Noah Miller and son, Vernon Miller, team up to bring the family business into the next generation
By Lynn Ascrizzi
The harness workshop run for three decades by Noah Miller in Millersburg, Ohio, along with help from his growing family and a lot of local community good will, is a testimony to how much can be accomplished by consistent effort, a cooperative spirit and keeping things simple.
“We started from scratch, in June 1989,” Miller mused, as he reflected on the lengthening past and pondered when the right time would be found to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the family business, N&A Harness Shop, whose initials are derived from his first name and that of his wife, Ada.
The large, workshop-warehouse is neatly situated amid open fields off Route 419 in rural Holmes County, home to the second-largest concentration of Amish communities in the country.
“We’ve got a lot going on this spring,” Miller said, in early April, referring to extra activities adding to the family’s busy work routines. “In January, we moved into a new home that has been built beside the old one. My oldest son, Ben, 39, was the main builder.”
What’s more, coming up soon that month was the marriage of his youngest son, Vernon, and local resident, Joann Hershberger, who would be moving into the Miller’s former home. So, for the time being, anticipated anniversary celebrations were being put on hold.
Last year, Vernon, 31, had stepped in as part owner of the family harness trade. “He never held another job; we’ve always worked together,” Noah Miller said, of the father-son partnership. “I’m handing some responsibilities to the next generation. I’m 61. I want to be connected and to be prepared to step back.”
Vernon’s role in the business is mainly in production management — seeing that orders get processed in a timely manner and that supplies are ordered when needed. He also makes custom harness.
Thirty years ago, the idea for starting a harness-making business arose out of necessity. “We were farming, and the farming didn’t work out for us. We, as a family, were looking for other income. We decided to try the harness work — a suggestion from my brother. We thought we’d give it a try. It’s been a good thing for us,” Miller said.
As with many start-ups, “it was largely trial by error and took a lot of effort,” he recalled. “I had never built a leather harness. We started out with BioThane® and are still with BioThane®. We work only with synthetics. Our product lines are harness parts, BioThane® material and complete synthetic harness.”
Early on, he began to wonder why certain parts in synthetic harnesses were still being made of leather. “Early on in the business, we came to the conclusion that we could make totally synthetic harness,” he said. Today, the small business manufactures all the synthetic parts for their harnesses.
Miller credits his neighbor, Vernon L. Miller of Millersburg (not a relative), for designing the synthetic parts now used in the shop’s all-synthetic harness. “He and his sons, David, Delbert, Marion and Mark, are still involved in manufacturing these synthetic parts for us,” he said. “We purchase from him; we do not subcontract.”
Neighboring businesses located within a 30-mile radius are an important part of the harness shop’s close-knit, cooperative network. “One person makes our harness shop’s shaft loops in their home,” he said. And, the final detail work on their fine show harness is contracted out with the Miller’s third son, Wayne, 32, who lives about 30 miles from the family workshop.
“We make a lot of complete harness but also do a lot of parts, like blinders, winker stays, gig saddles and cruppers, which are wholesaled to other shops, so they can make their own harness. We also have a few outside shops that make some parts for us. We supply them with the materials. Everything Biothane® is purchased from Fairview Country Sales in Millersburg,” he said, of the local, one-stop shop for equine supplies and services.
Harness hardware is sourced from Hillside Harness Hardware of Millersburg, Ohio, Weaver Leather of Mount Hope, Ohio, Chupp Brothers in Shipshewana, Indiana, and Bieler’s Manufacturing & Supply of Ronks, Pennsylvania.
A TEAM EFFORT
A lot has changed since the Millers began their business venture in a 16-by-30-foot workspace. Today, N&A Harness Shop is housed in an 11,000-square-foot workshop and warehouselocated across the road from the Miller residences. The much-needed warehouse, built 2 ½ years ago, is attached to the workshop structure.
Also, a 1,600-square-foot retail store is attached to the building on the other side of the warehouse. The shop is open Monday through Saturday. Folks looking for standard harness can walk right in to pick up an item or make an order. The store also carries equine products, like minerals, wormers and grooming supplies.
Even as the harness enterprise grew by leaps and bounds, so did the Miller family, which today includes seven daughters and four sons. “Over the years, they all have pretty much helped in the harness shop,” Miller said.
Currently, the Miller’s youngest daughter, Laurie Miller, 23, who is also the youngest in the family, works in shipping and billing, along with her assistant, Rhoda Troyer.
Laurie’s workday begins at 6 a.m. and ends at 3:30 p.m.
“That gives me a lot of time in the evenings,” she said. “I answer the phones. We usually ship between 20-30 packages per day, on average — more or less. I handwrite the invoices. We put the invoice on the box, and the customer sends the check, once they get the package. To a few companies, we ship C.O.D.”
Most packages are shipped throughout the states, via UPS, she added, and some go to Canada. Products destined for about a half-dozen countries are sent via priority mail. “We ship harness parts and urethane cruppers quite frequently to France, through another company. And, we ship to a customer in Germany. One customer in Australia orders complete harnesses,” she said.
“The bulk of our sales are domestic,” her father added. “But our international sales are very valuable to us. The wholesale end is our bread and butter — harness parts, materials and complete harness. Being diversified has been very helpful.”
Altogether, the business has eight local employees, including Duane Yoder, Ervin Hershberger, Arlen Troyer and Lena Yoder, who help assemble harness, manufacture parts and take orders. Also in manufacturing are the Miller’s granddaughters, Keri Mast and Kristina Miller.
“Workers like to start early, at 5:30 a.m.,” Noah Miller said. “All, but one, live close by and come on their bicycles. We strive to be more efficient. We try to get the input of all employees about how things can be better.”
The harness shop keeps a good-sized mailing list of tack shops located throughout the countrythat sell synthetic harness. “One reason tack shops like to carry our harness is our quick turnaround,” Miller said. “It often happens that a customer is looking for, say, a #60 Haflinger harness and asks, ‘Do we have one in stock? We might tell him, ‘No, we don’t have one in stock. But we do have parts, and we can put together a custom order in short order and ship it out the way you want.’ ”
Miller reflected on his many years in business: “That high level of quality customer service was probably the best thing I’ve dedicated myself to. That…and making the synthetic harness parts.”
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
If you happen to walk into the N&A Harness Shop, at its various work stations you’ll see a number of air-powered (pneumatic) tools run by air compressors fueled by a natural-gas-driven engine. Two compressor tanks — 500 and 1,000 gallons each — are set up outside the shop in a separate building. Air runs from the compressors to various power tools viaflexiblehoses.
Except for the upfront cost of compressor tanks, air-powered tools are typically cheaper to run, compared to electric. Air-driven tools do not have a cordless option. But, they are generally lighter and smaller than electric tools and pack a stronger or equal punch. Moreover, natural gas is said to be cleaner burning than coal or oil, according to online information.
“We tend to shy away from electric tools,” Miller said. “Air tools are more the Amish way of life,” Vernon added. “They’re more fuel efficient than a diesel engine.”
The shop’s pneumatic work tools include gang punchersfor punching holes in harness parts, die clickers and five, Dürkopp Adler sewing machines used for heavy-duty harness stitching, sourced from Weaver Leather.
Hand tools include hole and slot punches and edgers.“My dad started making tools and equipment,” Vernon noted. “But, he sold that part of the business in November 2017, to my brother-in-law, Leroy Hershberger, who runs Sunset Design and Tool Co., LLC, in Dundee, Ohio.” (1-330-359-5823).
“Our local economy has been very helpful to us,” Noah Miller said.
ON ‘BUGGY HARNESS’ AND HORSE SENSE
“We’re just getting into fine harness for folks who show light horses, like Hackneys, Standardbreds, Dutch Harness horses and Friesians,” said Vernon Miller, a partner with his dad, Noah Miller, of N&A Harness Shop in Millersburg, Ohio.
“We also make draft horse show harness. It’s really taking off well. We do all types of work harness and single driving, carriage harness. We call them ‘buggy harness,’ which the Amish use for transportation. And, we do pony harness. We do pretty much any size and discipline,” Vernon said.
“Over the years, we’ve put a lot of effort into the big, six-and-eight horse hitches,” his dad added. “We do only a few trade shows per year. Most of our work comes by advertising and putting out our catalog.”
The harness shop’s free catalog, which is updated annually, is currently available and can be ordered by mail, fax or phone. “We try and keep something new in the catalog about every year,” he continued. “This year, we’ve added round straps to our fine harness.”A photo of a driving horse decked out in the newer show harness is displayed on the front cover of their 2019 catalog.
Since harness making is the basis of the Miller family’s livelihood, it’s a safe guess that carriage and draft horses play a major role in their daily lives.
“I own one Standardbred for local transportation,” Miller said. His son, Vernon, owns two Standardbreds.
“A lot of the Amish buggy horses are Standardbreds,” Vernon pointed out. “There is also a variety of crossbreeds — Friesians with Standardbreds. But, a lot of the Amish still want the Standardbred, a horse that can travel at a good speed and has stamina.”
He also breeds a number of Belgian draft horses, one of the strongest of the heavy, work breeds. “I raise the foals and keep them until they’re three years old. I train and sell them,” he said. Not surprisingly, he makes his own draft harness. And, he works with up to four Belgians, when making hay on family-owned fields in rural Millersburg.
N&A Harness Shop will be setting up a booth and a display of its harness parts at the 2019 Harness Makers Get-Together, July 18-19, Middlefield, Ohio.
“We’ll be there,” Vernon Miller said. “It’s open to all. Hundreds of people come.”
N&A Harness Shop, LLC
6009 Township Road 419
Millersburg, OH 44654
Hours: Mon. – Thurs. 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Fri. 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Retail store: Open Mon. – Sat. 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.