Fair features Marshalls' Abbot-Downing collection at carriage barn

FRYEBURG — It's all about preserving and sharing New Hampshire history.

So say avid history wagon enthusiasts Margaret and Sut Marshall of Conway about their 165-strong vintage carriage collection.

Seventeen of their wagons are on display as one of the prime attractions at the Fryeburg Fair, Maine's Fall Blue Ribbon Classic, ongoing through Oct. 9.

Every year, the Marshalls pick a theme for the fair display, working with their friend — leading carriage historian and writer Ken Wheeling of Monkton, Vt.— to highlight an aspect of their collection.

This year — their eighth at the fair — is an especially extraordinary display: they are featuring 17 carriages created by the Abbot-Downing Company, a former New Hampshire company and maker of the Concord Coach of Wild West/Wells Fargo fame.

The exhibit features three Concord Coaches — two of which are owned by the Marshalls, and one which was previously owned by Jean Fernandez of North Conway. He donated that wagon to the Concord Coach Society, and it is on loan for the exhibit.

They are similar to the western-styled Concord Coaches which were used by Wells Fargo in the Old West.

Sut has sold two of his Concord Coaches over the years to Wells Fargo. He admits to having been conflicted about letting them leave New Hampshire, but he did so, believing that they will be shown to a greater public by the company in displays in their banks in New York City and Philadelphia.

“I know they will care for them and preserve them, and people will be able to learn about their history,” said Sut.

He hopes some day to some day obtain a Western-styled Concord Coach.

“His eyes salivate at that prospect,” laughed Wheeling.

***

A new book on Abbot-Downing was published this year by the New Hampshire Historical Society, entitled, “Abbot-Downing: Coach and Wagon Makers to the World.”

Among the highlights of the 62-page book is a photograph showing the Fabyan House coach at the top of the Mount Washington Carriage Road (now Auto Road) on July 20, 1899. “Concord coaches,” notes the caption under the photograph on page 9, “were sturdy and well suited for both dry rutted and rocky mountaintop terrain. Only a few coach drivers, however, attempted to climb Mount Washington — the first in 1861 to celebrate the opening of the carriage road and the Fabyan coach in 1899 to be filmed by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company of New York.”

In the early days of tourism, according to late Mount Washington Auto Road president and White Mountain collector Doug Philbrook of Gorham, visitors could travel north on the railroad to Lake Winnipesaukee, where they boarded steamers to Center Harbor. There they would be met by Concord Coaches for the ride north.  After the railroads reached the mountains (to Gorham in 1852 and to North Conway in 1871), coaches were used by hotels to meet guests for the ride back to their hotels.

White Mountain historian Dick Hamilton of Littleton — former president of the White Mountains Attractions Association — often has spoken about the coaching parades that were popular annual events in such tourist towns as Bethlehem and his native North Conway in the late 1880s. The parades featured ornately-decorated coaches entered by local hotels during the Golden Era of the Grand Hotels.

***

In addition to the three Concord Coaches, the exhibit at the fair features service vehicles.

How unique is the opportunity to see 17 Abbot-Downing vehicles at this year's fair, including three Concord-Coaches?

The question was put to Wheeling.

“I don't think you will ever see this many Abbot-Downing carriages on display again at one place at one time. Sut and Margaret's collection is the only collection in the world with so many Abbot-Downing vehicles,” said Wheeling an a pre-fair interview with the Marshalls at the fairgrounds as they set up the display with the Marshall's son, Todd.

The Marshalls share a love for collecting, a pursuit which Sut initiated 20 years ago and in which Margaret has joined him.

It all goes back to when he and his brother Pit were young.

“I had a horse that pulled a carriage, and my brother also had one,” said Sut. “Our dad [Abbott's Dairy operator Shumway Marshall] wanted to give us each a wagon. Mr. Fernandez had nine — we couldn't decide which two to buy, so we bought all nine, thinking we would choose which two to keep and sell the rest. But we kept them — then we had the fire at Chet Lucy's [on West Main Street in Conway, near today's Ham Arena] 15 years or so ago, and lost eight of them (one was stored in a different barn someplace else). So, we had to start all over again.”

The collecting took hold with renewed vigor.

“I got the addiction,” said Sut, “and Margaret was very supportive. I got a little out of control and she said to cut back — but I didn't listen very well,” he laughed.

He and  Margaret have teamed up with Wheeling over the years in a labor of love.

“He [Wheeling] is the man,” said Sut. “He has so much knowledge and we are fortunate to have him. He is world renowned; he gives talks not only in this country but in Europe as well.”

“The support we get from the Fryeburg Fair — from the administration to the maintenance crews — is incredible,” he added.

He says he believes it is important to keep as much of the New Hampshire- and New England-built wagons close to home, because once they leave, it is doubtful they will ever return.

“I get calls from people all over, from England and France. I think this is part of New England history, and once they're gone, they're not likely to come back,” he said.

Carriage fascination

But history isn't the only part of it — it's also sharing their love for collecting with the general public at the fair, and with fellow collectors throughout the country and world.

“It's a great bunch of people we've met from all over the country, and beyond,” said Sut.

Margaret said they often go to auctions, utilizing their many contacts in the field.

“For Sut, the joy is in the hunt — the fun in finding them. For both of us, the pleasure is not only in the preserving but also in the sharing. We try to buy original wagons that don't need restoring,” said Margaret.

Wagons that need work get sent to Green's of Orient, Ohio, an outfit that is known for its quality restorations.

The total number in their collection varies constantly.

The Abbot-Downing collection is not only a thing of beauty for knowledgeable collectors— it is something for all lovers of New England history to behold.

“To see this many Abbot-Downing carriages in one place is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Wheeling.

***

A history of the Abbot-Downing Company, 'Carriage Makers to the World'

By Ken Wheeling

CONCORD — Concord, N. H., was home to one of the most prestigious "wagon" companies in the United States.

The Abbot-Downing Company, whose factory was on Main Street in Concord, was the premier maker of Concord Coaches, Stage Wagons, heavy Drays and a multitude of other styles of commercial horse-drawn vehicles.

They were superior quality vehicles, much prized by owners, and were even touted in advertisements to attract clientele. Western stage line owners were loud in their notice to the public: “Genuine Concord Coaches Used.”

The company started in 1813 when young Lewis Downing came to Concord to make sleighs and Pleasure Wagons, and make repairs on such vehicles. The catalog of American styles was not large in 1813. It was an industry in its fledgling years, but one that was to dominate the American life style for a century or more. In that year, the company was “Lewis Downing,” as advertisements show.

By 1827, Lewis Downing had obviously been toying with then idea of building a stagecoach. Perhaps he remembered seeing those Troy coaches that passed through Newburgh, N.Y., on the New York to Albany stage roads. But, Downing was not a coach builder. He was a wheelwright by training and profession.

He enlisted the services of Joseph Stephens Abbot, a coach body builder form Salem, Mass.

Together they built three stage coaches over the winter of 1827-1828, and sold them quite readily, one into Vermont. Abbot, having completed his assignment, wandered down through New England, spending some time in Providence, R.I. He subsequently returned to Concord and the two men formed a partnership, Downing & Abbot. It lasted until 1847. They split amicably.

Abbot kept the original factory grounds and buildings; Downing moved across the street forming L. Downing & Sons. Abbot eventually partnered with his two sons, forming J. S. and E. A. Abbot. In 1865, the four sons of Downing and Abbot put together the two companies, the first Abbot Downing & Company.

The company produced a wide number of different vehicles, the Yellowstone Wagon, a tourist vehicle used in the National Parks, the Heavy Dray, the Overland Wagon, endearingly known to westerners as the "Mud Wagon," the Mountain Wagon, known widely as a sight-seeing vehicle in the White Mountains. All the Mountain Houses kept them to take tourists on afternoon jaunts through the glens and New Hampshire forests.

This year, only two years before the 200th anniversary of Downing's arrival in Concord, the Fryeburg Fair will exhibit 17 Abbot-Downing vehicles, all from the horse-drawn commercial vehicle collection of Margaret and Sut Marshall, of Conway.

They will be exhibited in the Horsedrawn Wagons barn, adjacent to the Draft Horse barns. Never before have such a wide variety of Abbot-Downing vehicles been brought together in one place for the viewing public.  

One of the complementary exhibits will be a very rare set of J. R. Hill Express Harness. That company manufactured the most widely used stagecoach and express wagon harnesses in America. The company had shops on Main Street in Concord, and the J. R. Hill Building still stands on the west side of Main Street today. Very few sets of harness made by this company have been preserved.

This will be an extraordinary opportunity for the people of New Hampshire to see one of the true glories of their past and share the moment with their neighbors and friends wide and far. Guides and interested historians will be on hand to help explain the various vehicles, and provide an experience not to be yet had by lovers of horse-drawn vehicles and devotees of local New Hampshire history.

Incidentally, the Fryeburg-Lovell Stage Sleigh will be exhibited at the fair's own museum.

For further information about the fair, call (207) 935-3268 or visit www.fryeburgfair.com.

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