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Take a step back to the Victorian era with a visit to Historic Sugartown in scenic Chester County, Pennsylvania. Located within easy reach of the Devon Horse Show grounds, the site has a wealth of information to offer, including a diverse display of vehicles.

The mission of Historic Sugartown is to preserve a sample of life from the past, and the vehicles that were a part of that era make up an interesting segment of the displays. The bulk of the collection was provided by a partnership with the Chester County Historical Society in 2010, with additional donations rounding out the museum’s displays.

“The Chester County Historical Society had a number of these carriages and sleighs in storage and no one was seeing them. They wanted to get them back out to the public,” Executive Director Heather Reiffer said. “All these sleighs and carriages collectively represent a slice of life in Chester County during every day of the year.”

Unlike some carriage collections, the majority of the vehicles on exhibition at Sugartown are in their original condition. The emphasis here is on conservation rather than restoration.

Director of Programs and Outreach Faith McCarrick pointed out a few very well restored pieces in the exhibition including a lovely Rockaway. “One of the biggest issues of restoration versus conservation is people see this (restored) and say why isn’t everything like this. They don’t realize the importance of the original pieces being on there,” she said.

With conservation as a priority, some of the vehicles are in less than pristine condition, but that does not detract from their significance.

The beautiful original painting on the side of an 1870 Albany Cutter is faded, but it can still be seen as it was done when the sleigh was first constructed, without the changes that might have been made during restoration efforts.

Because the vehicles have not been refurbished in an effort to make them usable, they, for the most part, retain their original suspension and construction details.

Original condition vehicles also carry traces of their origins. In the case of a racing sulky from approximately 1860, the tag is still on the axle block identifying the builder as the firm of William D. Rogers of Philadelphia. It was made from standardized parts and produced with standardized machinery long before assembly line production was used for motor vehicles.

Along with identification of the type of vehicle, the museum also features historical information on each item and photos when available. The additional materials help put the vehicles into context for visitors so that they can understand when and how each one was used and their place in society.

The Cabriolet on display was a top of the line vehicle in its time, and is a star of the collection. It is missing its folding top, and might be difficult to imagine as it originally was, even though there are still traces of the silver plating, fine carving and detailed painting remaining. Photographs for the vehicle dating to 1899 and 1914 let visitors see it as it was then as well as now and appreciate how elegant it was on the road.

“It’s very early, as early as 1820 maybe earlier,” McCarrick said. “The beautiful hand painting on the sides of it, you’re seeing what it was originally made with and what it’s originally made of. That’s how it would have been carved - without modern tools to get those details is fabulous.”

Covering all uses, the museum display includes work vehicles as well as passenger vehicles. “They had working pieces and the fun pieces,” McCarrick said. An 1880 dump cart and an 1870 milk sleigh for winter dairy deliveries are examples of working vehicles, plus there is a very interesting hearse.

Built circa 1870 by an unknown maker, probably from the Philadelphia area, the hearse features large plate glass sides that would have been a prized commodity at the time. Records from cabinetmaker and undertaker George L. Moore accompany the vehicle, giving extensive documentation on its use.

“What I love about this one, the fabric is still draped in it, the coffin is still in it, you can really see how it would have been used in the procession,” McCarrick said. “This would have gone on many a funeral procession.”

In contrast to the predominantly Victorian time period of the collection, a Conestoga Wagon is on display, complete with many of the tools and accessories that would have been original equipment for the vehicle.

“That was the original semi or tractor trailer,” Reiffer said. “It’s not the one that would have been led by oxen on the Oregon Trail. You have to get your big load of furs or coal to the next town over, you get your Conestoga wagon led by Conestoga horses.”

Other vehicles in the collection include an1830 Traveling Carriage; 1875 Park Phaeton; 1880 Side-Bar Phaeton; 1880 Pony Village Cart; 1890 Pony Phaeton; 1890 Rockaway; and a 1900 Breaking Cart. Winter weather vehicles on display include a High-Backed Sleigh; 1840 or earlier Tub Sleigh; 1870 Basket Sleigh; and a Portland Cutter.

For visitors who are unfamiliar with what it feels like to ride in a horse drawn vehicle, a sturdy wagon is set aside for people to climb up on the seat. “As an educational piece, we do allow people to step up in it. You can feel the suspension underneath you,” McCarrick said. “We let people climb up on it and get a sense of it.”

The carriage museum is a part of the larger preserved setting of the small village of Sugartown. A visit to Historic Sugartown is not just antique vehicles. The full setting of the community helps put the carriage collection into perspective.

Several buildings in the crossroads village have been preserved and staged to recreate their historic background while others remain in private hands as active residences. Enjoy stepping back in time in the appropriately stocked general store, and see the 1805 William Garrett house with period furnishing. A fully functional, vintage book bindery is used for educational workshops as well as being an interesting stop on the tour. A beautiful stone foundation barn, stocked with agricultural tools, and the ruin of a stable are also interesting attractions for horsemen.

The modern building used for the carriage museum was first constructed as a satellite station for the local Malvern Fire Company. When the fire company no longer needed the building it was passed on to Historic Sugartown. The large open space and high ceilings intended to house emergency vehicles is a perfect venue for display of the carriage collection.

Historic Sugartown is open to visitors on weekends from May through the first weekend in December. Special group tours are also available, plus a wide variety of events and special programs at Historic Sugartown year round. One event staged for the first time in November 2015 recreated a Victorian ball, with dances staged in the midst of the carriage museum.

Historic Sugartown is located at 690 Sugartown Road, Malvern, Pa. For more information, visit the website at www.historicsugartown.org.

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