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October 22, 2017

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Time and tradition can burnish the facts

Stefani Evans

Stefani Evans

Sometimes researchers in different places have different ancestors who share a claim to fame. Can we determine which, if either, claim is valid?

My grandmother grew up in the shadow of the Studebaker Motor Company in South Bend, Ind. Family legend recounts how her grandfather, blacksmith Nicholas Willard Housekeeper (1845-1917), invented the fifth wheel for wagons in Bristol, Bucks County, Pa.. The family claims that Studebaker lured Housekeeper to South Bend with promises of lifetime employment in exchange for his patent.

My grandmother's cousin kept a Jan. 17, 1982, undated photo from the South Bend Tribune that depicts 19th-century Studebaker workers crafting fifth wheels and front axles. On the copy she sent me, she wrote, "Nicholas presented to Studebaker his invention of the 5th wheel for wagons. They used his idea and gave him a life time job. He worked for Studebaker until about 1888 then went to work for Oliver Plow Works."

Housekeeper migrated to Indiana in about 1879. The Bucks County Gazette (Bristol, Pa.), Apr. 7, 1911, reprinted an item originally published in 1879 that stated, "Nicholas Housekeeper started for South Bend, Ind., to take a position in a carriage factory." Nicholas likely had a job in South Bend before he left. South Bend directories show that Housekeeper worked as a blacksmith at Studebaker from 1879 through 1887 and at South Bend Chilled Plow Works from 1891 through 1916. Perhaps, as my grandmother's cousin suggested, Housekeeper also worked at Oliver Chilled Plow Works from 1888 to 1890; city directories for those years are not extant.

Neither the annual Patent Office Gazette, digitized by Google ( nor the Studebaker National Museum Archives ( have record of Nicholas Housekeeper, although the U.S. Patent Office records several fifth-wheel patents filed during the 1870s.

A researcher in Atlantic Canada also has an ancestor who allegedly invented the fifth wheel for wagons. His mother noted in a family Bible that her great-grandfather, Ogden Thornton, "invented the fifth wheel at Newtown [Bucks Co.], Pa." Ogden Thornton's 1903 obituary stated he was "the pioneer at that trade in this part of the country and probably in the East, beginning the manufacture in 1860 and selling his product to all the leading carriage makers of his day." Ogden's son, Edmund Thornton, became president and general manager of the Millersburg Fifth Wheel Manufacturing Company (Dauphin Co., Pa.) and occupied those positions when he died in 1915.

The researcher's mother was born after Ogden Thornton's death; she was seven years old and residing in another state when her grandfather, Edmund Thornton, died. The researcher estimates his mother was about 60 years old when she made the Bible entry. She may have "mis-remembered" what she heard about her grandfather and great-grandfather. Likewise, my grandmother's cousin probably also "mis-remembered" the story she heard of Nicholas Willard Housekeeper. The Thornton and Housekeeper families independently show how time and tradition often burnish an ancestor's accomplishments.

According to the 1870 U.S. census blacksmiths Nicholas Housekeeper and Ogden Thornton lived near each other. Nicholas Housekeeper named his second son (born in 1878) Edmund Thornton Housekeeper. Ogden Thornton and his employees were likely skilled manufacturers of fifth wheels in the carriage- and wagon-making industry. Ogden or Edmund Thornton probably guided shop blacksmiths, including Nicholas Housekeeper, to develop, improve, and adapt fifth wheels. But despite claims in both families, neither the Thornton researcher nor I believe Thornton or Housekeeper invented a fifth wheel.

With gratitude to the Thornton researcher and to John Palmer, former local history librarian, St. Joseph Public Library, South Bend, for sharing their research.

Stefani Evans is a Board-certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News 2275 Corporate Circle, Suite 300, Henderson, NV 89074, or [email protected].

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