and Wall for building and repairing carriages and wagons.
A feature in the June 5, 1915, Free Press, praised president Robert Lawrie and secretary-treasurer John S. Henderson for putting the “Made in Winnipeg” stamp on carriages and wagons, “and it has thus in no small measure picked up a share of the carriage business of the Canadian west ...
“The Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company Limited is still doing business with 25 hands on the pay roll, an industry which has for the last ten years been one of Winnipeg’s leading manufacturers, and which has done much to keep Winnipeg money in Winnipeg and to lessen to some degree the immense importation of carriages and other vehicles from eastern Canada and from the United States.”
A July 15, 1913, Free Press article about the annual Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition, noted that the Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company display would surprise visitors with its variety of vehicles, including Hudson’s Bay Company delvery wagons.
(Next week: part 2)