Papa's Harness Shop

It was a proud day for Papa when he put up his storefront sign, “Frank O Birkholz's Harness Shop,” in the village of Fillmore, Wisconsin. The year was 1897 and the automobile was as yet no threat to his trade.

Papa took great pride in his work making harnesses for both draft and carriage horses. Sitting on a high stool at the workbench, he stitched by hand horse collars and the many straps and bands that make up a harness. A six inch needle threaded with waxed hemp was pushed through the leather with a palm iron held in the palm of his hand.

He oiled the harnesses by placing them in a wire basket which was lowered by pulley into a vat of heated oil. It was here, greeted by the pleasant smell of leather and oil, that my brother Roy and I stopped after school. On cold winter afternoons we warmed our hands at the wood burning stove that stood on a zinc pad in the center of the shop.

Papa looked forward to our visits, always taking time to listen kindly and patiently to our chatter about school, friends, or an occasional problem. He sometimes asked us to straighten the shelves of boxes containing curry combs, rosettes, plumes, horse blanket pins, and neatsfoot oil which was a dressing for leather. For this we were rewarded with a stick of horehound candy which he kept in a jar on the windowsill.

On the wall near the door hung sleigh bells on leather straps. Papa didn't seem to mind the almost constant jingling as few customers could resist the urge to tug at the bells.

The wooden workbench on the east wall was near windows overlooking a small park. At the center of this bench, among the many saddler's tools, stood a beer bucket with a nickel in it. A thirsty customer would add another 5 cents and take it to be filled at the corner saloon. Buying a new harness or waiting for a check rein to be repaired was done leisurely over a beer.

Buggy whips with colorfully striped handles were displayed in a round stand, and draped over a strong cord were buffalo robes. In spring these were replaced with fly nets and light weight lap robes, some with bright floral designs and deep fringes on each end.

A small, narrow storeroom was shared with Wittig's Dance Hall next door. There was great excitement on evenings a dance or a masq. ball was held. We hurriedly rode from school to help Papa empty the little room where horse blankets and rolls of hides were stored so it would be ready to serve as a wardrobe checkroom when the ladies and gentlemen arrived at the ball.

As more people bought cars Papa kept right on making harnesses, ignoring the horseless carriage as a threat to his livelihood. He actually looked upon the automobile with mild amusement, and he chuckled whenever stalled cars were towed past his shop by a team of horses. He drove our sleekly groomed Prince and Buster long after his customers rode in cars with side curtains.

When at last in 1920 he realized the new era no longer had a need for his occupation, he reluctantly closed the shop. The workbench, tools and stitching horses were moved to our attic where they gathered dust for many years, and when we moved away they were left behind.