It took some time for buses to catch on in Cincinnati, as track-bound streetcars ruled the roads into the 1920s. But many of Cincinnati’s earliest buses were manufactured by the Greenfield Bus Body Company, the direct descendant of the C.R. Patterson & Sons Company, which had been founded by a man who escaped slavery.
Charles Richard (C.R.) Patterson was born in 1833 into slavery in Virginia. He escaped and made his way north, settling in Highland County, Ohio, located along one of the major thoroughfares of the Underground Railroad. His skills as a blacksmith landed employment at a local carriage company. He launched his own carriage works in 1865 through a partnership with a white investor, James P. Lowe, and the company did a lot of business in Cincinnati.
When Lowe died, Patterson bought out his shares and incorporated the C.R. Patterson & Sons Company in 1893. Despite the name of the company, only son Samuel Patterson originally worked with his father. The other son, Frederick Douglas (Fred) Patterson, successfully sued the Greenfield Union School District to gain admission to its high school and became the first African-American athlete at Ohio State University, where he majored in classical studies. Fred took a job teaching in Louisville and only returned to Ohio to assist his aging father when brother Samuel fell ill.
Fred Patterson almost immediately took charge and began plotting a new course for the company. He advertised Patterson products nationally as the “Largest Negro carriage concern in the United States,” but began experimenting with horseless carriages.
By 1916, Patterson rolled out the first Patterson-Greenfield automobile. The 30-horsepower vehicle came in two models, a roadster and a touring car, and boasted a competitive price of $850. Fred Patterson’s factory is recognized as the first—and only—automobile manufacturer wholly owned by an African American.
Production was limited because each vehicle was individually manufactured from scratch. The dozen or so mechanics employed by the company worked on all parts of the car, from suspension to engine to roof. There was no production line. In addition, the workforce in Greenfield was largely drawn from the surrounding farms. Consequently, production was seasonal, with the mechanics building vehicles during the fall and winter but returning to agricultural duties in spring and summer. Still, the cars were known to be sturdy and reliable.
Fred’s son, Postell Patterson, recalled in an interview for The Dayton Daily News [March 21, 1976]:
“There wasn’t anything like planned obsolescence back then. You didn’t dare even to throw anything away, let alone plan for it to break down.”
Postell recalled the cars selling quickly because of the solid, four-cylinder Continental engine and a full-floating rear axle that smoothly handled the ubiquitous bumps on Ohio’s mostly unpaved roads.
The inability to ramp up production through an assembly line, though, proved to be the undoing of the Greenfield-Patterson automobile. Over the course of three years, it’s estimated that Fred Patterson manufactured around 30 vehicles. He was unable to procure the capital needed to build a production-line facility, and competition with Detroit automakers swamped his boutique product. Sadly, no Patterson-Greenfield auto is known to survive.
Switching gears yet again, Fred reorganized the company as the Greenfield Bus Body Company, which brought him into the Cincinnati market in a big way. His successful design for school buses was widely adopted by districts throughout Southern Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Infant transit companies seeking a sturdy vehicle to compete with the streetcars saw the “Patterson-Built” school buses as an ideal option.
Fred Patterson found his moneymaker. The Greenfield Bus Body Company shipped its transit buses as far away as Haiti, and as near as Cincinnati. Postell Patterson claimed, “Patterson-built buses were the first to ever carry passengers through the streets of Cincinnati.”
In addition to buses, Fred Patterson’s company made truck bodies for dairies, furniture manufacturers, moving companies, butchers, bakeries, icemen, and other specialized uses. An advertisement in Bus Transportation [October 1922] asserted:
“The Greenfield Line of bus bodies has always been known as the most popular and desired motor bus bodies on the market. Motor truck manufacturers have standardized with the Greenfield product. Truck dealers and bus line operators have found by experience that Greenfield Bus Bodies are best.”
Fred Patterson died in 1932, and the company survived him for only a few more years. Although maintaining high standards of quality, the Great Depression quashed the firm’s efforts to attract investment for expansion and new equipment, and the company folded in 1939.
A historical marker in Greenfield, Ohio, notes the location of “the first known African-American automobile manufacturer” and also recognizes Fred Patterson’s successes in education, politics, and the advancement of African American businesses through his work with Booker T. Washington.