Bowman Harness is sustaining a living heritage tradition
By Lynn Ascrizzi
The folks at Bowman Harness, Ltd. of Millersburg, Ohio, don’t put much credence into talking big or taking on airs — they’re too busy doing. In fact, the four-generation, collective family enterprise has been hard at work making exceptional harness products and providing dedicated customer service for 100 years.
“We’re not here to put out a brag story. We try to do good quality at a fair price. Quality is what we care about,” said Joe Bowman Jr., 50. He co-owns the business with his older brother, John J. Bowman, 52. As the Bowmans see it, good work always speaks for itself.
The business is located in Holmes County, an area that hosts one of Ohio’s largest Amish communities — a close-knit culture of family, friends and neighbors, where horse-drawn vehicles and farm work done with draft horses are still the norm. It is here that those who work at Bowman Harness produce a solid, handsomely crafted and varied line of traditional harness and harness parts, suitable for all types of equine occasions.
“We make complete harness in leather and BioThane— a lot goes to the Amish and all over the country. We also wholesale harness parts for other shops. Less than half of our harness and harness parts business is wholesale. Ohio is one of our bigger areas for wholesale,” Joe said.
If you consider that only 3 percent of all family businesses are still operating after four generations, it’s pretty remarkable that, for 10 decades, the related hands and hearts at Bowman Harness have been able to pass down, intact, their special know-how. In doing so, this unique company has managed to sustain a living heritage craft tradition amid a fast-moving, high-tech world.
Yet, their harness tradition is not a static one. It embodies an expertise that has carefully evolved over time. For example, some harness designs have been modified, for better function, such as the recently introduced Wither Relief Saddle, made with a horse’s comfort in mind.
“For a number of years now, our focus is: What can we do for the comfort of the horse? We’ve done quite a few changes with that in mind,” he noted. Yet, the company doesn’t want to change things, for change’s sake. “There was some awesome workmanship back then. We want to be careful that we don’t lose that quality.”
At the time of this writing, the Bowman family hadn’t yet decided on how and when to honor their historic centennial. “We’re too busy doing day to day. Usually, in July, we have Customer Appreciation Day,” he mused, suggesting that the summer event might be a good time to celebrate.
CUSTOMERS, NEAR AND FAR
“As far as harness sales go, we sell more to local customers, peoplelooking for Amish buggy harness. And, we’ve got good customers from California, up to Maine,” Joe said. The company also sells harness in Europe and Australia.
The workshop makes all kinds of custom leatherwork, too, like knife sheaths, cellphone cases, quality belts, leather backers for conceal carry holsters and leather fly swatters. “You name it. We’ve even made leather beanbags for a man in Saudi Arabia who wanted beanbags for his dogs. The customer was a rich American oil guy, who heard about us from his family in the states. We had made dog collars for him.”
He runs the production area and handles a lot of custom orders. “I do most of the leather cutting and figuring out how to make custom products. We offer standard size harness. But there are so many different size horses. You have to figure out sizing.
“Any day can be a busy day,” he added. “My brother, John, runs the retail end. He and his sister, Ella, handle the office work, with the help of my daughter, Ruth, and Henry Bowman, my older brother Dan’s son.
Joe’s son-in-law, Eli Hershberger, runs the BioThane department. A number of local women make harness pads and lap robes for buggy driving, and also do custom leather work, like briefcase handles, in the shop. Currently, the business has about 25 employees, a workforce comprised of seven men and 18 women.
The Bowmans also operate a retail store, located in the same building as the harness shop, open to the public from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. “As far as equine products go, the store — about 2 miles from Mount Hope — is one of the bigger retail stores in the area,” Joe said. Altogether, the workshop and store occupy over a10,000-square-foot space.
Bowman Harnessproducts are sold by word of mouth, throughtheir catalogs, at their retail store and through advertising. Orders are made by phone (voicemail), fax or mail.
“The fourth generation is working here. The third generation owns the business and is also working. In the whole scheme of things, we’re a small business, but in the harness business, we’re one of the area’s bigger ones,” he said.
GROWING UP IN A HARNESS WORKSHOP
“My grandfather, Harvey Bowman, started the business in 1920,” Joe Bowman, Jr. said. “He called it H. H. Bowman & Sons. In 1958, my dad (Joe Bowman Sr.), took over the business from his father. In later years, he called it J. H. Bowman & Sons.
“In 1996, Dad, my brothers Dan and John, and I, formed a partnership and called it Bowman Harness, Ltd,” he explained. “Some years later, Dan branched off to form his own company, Bowman Leather, where he made custom show harness. Later, he began making bits. He now makes the popular Bowman Bits.
“Dad was a very serious guy,” he continued. “But we Bowmans all have a big sense of humor. He was easy to get a long with. We learned to do things right. He left us a lot of good examples. He always said, ‘If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. It may take a little longer, but it doesn’t take that much longer to do it right.’”
Joe Bowman Sr. passed away in 2007. His sons, Joe and John, the company’s current co-owners, grew up in a family of nine children — five boys and four girls. The harness business that provided the family livelihood back then is still a vital part of the local economy.
“I well remember as a young boy going into the workshop, before and after school. We weren’t forced to do it,” Joe recalled. The home-based business provided the Bowman kids with another kind of schooling — lessons without textbooks and pencils. To the youngsters, harness building became second nature, like hitching up a horse, driving a buggy and showing up for supper.
“Dan is my oldest brother. Growing up, in summer and in the evenings, we’d go out to the shop and occasionally do a few jobs. We learned to work. I was the youngest in the family. I probably learned as much from my older brother Dan, than from Dad — maybe more. When I was just a kid, my dad cut off his right thumb on a rip table saw, cutting firewood. His thumb got in the wrong place at the wrong time. That ended his career in hand cutting with a draw gauge. Dan took over that part of the work, when in his 20s.”
“I basically grew up in the business. All my brothers and sisters grew up in the harness shop,” he said. Today, he sees the same pattern unfolding within his large, immediate family. Joe and his wife, Martha, have six children and three grandchildren. “My mother, Anna Bowman, is 86 years old. She keeps an eye on us,” he said, with humor.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Standing in the Bowman Harness workshop is an intriguing antique cabinet, whose open doors reveal rows of vintage hand punches. A small number of more recently made hand tools, have been placed atop the cabinet. Here and there, tacked inside the old case, are timeworn photos. To the Bowman family, the special cabinet marks both the passage of time and the timeless quality of well-made, leather hand tools.
“There are end punches — a lot with rosewood handles — and slot punches, and round and oval hole punches made by Osborne and also Gompf, a very uncommon, name brand of yesteryear. Those are worth more than the new ones,” Joe Bowman Jr. reflected. “My grandfather bought the cabinet with most of the tools now in it, from a guy who went from house to house. We use the tools on leatherwork on a regular basis. They’re not for sale!”
Power tools also have their place in the shop. A Kubota industrial diesel engine runs a 60-foot line shaft, as well as an air compressor and a hydraulic pump. For stitchers, the shop works with Champion, Union Lock Stitch and Adlers. “We use the Adlers the most,” he said.
Naturally, driving and draft horses play a necessary and greatly admired role in an area like Millersburg. “I use Morgans,” Joe said, of the compact, versatile breed. “I’m a Morgan fan. I own six Morgans and a pony. My son-in-law Eli’s pastime is horses. I bought him some young Morganstock and let him train them. I appreciate what he does in the BioThane department.”
His nephew, Henry Bowman (who is Dan’s son), handles most of the company’s phone calls, orders and sales. “For many years, he operated Bowman Equine, breeding and training driving horses — mostly Standardbreds, Morgans and Friesians. He works full time here. The horse business is now hissideline,” he said.
For its leather harness parts, the business uses Hermann Oak Leather, special ordered to the Bowman’s standards. “The great majority of our harness sales are in BioThane. My dad was a dyed-in-the-wool leather guy. But we boys saw the need to get into synthetic leather. You’ve got to adapt to customer demand,” he said.
Still, he has a warm place in his heart for leather. “There’s nothing that will stretch, and fit, and shape to a horse like a good piece of leather. I personally use all leather harness.”
Overall, he pointed out, the important thing is how a harness fits. “It’s the key to the comfort of the horse — that a harness fits properly. I don’t care if it’s leather or BioThane, you have to shape a harness to fit it to the horse. Leather will form itself to the horse. But, if BioThane doesn’t fit the first day, it will never fit.”
“We’re into rounding off the corners and softening sharp ends. If you make the horse happy, he’ll make you happy,” he said.
YOU NAME IT, THEY’VE GOT IT
Since Bowman Harness of Millersburg, Ohio, does not display its products online, it behooves interested browsers to check out the company’s two, full-color, free catalogs.
For retail customers, there’s the 41-page, Harness & Supply Catalog. For wholesalers, they offer their 11-page catalog, Leather & Urethane Harness Parts. The retail catalog is updated annually. The new, 2020 Harness & Supply Catalog will be available in early spring.
The handsome publications are enhanced with photos of spirited driving and draft horses bedecked in diverse kinds of leather and Biothane tack. You name it, they seem to have it — from presentation to pleasure driving harness, from farming to fine show harness, from training to pony harness. Harness parts include blinders, collars, cruppers, bridles, Bowman bits, reins, draft bridles, halters, hames, neck yokes and neck ropes, harness pads and hardware.
“Not everything we do is in the catalog. A lot of our special harness stuff is customized. Tell us what you want, and we’ll try to make it for you,” business co-owner Joe Bowman, Jr. said.
The orderly catalogs definitely make it easier to traverse the boggling complexity of harness terms and parts. The retail catalog is also a good resource for useful equine products, like liniments, hoof dressings, farrier tools, grooming clippers, horse boots, blankets and buggy robes…and much more.
For those who still find enlightenment in books, the retail catalog lists how-to publications, like Work Horse Handbook, Second Edition and Training the Buggy Horse and Training the Rider. And in the larger catalog, helpful illustrations detail how to make horse harness and collar measurements. Also included are leather and Biothane harness parts lists with prices. No minimum orders are required.
“All orders are important to us,” the catalog states. Tear-out order forms are available in the retail catalog. Most orders are shipped UPS; small orders are usually shipped Priority Mail. Catalogs can be requested via fax, phone (voicemail) or mail. Also, during regular business hours, people are welcome to drop by the Bowman Harness retail store, located in the same building as the workshop.
Bowman Harness, Ltd.
6928 County Road 77
Millersburg, OH 44654-9181
John J. Bowman and Joe Bowman, Jr. — co-owners
Hours: Weekdays, 7 a.m. — 5 p.m.
Saturdays, 7 a.m. – 11:30 p.m.