Henry’s Garage

by Tom Henry | History

A family livery makes the leap from equines to engines

Throughout 2019, in celebration of
Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 2006, Tom Henry wrote about the history of his family’s landmark Port Henry business. He revisited the subject for the 2017 article “When I Come Home,” about a Henry’s Garage mechanic who went off to war in Vietnam, which also became a Mountain Lakes PBS documentary of the same name.

March 15, 1911. Winter was losing its grip in the eastern Adirondacks. At last it was time for the big move. Ray Henry and the gang shuttled horses from their old yellow liv­ery barns to temporary quarters at Port Henry’s Lee House stables. Wagons, sleighs, carriages, tack, tools, the hay in the mow—everything had to go, and that was the easy part. The hard part would be tearing down the barns, then getting a new building up before another winter’s assault. But for twen­ty-four-year-old Ray and his younger brothers, Earl and Harold, that was no chore; it was an adventure. Henry’s Liv­ery was going auto.

The world was changing fast in the wake of the internal combustion engine. When the brothers’ parents, Ella and Charles “C. W.” Henry, purchased their eleven-horse stable in 1903, cars were a novelty: the boys would dash into the street for a close look at a passing automobile. That was the year America was first crossed by a motorcar, coast to coast, in just sixty-five days. While cars were making the head­lines, horses were making the money. The sign out front read simply, Livery and Feed Stable.

Ella managed the books while C.W. thrived on hard labor, conducting the livery with uncommon flair. His grandson Edwin would write in his memoirs, “Gramp knew how to work with a rhythm that gave the outward appearance of not being under any strain. [He] loved to whistle while working and would go home at the end of the day exuding a tune.” The boys helped with chores, repairs and driving. Edwin, Earl’s son, wrote,”[Dad] told of his many experiences rescuing horses and salvaging sleighs from the frigid lake when rentals from the livery loaded with hay from Vermont broke through the marginal ice.” Earl’s daughter Rhoda wrote that her father told of being “on call night and day to carry passengers. He often missed all or most of the school day, and slept in class if he had been driving most of the night.”

Pitching in was one thing, but Ella was not going to sacrifice her sons’ chances for higher education by throwing them into full-time work too soon. C.W. didn’t give a hoot about high­er learning, often declaring, “The last thing this country needs is more educated fools.” He felt eight years of school was enough, then it was time to “hone your wits and earn your keep.” So Ella sent Ray safely away to high school in Akron, Ohio, where he boarded with her sister. Meanwhile, she set aside money so the younger boys might be able to go to college.

By 1906 Ray had his high-school diploma and was back honing his wits at the livery. Horses were his business, but his mind was on automobiles, which were already clawing their way to Port Henry up narrow, rugged roads from the lower Hudson Valley. Such trips would be jarring on a good day. During snow and mud seasons the spectacle of a motorcar being dragged from a mire by a team of horses would surprise no one. Iron-rich Port Henry, a major Adirondack industrial center, Champlain Canal port, rail yard and tourist gateway, stood to gain by better high­way connections to downstate. But that wasn’t going to hap­pen right away, thanks to notorious hurdles named South Bay, Graphite Hill, Chilson Hill and Tongue Mountain. The current Route 9N south of Port Henry had not yet been blasted through the base of Bulwagga Mountain. Behind the scenes, however, officials in state offices and town halls were busy developing plans to upgrade North Country highways and bridges. Cars were here to stay.

By 1908, when Ford Motor Company assembled the first Model Ts in Detroit, Henry’s had already added automobiles to its new lineup. “Father has gone with his auto north. … Harold stripped [a] gear yesterday,” Ella wrote in a 1908 postcard to Earl, whom she had enrolled at Rensselaer Poly­technic Institute (RPI), in Troy. When Ray became manag­er of the business, in 1909, the year President Taft visited Port Henry for the tercentenary of Samuel de Champlain’s arrival, the event’s guidebook described Henry’s as “the chief livery in this section, … [with] three automobiles.” And for those preferring horse-drawn conveyance: “The handsomest and most serviceable rigs are carried in single, double or three seaters, and the horses are always in condition to be sent out. Competent drivers and chauffeurs are furnished, as eight men are employed.” Thirty horses filled the stables in 1909, along with carriages, wagons and sleighs to transport passengers, freight, mail, even corpses. An apartment on the property housed drivers on twenty-four-hour call. Additionally, the family was operating the Lee House stable, which served boarders, politicians, business travelers and tourists.

The next year, Earl designed a modern automobile-sales-­and-service garage for his senior thesis as he worked toward an engineering degree at RPI. He showed his specs to the family that winter; they rallied at once to build it. At the first hint of spring, they moved the livery to the Lee House and razed the old barns. Ray organized a parade of horse-drawn freight wagons to haul a boxcar load of cement from the depot and 150 tons of tailings from the Witherbee Sherman and Company mines. C.W. set up a machine to make concrete blocks on site. Whistling everything from Sousa marches to Joplin rags, he mixed, pressed and stacked blocks by the thou­sands. Meanwhile, a crew dug foundation trenches and a cel­lar. They’d barely climbed out of the hole when C.W. hopped in to set up batter boards and pour footings. By early May, blocks and steel formed the first story. By August there was a second floor. Curious onlookers began showing up as a third level appeared above the rooftops; they’d heard rumors the building was to have a three-story automobile elevator.

The two generations of Henrys agreed the garage should be state-of-the-art, but they didn’t always agree on the fine points. C.W., who had an eighth-grade education, lived by his wits. He was a man, after all, who stuffed handfuls of spiderwebs up his nose to stop nosebleeds and drank orange water from the rusty tap in the barn in order to replenish his minerals; to him, life just wasn’t that complicated. On the other hand, Ray, Earl and Harold were more scholarly; they had their own opinions about how best to stop nosebleeds, and other things as well. C.W. delighted in razzing the boys whenever his common sense proved more practical than their trigonometry and physics—and it often did. Most issues took the form of friendly banter, except the time Earl caught his father mixing mortar for the rear wall at a ratio of five parts tailings to one part cement instead of three-to-one as Earl had specified. But thrifty C.W. had always used five-to-one and didn’t need some educated fool telling him how to mix concrete. Earl discovered the scam as the top of the four­-story rear wall, which was C.W.’s section, was being laid.

Winter was coming, there was no roof, and the horses were still jammed in at the Lee House. Earl’s hackles were up, but he kept the job moving by bolting a giant wooden grid of reinforcing beams on the back exterior. The front and side walls were laid by others using the specified mix. Progress resumed on friendly terms, but both men kept the row alive for years, though it grew increasingly tongue-in-cheek.

Earl and his father got along well in spite of, or perhaps because of, their bantering. C.W. was stubborn but adept at wrapping up an argument before it became bit­ter; after making his case he’d wink and walk away whistling. He was a fast builder, strong in reading and arithmetic, but he was old-school. New-school Earl worried about what his father did when he wasn’t watching, such as his galling prac­tice of driving screws with a hammer. C.W. insisted, “The heads are just slotted in case you want to take the screw out.”

But old-school and new-school worked well together. By mid-November the garage was complete. It stood three sto­ries high in the front and four in the back. They’d even installed the acclaimed elevator, which allowed vehicles to be hoisted to the upper levels. An interior horse ramp con­nected carriage bays on the first floor with stables in the cel­lar. Ray routed the last of the horses back from the Lee House as they returned from hauling a coffin on November 11. New and used cars and trucks, repair bays and parts occupied the garage’s upper floors. Tydol gasoline pumps stood out front. The town had its first full-service auto-and-horse livery, crowned by a new sign reading Henry’s Livery and Garage.

By 1916 the automobile business was so brisk the boys had earned enough money to buy out their parents. But, like livery operators across the nation, they were facing an epochal dilemma: horses were becoming a drag. In fact, in 1917 the world’s first jazz record, Livery Stable Blues, a foxtrot on a Victor disc by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, bemoaned the quandary. As Port Henry’s prewar mining economy surged to record levels, the brothers’ former horse customers were stepping up to buy automobiles by Ford, Chevrolet and Buick-even new Bessemer trucks. The garage was packed with cars and stalls full of ravenous hay-burners, which the brothers abruptly sold along with the buggies to free up two floors. They even added a fourth floor to the front of the garage and extended the elevator. A new sign in the mason­ry cornice read Henry’s Garage.

Operations at the garage fell into efficient routines, which helped the family endure management changes. Ella died of a heart attack in 1918, and Ray succumbed to the influenza epidemic in 1919. Earl remained a director but soon became chief engineer for Witherbee Sherman, where he supervised construction of the enormous five-hundred-ton-per-day blast-furnace complex at Port Henry’s Cedar Point. He also designed and built Kingdom Dam to create Lincoln Pond reservoir, ran a Jersey farm, and began the retail building sup­ply firm of E. C. Henry, Inc. He had little time to devote to the garage. By then the youngest brother, Harold (better known as “Dip”), was running the show. Despite his nick­name, Dip had graduated from RPI in 1914 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He was briefly engaged in the design and construction of levees along the Mississippi River as part of the United States Engineering Corps but soon moved back to take an engineering position with Witherbee Sherman. In 1916 he resigned to help manage the garage.

C.W. would come and go, helping Dip at the garage and Earl at the farm or lumberyard. The loss of his wife and eldest son was difficult. He laid low for a couple of years, until the swanky 1922 models arrived. He bought a powerful new Dodge and was soon up to his old tricks. His friend “Franey” purchased an identical auto, and the two argued about which was the better car. After about a year they inexplicably swapped. Mischievous C.W. installed a set of huge torpedo-shaped headlamps on Franey’s front fenders, but to his surprise they made the car look distin­guished; overnight it was hailed around town as “The Bullet.” So C.W. refused to give it back, and the swap became permanent. (The Bullet later fell into the hands of a rum runner who used it to bootleg whiskey from Canada to Port Henry.)

In 1923 C.W. gathered his jacks and rollers and created an outdoor display lot in front of the garage by moving the apartment building to its present site at 56 College Street. By 1924, Dodge cars and trucks had become the brand of choice at Henry’s. New Dodges were shipped by freighter from Detroit to Buffalo. Henry’s had to send someone to pick up each new vehicle. It was a coveted assignment. Drivers were given a train ticket to Albany in coach, then a sleeper car to Buffalo. They enjoyed leisurely meals; the porter even polished their shoes. The drive home could be tedious, though, requiring twelve hours or more since new vehicles had gover­nors limiting them to thirty-five miles per hour until the engine was broken in. That was just as well: Port Henry’s roads still had some slow horse traffic.

Getting the village’s roads properly bridged, straightened, widened, frost­-based, crowned, ditched, graded and paved to handle automobile traffic was brutal work, so naturally C.W. ran for road chief. The Elizabethtown Post reported on May 10, 1923, “street com­missioner C. W. Henry is still a-hus­tling, as he is wont. Charley’s middle name seems to be work.”

Meanwhile, Dip kept the business afloat, even through the locally de­pressed twenties and nationally depressed thirties. He was working in his office right up to the last moments of his life, when he suffered a heart attack, was carried home and died. His passing in 1939 at age forty-five was a shock to the community. He was a respected member of the school board and thir­teen other community organizations. The remaining members voted to name the new athletic field at the high school “Henry Field” in his honor. Earl de­signed the massive retaining wall, which still supports the south and east sides of the field, on the west side of College Street. Ironically, many junked cars that Dip had sold new were used for fill dur­ing construction of the field.

Henry’s Garage passed to a third gen­eration. Dip’s son Clifford had received a degree in business administration from RPI the year before his father’s death and was already active in the business. His wife, Marion, pitched in and they operated the garage without assistance from their elders. Most of the old-timers were gone by then anyway, but not ol’ C.W.; he’d been kicking and whistling since Abraham Lincoln was president and still had a bit of spark. He’d seen the fall of slavery and the rise of women’s suffrage, the advent of telephones and electric lights, the transcontinental rail­road, Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Lib­erty, airplanes and even jazz radio.

Whether his middle name was “Work” or “Whistle,” the two went hand in hand for C.W., who lived long enough to try out the 1940 Dodges. Earl lived to try out some ’46s. In the end, Cliff and Marion ran the business longer than anyone else, closing it in 1970 as the local mining industry col­lapsed. Since 1971 Henry’s Garage has been the home of the Port Henry Fire Department. Today a century of set­tling and cracks in the side walls caused by the April 2002 Ausable earthquake threaten the building. Yet the rear wall seems intact and strong; Earl would say it was thanks to his beams. C.W. would declare it was because of his mortar, then the old man would wink and shuffle off a’whistlin’.

Tom Henry is a great-grandson of C. W, grandson of Earl and son of Edwin. He lives in Charlotte, Vermont.

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