C.R Patterson, Born Slave, Built Automobiles Before Henry Ford

Written by Monette Bailey

Car inventor Patterson

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C.R Patterson, Born 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.

To hear Tom Smith tell it, had Patterson been a white man, Greenfield, Ohio could have been another Detroit. Smith – car dealer and life-long resident of Greenfield – has spent years compiling mementos and information about the historical family.

Just before the Civil War, Patterson left slavery and headed north, bringing blacksmithing skills he learned in Virginia. Not long after settling in, Patterson began working at a carriage company. By 1870 he was a foreman and by 1873, Patterson had gone into business with J.P. Lowe, a white carriage maker.

“When Lowe died about a decade later, Patterson become the sole owner. He made 28 different horse-drawn vehicles; doctor buggies, backboards, phaetons, rockaways and surreys,” says Smith, who managed to find and buy three Patterson buggies.
By 1883, Patterson’s two sons, Frederick Douglas and Samuel, could help dad work at what had become C.R. Patterson and Son Carriage Company. “They became natural mechanics and even built some of their own designs,” says Smith. Sam died in 1889. Fred went on to make his own history by being the first black person to graduate from the town’s high school in 1888 and the first black football player at Ohio State in 1891.

Fred left Greenfield to teach history in Louisville, Ky. after graduating from Ohio State. He rejoined his father in 1897 and began taking a greater leadership role in the company. “In 1902, there was one car to every 65,000 people. In 1909, there was one to every 800,” says Smith. “Fred could see the buggy was a dying industry.”

After C.R. died in 1910, Fred began tinkering with motor-driven vehicles with a goal to build a car that could rival anything produced by the new automotive industry. The company still made buggies, but also turned its attention to creating the Greenfield touring car and a roadster.

“There are different reports, but [it seems] on Sept. 23, 1915, the first car rolled off the line,” says Smith. According to advertisements, the two-door vehicle featured a full floating rear axle, cantilever springs, electric starting and lighting and a split windshield for ventilation. “They didn’t make the engine. It was a Continental, capable of up to 50 miles per hour.” The car cost $850. “I’ve read in several places that it was superior to Henry Ford’s Model T.”

A lack of capital stopped production of the cars in 1919, but Fred moved on to producing trucks and buses. “It was the backbone of the business in the ‘20s and ‘30s. They used wood frames with metal skins, on mostly Dodge chassis,” says Smith. Estimates say that between 30 and 150 vehicles were built, “but my guess is toward the lower number, looking at what they had to work with and the people here at the time.”

As far as Smith can tell, there aren’t any left. He’s managed to find the top of a school bus and he videotaped an interview with C.R. Patterson’s grand daughter-in-law before she died last year at 93. In it she talks about the company driving two buses to New York to be shipped to Haiti. However, as with nearly everyone, the Depression in the ‘30s dealt a fatal blow to Patterson’s company.

Smith thinks it’s a shame that more people aren’t aware of C.R. Patterson’s place in history. He invites visitors to Greenfield to see a small display he set up at the historical society on the east end of town.
Patterson Body Company- C.R. Patterson & Sons – PATTERSON-GREENFIELD- Greenfield, Ohio- (1916-1919) – C.R. Patter­son was born into slavery in 1833 and as a free man in 1865 moved from Virginia to settle in Greenfield, Ohio, where he took up work as a blacksmith. His talent served him well. By the turn of the century he was a successful carriagemaker, and his company C.R. Patterson & Sons was thriving. The son most involved was Fred, who was educated at Ohio State University where reportedly he was the first African-American on the football team. He was also, like his father, a natural mechanic. Although the younger Patterson may have built his first car as early as 1902, it was not until 1916 that formal manufacture of an automobile was embarked upon. “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. Its engine was a 30 hp four from Continental, and its component parts – cantilever springs, full-floating rear axle, demountable rims – were well put together. “You are cordially invited to visit our factory. Glad to have you,” advertising said. “Glad to show you how good we make this Patterson-Greenfield Automobile. It will pay you to come and look around.” Patterson-Greenfields were offered as tourers and roadsters, and the price tag was about $850. Estimates of the total number built have ranged from 30 to 150 cars. At least one car is known to be extant. The reason manufacture was discontinued in 1919 was the move of the company into another area of the industry: the production of custom bodies for commercial vehicles. All of the design work for the hearses and buses, moving vans, ice, bakery and milk trucks to follow was seen to by Fred Patterson, Jr., the third generation Patterson in the family business. The company continued in the body­building field until felled by the Depression in the mid-Thirties. – —-Patterson Body Company – Cleveland, Ohio – built bodies for the 1909 Woodland automobiles also built in Cleveland.

The Pattersons of Greenfield, Ohio, were an African-American family who, beginning in 1915, manufactured automobiles, buses, and trucks. They called their line the ‘Patterson-Greenfield’ and produced vehicles until the 1930s, when they could no longer compete with the large Detroit companies. The family was established by Charles Richard Patterson, a blacksmith who escaped from slavery in West Virginia just before the Civil War by running away to freedom in Ohio. He bought into a blacksmith business, took it over, and founded the Charles R. Patterson Carriage Co. which built various horse-drawn vehicles beginning in the 1860s.

When Patterson died, his son Frederick Douglass Patterson took over the company and decided to produce the new “horseless carriage,” an early name for automobiles. They manufactured their first car in 1915. It sold for $850.Without the financial ability to expand on a large scale, the company built only 150 cars and began to make specialized buses and trucks. Frederick Douglass Patterson died in 1937.You probably never rode in a Patterson-Greenfield, but the few rare surviving automobiles are now valuable collectors’ items, and you might just see one of these vehicles built by African Americans at an antique car show.

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Who was the first African-American car manufacturer?
Frederick Douglass Patterson Frederick Douglass Patterson took over his father’s company, the Charles R. Patterson Carriage Company, and decided to produce “horseless carriages,” an early name for automobiles. The company manufactured its first car in 1915. List price: $850. After building 150 cars, the company switched to manufacturing specialized buses and trucks.

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The C.R. Patterson & Son Carriage Company of Greenfield, Ohio became the nation’s, and the world’s, first and only African-American founded and owned automobile manufacturing company. The company began as a manufacturer of horse drawn carriages and ended up as a manufacturer of buses for both urban transportation systems and rural school needs.

The following brief history (and photos) of the Patterson Company appeared in the 1985 Greene Countrie Towne Festival program. Posted 1/26/2004 Click photos to enlarge.

Greenfield holds a special place in the annals of automobile manufacturing, thanks to an ex-slave and his family. During the early part of this century, the Greene Countrie Towne was home to the only black-owned and operated automobile manufacturing enterprise known to have existed.

The head of this remarkable family was Charles (Rich) Patterson. He was born a slave on a West Virginia plantation and learned black­smithing skills that would prove useful through-out his life.

Some details about C.R. Patterson’s early life have been lost in the midst of time. One writer reports that Patterson escaped to freedom shortly before the Civil War by hiking over the Allegheny Mountains and swimming the Ohio River. Another chronicler states that Patterson settled in Greenfield in 1865 but makes no mention of a dramatic escape. In any event, Patterson quickly established a reputation as a fine blacksmith.

In 1873 he went into partnership with a white man, J.P. Lowe. Patterson assumed sole own­ership a decade later upon the death of his part­ner.

The C.R. Patterson Co. turned out 28 differ­ent types of horse-drawn vehicles. The product line included buggies, backboards, phaetons, rockaways and surreys — the era’s most popu­lar wagons.

Patterson and his wife, the former Josephine Qutz, were the parents of four children: Kathe­rine, Dollie, Frederick Douglass, and Samuel. It was Fred who helped guide the company into the Automobile Age in the early 20th century.

Conflicting information has been published concerning the debut of the Patterson car, also known as the Greenfield touring car. One re-port states that the company was making cars in 1902, while another writer states that the Pat­terson-Greenfield made its debut on Sept. 23, 1915.

In any case, the touring cars and roadsters were said to be mechanically superior to the “Tin Lizzie” Model T produced by Henry Ford. Special features advertised by the firm included full floating rear axle, cantilever spring, de-mountable rims, left-hand drive, center control, electric starting and lighting system, one-man top, and ventilating windshield. “Our special motor has that surplus power and greatest pull,” an ad boasted. “Try it on your test hill.”

The autos were powered by four-cylinder Continental engines and were said to be ca­pable of speeds of 50 mph. Both Patterson models were priced at about $850.

While entering the competitive world of auto manufacturing, the Patterson Co. continued to turn out wagons and advertise for farm repair work.

Few automobiles were manufactured. Production estimates range from 30 to about 150 cars.

Apparently there was a better market for cus­tom-bodied vehicles, as Fred Patterson decided to cease production of the cars and concentrate his efforts on such products as buses, hearses, moving vans, and trucks for hauling ice, milk and baked goods.

The buses and trucks had wood framing with metal skins. They were mounted on Ford, Dodge and Chevrolet chassis until the company shifted to an all-steel body around 1930.

For a time this strategy proved quite success­ful. Patterson buses were the first to travel the streets of Cincinnati, and other vehicles were shipped as far away as Haiti. The Patterson Co. was one of the first to manufacture two-wheeled trailers in the mid-1930’s.

The combination of Detroit’s mass production and the Depression dealt a fatal blow to the company in the 1930’s. Unable to raise suffi­cient operating capital in Greenfield, the family accepted an offer to relocate in Gallipolis. 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.

Only in recent years has the Patterson family received much notice for its remarkable achievements in the manufacture of motorized vehicles. An exhibit in Philadelphia and a salute during Black History Month a few years ago have helped alert others to the remarkable ac­complishments of former slave C.R. Patterson and his son, Fred.

Unfortunately, few examples of the com­pany’s craftsmanship have survived to the pres­ent day. Apparently none of the motorized ve­hicles survived locally, although in her book Hills of Highland, county historian Elsie J. Ayres reports that on a western vacation in 1962, “the Ayreses were surprised to find a Pat­terson car, made in Greenfield, Ohio, in a place of honor in the Pioneer Auto Museum at Murdo, South Dakota. It was sitting gracefully between a 1902 Schaact and a 1913 Spacke, a Cycle car.” (Editor’s Note: This report has proven to be inaccurate. The auto was a Peterson and not a Patterson.)

A few of the Patterson horse-drawn wagons still can be found in this part of the country, and many area residents still hold fond memories of the Pattersons and their unique vehicles.
This article about Greenfield’s Frederick Douglas Patterson and the Patterson automobile appeared in a black history special edition published by African-Americans On Wheels in the winter of 1996. The author was Reginald Larrie, PhD., a Detroit-based automotive writer and historian.
FORGOTTEN FACES; Black Automaker Among Early Trailblazers

By Reginald Larrie

“A customer can have a car any color he or she wants so long as it is black!” Henry Ford

Frederick Douglas Patterson would have certainly agreed with those words. For Patterson, one of the nation’s few black automobile manufacturers, realized that black was the only color he could count on.

Frederick’s story began years before he built his first car with his father Charles “Rich” Patterson. One of the wealthiest men in his hometown, Patterson senior was the owner of the C.R. Patterson and Sons Carriage Company of Greenfield, Ohio.

He was born into slavery to Charles and Nancy Patterson on a Virginia plantation in April 1833. He later became a blacksmith by trade. According to reports, just before the Civil War in 1861, he fled from slavery by crossing the Virginia Allegheny Mountains, hiking through West Virginia and crossing the chilling Ohio River waters. He eventually made it to the friendly town of Greenfield, apparently an important station along the Underground Railroad.

Because of his master craftsman skills, Patterson immediately got a job at the Dines and Simpson Carriage and Coach Makers Company. Within a few years he had been promoted to foreman and later formed a partnership with J.P. Lowe, creating a carriage building company that was noted for its expert craftsmanship and high quality.

He married the former Josephine Qutz and the couple had four children: Katherine, Dollie, Frederick Douglas and Samuel. By the time the youngest Samuel came along, Patterson was already successful. He had bought out his white partner and had started building the most popular carriages of the day.

Patterson gave his boys the best education possible. Frederick was the first African American to graduate from a local high school, and the following year he entered Ohio State University (OSU), where he was the first black to play on the school’s football team.

After three years, Frederick left OSU to teach in Kentucky, but only remained there for two years, before returning home to his first love – the family carriage business.

Soon after his arrival, however, his father died, leaving the young teacher and various relatives to operate the company.

In search of more business, Frederick decided to accompany his sales manager C.W. Napper, on his route one day. As they traveled, he began to notice more and more of those “funny-looking horseless” carriages on the road. He immediately reported his findings to the company’s board.

“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,” he said.

Frederick’s plan was bold. He wanted to build a vehicle that could compete against any car on the market by being more comfortable and easy to drive.

Within two weeks, the factory began the transition to build the Patterson-Greenfield

Motorcar. On September 23, 1915, young Patterson saw his dream roll off the line – an awkward looking two-door coupe.

Word about the new vehicle swept across the state like a brush fire. Some of those who saw the vehicle claimed it came with a 40 horsepower Continental 4-cylinder engine; reported top speed of nearly 50 mph and had better bodywork than the “Tin Lizzie” being made up in Detroit by some fellow named “Ford.” (Of course, by this time, Henry Ford was well on the way to becoming one of the largest automobile producers in the world.)

The Patterson-Greenfield was priced at $850.00. It came in two models; a roadster and a big four-door touring car.

However, the venture was short-lived because of a lack of capital and slow sales. Frederick turned his attention to producing school bus bodies for which there was a great demand.

In 1939, the company finally closed its big wooden doors. Most believe that Charles “Rich” Patterson would have been saddened, but very proud to know that his name on a product still meant the highest standard of quality possible.

Later, when grandson Postell Patterson was asked what happened to his grandfather’s company, he simply said, “Well, I guess Detroit got to be just too much for us.”

(Note:) Reports that a Patterson-Greenfield car is on display in the Pioneer Auto Museum in Murdo, South Dakota are not correct. The car on display is a “Peterson” which was made in Michigan. If you check the body, you will see the difference. The P-G has a rounded hood and smaller headlights, etc.

(Special thanks to Katherine Wilson Patterson, the late Postell Patterson and the many town’s people of Greenfield and Gallipolis, Ohio.)

For more information please read:
C.R. Patterson & Son Carriage Company – 1985 Greene Countrie Towne Festival program

Patterson Automobile

13 thoughts on “C.R Patterson, Born Slave, Built Automobiles Before Henry Ford”

  1. As the great great grand daughter of CR Patterson it is my duty to keep my families history part of our countries history. In this month that is dedicated to the plethary of contributions to this countries wealth let us not just focus on the few but teach future generations the many who should be recognized as pioneers in the US

    1. My mother, born Barbara Watson, in 1925, was telling me this morning that she used to drive a Patterson Roadster, “probably a thousand miles” on the farm in Evans Mills, New York. It had a back seat, she recalls. They used the power of its engine on the farm to help put away the hay they had mowed and rolled from the fields.

      –Gene Mosher
      541-485-9235

    2. Have you contacted the New African American museum in DC? If you havent already, im sure that would certainly won’t to speak with you. This was awesome information that I never knew- this has made my day and I intend to share!

  2. JTerryjackson. Correction i believe that Black America should bring back C.R. Patterson Automobile Manufacturing Company….besides we have nothing to lose and everything to gain….its that simple…with the technology that exsist today anything is possible and with God all things are possible

  3. I am very interested in finfing out more about this family and its history. My name is Erica Patterson. I was born to LasEric Patterson and I am also the grandaughter of a Charles Patterson. I feel that there may be some connection here. Please contact me with any information that you may be able to provide. Thanks 404-645-2929 palaceerica@yahoo.com

  4. I believe your story is a bit misleading. Your story seems to have been created to introduce to your audience that a black man made the car before a white man and with Ford being white, this article has been written to place a card as to whom should be given the rights to the invention of the automobile.

    Here’s what you have failed to understand. Patterson, did indeed start making cars before Ford, but ALAM was already in place, which was full of a bunch of greedy ass white men. They controlled the auto industry and they who called the shots. This is where Henry Ford was so admired and respected. During a time of monopolies where the likes of Rockefeller and Carnegie ruled the land, it was ONE man, Ford, who started that monopolies could be broken, and they did because of Ford.

    Ford is not credited for the creation or production on the line of the automobile. Ford is credited for the MASS production of the automobile. There is a difference there. The automobile was already created and there’s no debate about that, but what you and your readers need to know is who revolutionized it. It was Ford. Patterson didn’t have one clue about what Ford was after. Patterson was just another car maker. Ford was able to mass produce cars on a different style of assembly line which would help bring down the costs to the average Joe. So please, don’t work on trying to on-up one of the greatest revolutionist minds ever to grace the work force. Here are just some of his accomplishments.

    – Created a way to mass produce automobiles for the average joe at a price much lower than what was offered. Also known as “Fordism”, mass production of inexpensive goods coupled with high wages for workers.
    -Improved the assembly line, which in turn created hundreds of thousands of jobs which we still use today, resulting in zillions of profits.
    – Created the 40 hour work week
    – Known for being the leader in destroying monopolies

    1. In response to what you’ve stated. Nobody’s trying to diminished Henry Ford’s accomplishments, but to only add the missing parts! IT’S A FACT that contributions by African Americans have been kept out of the history books! I saw a documentary on ESPN about NASCAR’s first African American driver Wendell Oliver Scott. Retired driving legends summed it up by saying, “Wendell was the best car driver PERIOD”! He didn’t have the resources that his white contemporaries had. Wendell had no sponsorship so built his racing engine from trash! Thomas Edison was NOTORIOUS and lost numerous times in court for stealing inventions including from African Americans! These historical references will continued to unearth.
      The fact that an African American in C.R Patterson owned a cart and bus manufacturing company in the early turned of the century is American history!

    2. Mass producing autos was the idea of Carver a peanut /plant man. Freind of Ford who used his idea to mass produce the autos in what became auto plants.

    3. What you fail to realize it that George Washington Carver taught Ford about the assembly line and gave him the idea of mass production. With Ford being a white man, of coarse he took the idea and ran with it because he could. So, all of those credits you just gave Ford actually belong to George Washington Carver. We as African Americans are left out of history books on purpose. Credit is never given where it is due. This includes other races as well (ie Hispanics, Asians, etc).

    4. First of all, it was known as a plant. Where did ford get the idea of the mass production of automobiles?! From George Washington Carver. So no, Ford doesn’t get credit for the automobile, but for mass production…an idea he got from Carver!

  5. I recently published a book titled, “100 Years of African-American Achievement At The Ohio State University” in my book on page 170, there is a photograph of Fred D. Patterson. I found in the Ohio State Archives that had this caption on the back. Fred D. Patterson in 1889 was the first African-American student enrolled at Ohio State. Additionally, he was the first African-American varsity football player at Ohio State. He played on the `1891, 1892, and 1893 teams.

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