By Lynn Ascrizzi
This summer, Hillside Harness Hardware, Ltd., owned and operated by John Raber of Millersburg, Ohio, will be hosting the 48th Annual Harness Makers’ Get-Together and Consignment Auction, to be held Thursday, July 20th through Friday, July 21st.
“This is a responsibility,” Raber said of the bustling public event. He expects to attract at least 500 folks to his family’s homestead and workshop. This sort of get-together, planned in advance by various Amish communities, draws people from near and far and takes a community effort to organize, he noted. In fact, his neighbors have made their fields available to provide parking space for the jumble of cars and horse-drawn buggies that predictably come to these popular gatherings.
Each year, the auction and get-together is held in a different state, typically at the residence of a harness maker or a distributor in the harness business. Last year, this event was located in Pennsylvania; next year, it’s slated for Indiana.
”Ohio is usually one of the big ones. We’ll have locals and a lot of people from out of state,” he said. For the two-day event, two big tents will be set up in a field near his combined workshop, warehouse and shipping building, located next to the family home.
The auction will start Thursday at 8:30 a.m. and close around 4 p.m. Plenty of harness-making tools, harness and saddle hardware, leather equipment and other leather-related items will be put up for bid. “It looks like a good auction; we’re getting a fair amount of consignments,” he said. Local and out-of-state vendors will be set up on both days.
And, no one will go hungry during this combined auction, trade show and social event. At 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Hillside is sponsoring a free supper. On the menu — veal and chicken, French fries and ice cream — dished up by a local caterer. Local people involved with the Amish private school in Millersburg will be serving meals at the event.
On Friday, lunch (for a fee) will be served at noon at Hillside. The day’s events begin at 8:30 a.m. and end at 3 p.m. The get-together will include a small trade show, business recognition awards and a benefit auction.
Roughly, 40,000 Amish people reside in Ohio. “The Holmes County community is spread out — about 30 to 40 miles,” Raber said of the rolling, scenic countryside that surrounds the village of Millersburg (population 3,025). This area has a high concentration of Amish farms; in fact, about half the county’s residents are Amish.
STAINLESS STEEL HARDWARE AND LEATHER HALTERS
Hillside Harness Hardware is a well-established, wholesale distributor of hardware and supplies for the harness, tack, saddlery and pet industries. The family enterprise was founded in 1988 by Raber’s dad, Andrew “Andy” Raber, and is currently celebrating its 29th year. John Raber, 36, took over the small company in 2012. “I started working with my dad at about age 12. I’ve never done anything else,” he said. Since then, the small company has enjoyed steady growth.
The business operates out of a small workshop that uses no electricity, and in winter is heated by natural gas. Leather halters and other tack are manufactured on site. The company’s main specialty, however, is their diverse selection of stainless steel hardware, most of which is used for horse harness and other tack. “We also sell a lot of nickel and brass-plated hardware and solid brass hardware,” he said.
Today, Hillside has 11 employees, up from six workers in 2012. “Our leather manufacturing has grown a lot. We mostly manufacturer leather halters and Western riding tack. We make those ourselves. We don’t make a lot of harnesses,” he noted. His home business ships to large and small harness shops in 46 states, from Maine to California, and Canada.
The business does not have a website, nor does it sell products online. Instead, sales are made through word of mouth, a phone line (open Monday – Friday, 8:30-10:30a.m.), a fax line, U.S. mail, email, advertising and their annual 160-page, full-color Hillside Harness Hardware Supply & Tack Catalog, which features both hardware and leather products.
“We keep adding new items, such as new hardware, new stable blankets and different halters,” he said. A boggling array including hundreds of hardware items is carried by the catalog. For instance, more than 50 kinds of bits are offered: butterfly, snaffle, military elbow, straight mouth, straight bar stallion, German hackamore, mule, apple-flavored, adjustable and Haflinger driving bits, to name more than a few. We might have more bits than some,” Raber said, in his soft-spoken, easy-going way.
“We ship a lot to England,” he added, of the specialty products that make up a steady segment of the business. “We sell them the fine and the Gypsy harness,” he noted, referring to the Gypsy Vanner, a solidly built, cob-type draft horse from the British Isles, traditionally used to pull Gypsy wagons. “Some of the biggest harness makers in England buy a lot of hardware from us,” he said of companies like J.C. Huskisson & Son Harness Co., saddlers and harness makers in Walsall, West Midlands.
Overall, their most popular items are leather halters. “We also make leather headstalls, reins and Arabian training equipment. We work more with leather, but we do some Biothane®. We sell a lot of hardware and Biothane®. About 95 percent of our hardware is imported from China.”
Hillside stands behind its products. “We try to keep everybody satisfied. We will refund or replace products. . . . Business has been good. We’ve been very busy. We probably ship a couple of hundred orders per week. Sales have gone up and continue to go up,” he said. He attributes that growth to “advertising and fairly competitive pricing.”
Family is at the heart of the business. “My dad and two of my brothers, Ivan and Jonas, are working for me,” he said. He and his wife, Mary Raber, also have a 1½-year-old son named Robert.
His other brother, Aaron Raber, runs Custom Cast, a business that makes industrial parts for plating machines, hitch wagons, show carriages and ornamental items. Also manufactured are castings for old, four-stroke, internal combustion engines and for older car parts. “He also makes a lot of aluminum parts,” John Raber said.
About 75 percent of Hillside’s customers are drawn from the Amish community. “The Amish buy things from each other. It’s a small economy, in itself. We also sell a lot to tack shops. We’re not a huge company. But we’re still big enough. We still don’t carry everything that bigger companies do, but if we don’t have it, we can get it,” he said.
WHAT: 48th Annual Harness Makers’ Get-Together & Consignment Auction
WHERE: Hillside Harness Hardware, 4205 Township Road, Millersburg, OH 44654
WHEN: July 20, 8:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. Auction, free supper, vendors.
July 21, 8:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. Trade show, lunch, business recognition awards, benefit auction.
Hillside Harness Hardware, Ltd.
4205 Township Road 629
Millersburg, OH 44654
4205 Township Road
Millersburg, OH 44654