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York: The Way from Wagons to Caskets


When I visited the excellent York Agricultural and Industrial Museum in York, Pennsylvania in March, I was fascinated to follow the progress of the area's industry from early hand-made equipment to highly sophisticated machinery for all kinds of uses, including the biggest power-generation dams.


As I wandered through the acres of exhibits, I began to notice one company popping up again, starting in the 1840s and continuing to today. But unlike companies that have been in the same business for a century or two, this company turned out to be an illustration of changing times and needs and how to adapt to them.

6 wheelA very early six-wheel York; both front and rear wheel sets turned so that the very long car could make tight turns. But it didn't sell well!

That bright red car isn't where it begins; that's only a midpoint when, in the early 20th century York Wagon Gear, maker of axles, wheels, springs and more for, literally, 'the carriage trade' noticed that the business seemed likely to decline as motor cars became more popular.

Since the public was familiar with Pullman as a luxury name for railroad sleeping cars, the company borrowed the name for its cars, although it eventually went back to the York name.

P1210720P1210719The York Pullman factory, above, and a 'ladies' model advertised by a then-popular Broadway star. The ad at left claims that 'a novice can learn to drive the car safely in half an hour'  Among its features, a no-clutch transmission.

P1210728Florence LaBadieP1210722Ultimately, demand for luxury models like the 1917 one above, which had electric starter and lights began to fade in favor of cheaper mass-market cars such as the Ford Model T. York tried to hang on by outsourcing engines and other parts, but by late 1917, York gave up and moved on to its next new life.

P1210727P1210734Ready for restoration, the only known example of the ladies' coupe is under wraps until the museum moves to its new home in the next few years.


The next step for York was sort of a modified back step. Unable to make money building cars, the company returned to its wagon-era heritage and became York Body Company, makers of bodies for other car companies. Eventually, big manufacturers took that trade inside (think GM's Body by Fisher), but left room for York Body to merge with Hoover Body and become a maker of specialty truck bodies, like the one above on a Dodge chassis and the bug-eyed yellow heavy-hauler made for Pfalzgraff Pottery, another local industry.


But alas, that business eventually slowed, and York-Hoover divided, with the truck body business leaving York in 1958, while the other remnant of the company turned to an entirely different body business. The company's skilled metal and wood workers helped make York Casket the largest in its field. Now part of a multi-industry conglomerate, it still operates out of York.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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