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Velie Carriage Company

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

It's too bad the Velie Carriage Company of Moline never put one of their fancy carriages up against the Deacon's one-hoss shay so that we would know for sure which was best: artisan or assembly line.

You remember the Deacon's carriage. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a poem about. The shay was a masterpiece, so well-built that it lasted a hundred years, and so evenly crafted in all its parts, that everything wore out all at once.

The Deacon's carriage was typical. Carriage making was still a matter of individual handcrafting by woodworkers, iron workers, wheelwrights, upholsterers, and harness makers long after the industrial revolution had taken over most other manufacturing. As a result, they were well-built, but far too expensive for anyone but the wealthy few.

Then, along came Willard Velie, a grandson of John Deere. In 1901, he resigned from Deere to form the Velie Carriage Company, where he planned to build mass-produced carriages of good quality but far less expensive than the Deacon's shay.

Velie's first plant was huge, four stories high, four hundred feet long by eighty wide, full of the most modern machinery. Here, an assembly line turned out 40 carriages a day. Woodworking machinery replaced handcrafting, malleable iron castings replaced expensive forge work. Many other parts such as lamps, springs, tops, axles, and shafts were imported from specialty companies. "We sell only one grade of carriage," said the ads, "the Best."

Mass production soon brought the cost of carriages within everyone's reach. If they did break down, replaceable parts were cheap and available. By 1913, Velie carriages were selling at a rate of almost 30,000 a year.

Alas, I am sorry to report that the Velie Carriages were not destined to last a hundred years, as the Deacon's handmade shay did. They fell short by 81 years. In 1918 Velie Carriage completed a military contract for machine gun carts for use in World War I, and closed its doors the following year, a victim not of shoddy workmanship, but of an even better idea—the automobile.

Rock Island Lines is supported by grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, the Illinois Arts Council—a state agency—and by Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.