By Rebecca Kilby, Greenville County Library System
At Greenville Coach Factory, Ebenezer Gower and Thomas M. Cox laid the foundation for the Upstate’s manufacturing success
Greenville may have been the textile center of the South in the mid-20th century, but her manufacturing roots stretch back several decades before the Civil War. In 1835, Ebenezer Gower, a native of Maine, and Thomas M. Cox established a carriage and wagon manufacturing business on the north bank of the Reedy River just above the falls. Successful almost from the start, the partners were advertising in The Greenville Mountaineer for an additional “steady and sober” blacksmith within a year.
Over the next few decades, business boomed, the workforce doubled and the Greenville Coach Factory grew to a multi-acre complex of shops and workhouses. Using the river to power machinery, they manufactured and repaired carriages, coaches, wagons, carts, buggies and more. Customers included not only the local farmers and planters, but wealthy gentlemen in Columbia and Charleston and even South Carolina Gov. Robert Allston. Allston’s “handsome military carriage” was described in the local paper as “surpass[ing] anything of the kind we have ever seen.”
Antebellum Greenville’s economy benefited from having such a successful business in town. Reporting in the local paper Southern Enterprise in 1857: “In order to comprehend the advantages which result to our town and its vicinity from the manufactory of Messrs. Gower, Cox & Markley, one has only to visit it, and there he can see for himself the vast number of workmen employed, the immense amount of work they perform, and the handsome manner in which the finest work is executed.” The company also expanded into the hardware business selling wholesaled tools, saws, screws and other items used in the manufacture of wagons and carriages to the public.
By the 1850s, it was recognized as the largest carriage factory south of the Potomac, according to DeBow’s Review, a contemporary publication. At the eve of the Civil War, annual production was worth $80,000 and Greenville Coach Factory products were sold as far away as Virginia, Kentucky and Texas. William Gregg, a Southern industrialization advocate, praised the factory in 1860 saying that “no finer or better carriages, buggies, and wagons can be purchased anywhere than in Greenville, S.C.”
April 1861 saw the first shots of the Civil War fired at Fort Sumter, and local men were mustered into Confederate service. Thomas C. Gower, then a partner in the business, left the management of the coach factory in the hands of his wife and eldest daughter. The factory converted to wartime production, and furnished the Confederate army with ammunition caissons and ambulance wagons. By the end of the war, the Confederate government owed the coach factory approximately $140,000, half of which was unfortunately paid in useless Confederate dollars.
Gower, unable to recover from such a financial loss, eventually sold his share in the business to his then partner, Henry C. Markley in 1883. Markley further expanded the business until the turn of the 20th century. Recognizing automobiles as the wave of the future, Markley instructed his superintendent, J.E. Sirrine, to sell off the carriage business and factory buildings in 1914. Although the horse-drawn business died off, Markley continued the hardware business, which later became part of the Sullivan-Markley Hardware Company.
Just three buildings of the Greenville Coach Factory survive today. You can dine in the blacksmith shop at Larkin’s on the River, celebrate in the paint shop repurposed as Wyche Pavilion, or browse real estate at Roy M. Gullick Co. in the former hardware store at 426 S. Main St.