March 1994

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The Horse Collar King


Donovan A. Shilling

This is one of those tales that winds up far differently than we'd anticipate. But then, life is like that. We start in one direction and often discover our interests have led us down an entirely different path into new worlds and new adventures. That was the way it was with John C. Lighthouse.

Born in Rochester in 1844, John C. Lighthouse was one of ten children and the eldest son in his family. Known simply as "J. C." to everyone, he loved hunting, fishing, fine music and fine leather. As a lad he helped his dad in the boatbuilding yard at the Ohio Basin on the Erie Canal. For over 35 years J. C.'s father managed the boat firm which used lumber floated down the Genesee in rafts, then milled to be fashioned into packet boats, river barges and canal freight boats.

At age 16, just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, John was convinced that his future was not on the Erie but was to be related to the vast assortment of industries and services that catered to our major means of transportation—the horse. At the war's end in 1865 the young Lighthouse started his own leather manufacturing firm on State Street. In conjunction with this he also had a tanning operation on Mansion Street (Exchange Street near Flint). His ad reported that he was a tanner and finisher of "fine wax, kip, collar, bag and split leather." "Kip" is the undressed hide of a young animal such as a calf. "Collar" refers to the leather used in the construction of horse collars while "bag" obviously is leather used to create luggage, wallets and pouches. Eventually J. C.'s tannery would grow to 160 to 200 employees.

In the early 1880's J. C. patented his celebrated "Eclipse" halter for horses which he claimed was far superior to the "old five-ring halter" and sold for half the price. He stated that his new halter could not be slipped by any horse and that by "snapping a bit in the loops" it could instantly be turned into a bridle. To most of us this means little, but in a world dependent on horses it was a wonderful, time-saving breakthrough. Today it would be comparable in handiness to the invention of pre-sliced bread or the twist-off cap.

Mr. Lighthouse's second product, the "Maud S." halter, (patented in 1882) was equally as popular. John had capitalized on the name of the chestnut mare, Maud S., who established a world mile record for trotters at Rochester's Driving Park, famous before the turn-of-fhe-century for its fast harness racing track. Together, the two halters became best sellers and one of the most durable products of the age.

His second enterprise, closely related to the tannery, was his horse collar "manufactory." Located at 202-205 State Street the firm is said to have become the world's largest manufacturer of horse collars in their many styles and descriptions. He produced the "American Standard" horse collar and others made of hay, patent leather, Scotch, Irish, mule, wool, short straw, canvas and flag. He soon became known as the "king" of the horse collar industry.

Little did the European monk, who invented the first horse collar, know that his contribution would revolutionize farming, make old Dobbin a happier animal and, centuries later, lead to a handsome fortune for a Rochester native.

Now, while we thought that it was horse collars and halters that brought Mr. Lighthouse fame and fortune, we found that it was quite a different product that made the Lighthouse name famous. It was John C. Lighthouse that invented just what the United States Mail Service needed most—the U. S. Mail pouch.

J.C. was awarded a contract for $400,000 by the United States Post Office Department in 1879 for his leather bag, a type of pouch still in use by mail personnel today. (We speculate that it was the lowly horse feed bag that gave J. C. the idea for his celebrated mail pouch.)

He had the exclusive right to supply mail pouches all across America for four years. Later, in 1882, he received another contract, this one to supply mail bags for all rural Star Routes for the next three years. His brother, Charles F. Lighthouse, would continue the firm as J. C.'s interests allowed him to drift off to other pursuits. The firm, now located on Court Street near Washington Square, received one final large government contract. This one, in 1893, for canvas mail bags. To fill this order twenty-five skilled hands sewed together over 1000 bags each week.

What was it that caused John to shift his interest away from the lucrative business his company was doing? And on what did he spend his business profits? On GOLD—J. C. used his personal wealth to amass perhaps, one of the nation's finest coin collections ever gathered during the Victorian Era. He purchased many of the gold pieces from George Bauer, one of Rochester's pioneer coin dealers and an historic personality in his own right. Mr. Bauer remembers that the J. C. Lighthouse hoard of gold coins were kept in a small nail keg, with each coin protected with a careful wrap of tissue paper.

This fabulous numismatic treasure was brought to the public's attention in 1885 in a most unusual manner. Unfortunately, much of this wonderful collection was burglarized by the Gaffield's, a husband and wife team, who made off with some of the collection's most prized pieces. They stole three 1792 half-dismes (dimes) made of melted silverware belonging to Martha Washington. They also pilfered several rare quarters each listing for more than $500 in 1885 dollars. These they spent at cash value to enter a stage show at the Cook Opera House. The trial, held at the Monroe County Court House, established that the collection's value exceeded $60,000, not including gold medals and rare papal coins. It took many months to recover most of the rare coins. A substantial portion of the Rochester Savings Bank's vault was then used by Mr. Lighthouse to shelter his irreplaceable collection. It was newspaper accounts of the trial that brought national attention to J. C.'s special hobby interest.

To better understand the nature and value of the Lighthouse coin collection we use J. C.'s own words:

I began collecting in 1860, and my collection today weighs four hundred pounds. My U. S. series from 1793 to 1800 is as fine as I could purchase; from 1801 to 1857 all pieces are uncirculated; and from 1858 to now, all are in proof (first mint strikes) and in duplicate. In the U. S. gold series I lack some of the great rarities, but had I obtained these, the rest of my collection would be more limited and many younger numismatists would someday not have two or three of the same pices to study. With every coin I have prepared a history card, so that someday interest to study a series further might be realized.

With his intense interest in the field, John C. Lighthouse was soon recognized by the numismatic community. In 1903 he became member #479 of the venerable American Numismatic Association. In 1904 he was elected to the Board of Trustees for that organization. Following this he would decide to go West to pursue a new interest in Calfornia gold coins and tokens. In 1905 J. C. settled in San Francisco.

There a new chapter in his life was written. A famous coin collector of national stature, Farran Zerbe, hearing that J. C. was now a resident of the "city by the bay," requested that he be permitted to inspect the Lighthouse Collection. We may remember that it was early on the morning of April 18th, 1905, that San Francisco was devastated by its great earthquake and resulting fire. From a letter he received from John Lighthouse following the disaster, Zerbe stated:

Mr. Lighthouse escaped the fire but writes that his home was severely damaged by the quake: "Women folks scared to death, chinaware and bric-a-brac all broken." Mr. Lighthouse's letter, just received, gives me the first information I have had in regard to my insistence on seeing his collection, proving the factor by which it was preserved. Had it been returned to the safes (Safe Deposit Co.) from which he removed it to show me, "melted" bullion would have told the story of its fate.

Thus fate, through the intervention of Farran Zerbe, prevented the destruction of many of our country's finest coins, while the Safe Deposit Company and all its monetary contents were devastated and turned to a melted ruin.

We're not sure if the fire may have also destroyed Mr. Lighthouse's complete collection of fractional notes and "greenback" currency.

On September 9, 1909, John C. Lighthouse passed away. He had lived and died in a land served by the gentle horse. His leather manufacturing works went up in flames in 1887, an uninsured loss of $135,000. Fortunately, he never had to see how swiftly his, and most other equine-related industries, would also pass away.

As the "Horse Collar King" he was able to make a fortune, avidly pursue his hobby for 49 years and earn fame in his own time. The 1936 auction of part of his collection by J. C. Morgenthau & Company in New York City saw the sale of over 660 choice proof finished United States coins. Few collectors today can boast of such a fine collection.

Another anecdote concerns an additional invention created by J. C.'s fertile mind. Tired of the constant jouncing ride produced by most wagon's metal rimmed wheels, he decided to solve the problem.

Thus, he developed a steel-banded, spoked wheel. Wider than the common wagon wheel the Lighthouse wheel looked very much like an automobile tire. It was arranged with metal strips which gave it a springy quality and allowed road debris to pass through its mesh with a sieve-like effect. Unfortunately he never patented his novel tranportation improvement which was well ahead of its time. Unbelieveably, almost a century later, the lunar vehicle would roll on wheels very similar in construction to that of the Lighthouse wagon wheel.

A final item also needs mentioning. Charles J. Ricard, J. C. Lighthouse's great-grandson is a University of Rochester graduate. Pursuing his forebear's interest in coins, Charles became president of the Rochester Numismatic Association and has been a keen coin collector for over half century. He is a fellow of the Royal Numismatic Society and also served as the president of the Chicago Coin Club and resides in that city today.

© 1994, Donovan A. Shilling
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