story and photos by Derek Doeffinger
If you know what “snap, crackle, and pop” stands for, then you’ve probably already figured out the meaning of “slurp, gurgle, and vroom.” But just in case you’re reading this late at night, I’ll give you my take. Slurp is the sound made by someone drinking wine (maybe a tad too much). Gurgle is the sound made by a small waterfall, and vroom is, of course, a motorboat roaring away from the dock. All are sounds made by Finger Lakes icons.
But in greater Penn Yan; indeed all of Yates County and northward past the thruway; the icon is the horse and buggy, and its iconic sound is “klippity klopp.” It’s a delightful sound. A percussive joy to the ear, always accompanied by a thrill to the eye when the horse swooshes by with a bearded “19th century” man holding the reins. At such a sight, whose heart doesn’t stir with nostalgia and then yearn just a bit for quieter times, without the annoyances of Bluetooth and Twitter, endless texts, hacks, spams, and webcams?
For those reasons alone, watching the horse and buggy traffic of Yates county is always enjoyable. But eventually the feelings of nostalgia and novelty give way to curiosity, to wondering about the horse and buggy.
You’ll soon realize that for 21st century Mennonites and Amish, buggies are what they’ve always been: a way to get from here to there: to shop, to socialize, to get to work, to deliver and pick up goods, to go to court, and to go to church. For the Amish and Old Order Mennonites (95 percent of the buggy traffic), the horse and buggy adds the benefit of allowing them to be faithful to their beliefs.
Compared to a car, a buggy’s limitations seem many. Most obviously, it’s slow and has a short range. A good jogger can not only keep up with many buggies, but can often also exceed the 15-to-20-mile travel range of a buggy horse. And the runner eats a lot less.
The advantage of a slow buggy is its slowness. A slow buggy forces a slower life style. Its limited range means people spend more time in their immediate community. Both are desirable, both are big advantages for the people who desire a simpler life. Indeed, these limitations help create and preserve that lifestyle.
Depending on their usage, buggies are both sturdy and flimsy, both safe and dangerous. A trip to the buggy makers at Bellona Coach just outside Penn Yan shows how they are made. The proprietor, Mr. M., short and balding with a round face, is in his early 50s. He’s quite friendly and accommodating to somebody who showed up unannounced (can be hard to get a Mennonite phone number) and asked for an overview on buggy making.
During the slow-farming days of winter, he and his sons make about 10 buggies and repair several others in their prefab building. Much of the making comes in the form of assembling purchased components. The biggest component is the buggy body. It comes from the Midwest and is largely a fiberglass box with oak framing added to support the fabric that will enclose the buggy.
Most buggies are two-seaters that hold four passengers. They’re for families. Young fellas typically get their own buggies at 18. They prefer one seat – a means to exclude extraneous passengers. They’re sometimes referred to as courting buggies. The shiny oak console installed in the dashboard of the courting buggy that Mr. M. was working on was a bit fancier than the standard console. It featured two provocatively tilted, hand-sized heart cutouts designed to suggest to a female passenger that romance was in the air.
The setup of the buggy shop is both modern and antiquated. Although a doubled-geared tire assembler on a chest high stand hasn’t changed much since its 1896 patent, a door on the opposite side opens to a spray paint room complete with a near state-of-the-art ventilation system.
Not surprisingly, the favorite color for a buggy is black. However, a touch of elegance, individualism, and color may appear in a buggy with the upholstery that can be selected from a swatch book. Upholstery is done on site. Propane heaters can be installed to take the edge off a cold winter. Mr. M. says the velcro and snap system used to enclose the buggy with fabric works well but the sons admit buggies can get pretty cold in the winter.
It takes about 100 hours to build a new buggy. A new two-seater sells for about $7,000; a single-seater costs almost as much, as it uses the same cabin. Mr. M. says a buggy owner can expect to get about 15 years out of a buggy before requiring a rebuild. A rebuild costs roughly half of a new buggy. A good horse costs about $4,000 but $2,000 can get you a serviceable one. Mr. M. says many families have two buggies and two horses.
If the world were without cars and trucks, the buggies would be sturdy and reasonably safe. But mix them in with distracted drivers speeding 45, 55, even 65 mph and a seemingly distant buggy is suddenly at risk within seconds.
By state law buggies are required to drive along the right side of the road. By state law, they’re required to display (as are other slow-moving vehicles) that large orange triangle in the back center of the buggy. Unlike Ohio and Pennsylvania, New York law does not yet require buggies to use seat belts or any kind of lighting or signal system. But, except for the most conservative sects, lights and signal blinking systems are common and encouraged. Mr. M. installs bright LED systems clearly visible from quite a distance on the road. Most buggies have a pedal-activated drum braking system that slows the buggy while the driver reins in the horse.