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Swab Wagon Co.
Swab Wagon Company, 1868-present; Elizabethville, Pennsylvania
Associated Builders

Founded by Jonas Swab in 1868, the Swab Wagon Co. of Elizabethville, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania is likely the oldest North American coachbuilder remaining in business today.

Jonas Swab was born on March 1, 1843 in Washington Township, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania on the family farm of his parents, Daniel and Sally (Heller) Swab. His father was likely descended from Johannes Schwab, a German born in 1720 who emigrated to the United States in 1754 and established a homestead in Bethel Township, Berks County, Pennsylvania in 1754.

Young Jonas was educated in a Washington Township schoolhouse and worked on the family’s farm up until the age of 18 when he was apprenticed to a Pillow, Pennsylvania tanner named Isaiah Matter. Swab soon discovered that the odorous back-breaking life of a tanner was not for him and within the year had become apprenticed as a carpenter at the factory of Riegel & Emerich, a manufacturer of farm implements.

The Civil War cut his second apprenticeship short, and in September of 1864 Swab enlisted in Company C of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 210th Regiment. Assigned to the Army of the Potomac, 3rd Brigade, 2nd division, 5th Corps., Swab saw action at the following Virginia skirmishes: Siege of Petersburg; Hatcher’s Run; Bellefield Raid; Gravelly Run; Five Forks; and was present at the surrender of Robert E. Lee.

After Swab was honorably discharged on May 30, 1865 at Arlington Heights, Virginia he returned to the Riegel & Emerich factory where he worked as a blacksmith. In early 1867 he resigned and embarked upon a cross country journey eventually traveling as far west as Omaha, Nebraska. As did many young men at the time, Jonas financed the trip through his labor, frequently taking short-term positions as a carpenter or blacksmith along the way.

One his journey he came to the realization that in order to succeed he must form a firm of his own, and soon after his arrival back home in December of 1867, he began planning for his own blacksmith shop, which were realized on March 3, 1868 when he purchased property in the borough of Elizabethville, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania from H.W. Schreffler.

Swab’s new blacksmith shop soon became busy repairing farm implements and wagons and by the end of the year he had manufactured his first vehicle, a sleigh sold to Daniel Matter for $10.00.

On December 4, 1869 Swab married Ellen S. Mattis and the union was blessed with 3 children, unfortunately only one, a daughter named Etta S., survived childhood. Born on January 5, 1878, she passed away at the age of 80 on February 9, 1968.

In 1870 Swab and Emanuel Forney received a patent on their horse-drawn hay rake, which became one of the many farm implements manufactured by Swab. Early advertising was by word of mouth but within a decade, Swab was advertising in regional periodicals. The April 25, 1879 Lykens Register included the following classified advertisement:

“Jonas SWAB, Lykens Valley Cross Roads, Dauphin County, Pa., Manufacturer and Dealer in Wagons and all kinds of Farming Implements.

“Jonas SWAB, Elizabethville, Dauphin Co., Pa.”

At about the same time Swab introduced his Chilled Box Solid Steel Axle. Swab described the novel device in a 1910 correspondence: “Thirty years ago I conceived the idea that if the wearing surface of the spindles of a wagon could be chilled or hardened like the point of a chilled plow, it would add much to the wearing and lasting qualities of my output and make an easier running wagon”.

Where a very hard and durable surface is required to a casting, "chilling" is effected by making that part of the mold, where the said face occurs, of iron. When the molten metal meets the surface of cold iron, it cools rapidly and forms crystals of white cast iron, hard yet brittle, where it meets the iron mold, and for a depth of an inch or more within the
casting, according to the mixture used, or the weight of the chill mold; the rest of the casting is still grey and soft. It would seem that the graphite crystals do not, under such circumstances, have time to form, and so the carbon becomes combined with the iron.

In some cases only a portion of the mold is made of iron, while the rest is made up of sand/silicon. Many difficulties were experienced in preventing the chilled parts from checking or cracking, and also in obtaining the right character and depth of chill. Contributing factors included the nature of the iron used, the thickness of the iron mold, and the pouring temperature of the metal.

The success of the chilled-box axle gave the firm’s its first advertising slogan, “Wagons That Wear”.  The practice was subsequently adopted by most of his competitors, although Swab is thought to have been one of the first to adapt it to wagon axles.

Although the primary product of the Swab Wagon Works was farm wagons, a wide range of related vehicles were manufactured: spring wagons, platform wagons, drag and timber wagons, farm carts and heavy trucks. By the turn of the century light delivery and pleasure vehicles were also produced, primarily for local merchants. Sleighs and wheel barrows were also available as were 1/3 scale hand wagons which were popular with children.

Although Swab did not have an entry in the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he attended the event to observe the numerous vehicles on display from the nation’s top builders.

In 1896 ground was broken for the erection of the a new foundry which would not only provide Swab Wagon with all of their cast iron products but hopefully supply regional builders with wagon gear and other grey-metal products. Located at 36 S. Market St., the Swab Foundry Company remained a fixture in downtown Elizabethville for the next 30 years.

In 1902, Jonas Swab incorporated the firm which was capitalized at $50,000.

The 1899 American Carriage Directory lists two Elizabethville wagon manufacturers by the name of Swab, Aaron Swab (light carriage and wagon mfr.) and Jonas Swab (wagon mfr.).

Jonas’ younger brother Aaron also ran an Elizabethville based carriage business from about 1885 through 1919 which was known as the Swab Carriage Co. At the time Jonas Swab reported that his wagon company produced between 20 and 25 wagons per week, and although Aaron’s output is unknown, it is likely he produced no more than 20 vehicles per month.

Jonas Swab passed away in 1913 at the age of 70 and was interred in Elizabethville’s Maple Grove Cemetery. Control of the firm reverted to his daughter Etta, who had married Frederick Potter Margerum, during the late 1890s. Margerum was a businessman originally from Morrisville, Bucks County, Pennsylvania – just across the River from Trenton, New Jersey.

The Margerums maintained a residence in both Elizabethville and San Bernardino, California, and their union resulted in the birth of three children, Dorothy, Esther and Jonas Benjamin (b. July 10, 1908 – d. Jun 11, 1998) Margerum. They later relocated to Claremont, California where Jonas attended the University of Southern California. 

Local control of the firm was assumed by its secretary, W.P. Lehman who was assisted by Jonas Swab’s younger brother Aaron who joined the firm after his own carriage firm went bankrupt in 1920. Aaron Swab passed away on September 1, 1943.

In 1916 Swab commenced the sale of horseless carriages and became the Elizabethville dealer for Chevrolet, Saxon, Studebaker and later Plymouth motor vehicles. They eventually decided to concentrate on Studebaker and during the next few decades a large percentage of Swab bodies were fitted to Studebaker commercial chassis.

When Studebaker merged with Packard, Swab handled the Studebaker-Packard line and starting in 1958 distributed Mercedes-Benz automobiles as well. A Chrysler-Plymouth franchise was acquired in 1960, and Swab remained a Chrysler Corp. dealer until 2003.

The Swab Wagon Co. continued building their successful line of horse-drawn farm wagons and trucks into the teens when production slowly shifted over to commercial bodies for horseless conveyances. The firm also built bodies for regional municipalities and is known to have produced a small number of funeral cars and ambulances. One striking design was an eight-column, glass­ sided hearse mounted on a late 1920s Stude­baker chassis.

After graduating from USC in 1932, Jonas Swab’s grandson, Jonas B. Margerum, returned to Elizabethville and assumed control of the Swab Wagon Works. His parents remained in California although they retained their Washington Township farm just outside of Elizabethville for use as a summer home.

As did most commercial body builders, Swab built a wide variety of bodies, essentially creating whatever body a customer desired. In addition to buses and delivery vans, they built refrigerated bodies for regional dairies and breweries, and even developed a line of poultry and small animal transport bodies for use by local farmers.

Another popular Swab product was the chick wagon, a purpose-built truck body which was used by regional chicken farmers to safely haul baby chicks to market.

In 1937 Swab built their first fire rescue squad body, the predecessor of their successful emergency vehicle and fire apparatus line that would later bring great success to the firm. In the decades immediately following World War II, Swab and Brumbaugh, another Pennsylvania-based body builder, would supply the majority of custom-built rescue squad bodies sold in the northeastern United States. Both firms successfully competed against the higher-priced standard squad bodies offered by Mack and American-LaFrance.

Ambulances remained a part of Swab’s line, and a handful of Studebaker chassised vehicles were built into the late 1950s when the firm turned to GM supplied light truck chassis.

Swab gives itself credit for building the first Type I* or modular ambulance body, which was designed in 1963 in cooperation with Martin C. McMahan, Chief of Ambulance Services for the City of Baltimore, Maryland. Designed to serve as an "operating room on wheels", the new vehicle provided room for the staff and equipment needed to perform life-saving medical procedures on the way to the hospital.

Mounted on a 1963 Chevrolet half-ton chassis, Swab’s first modular ambulance body exists and is on display at the firm’s museum, which is located inside their Elizabethville plant.

While it’s true that most ambulances up until that time were built on stretched automobile chassis, a handful of light truck-based modular-style ambulances were built prior to 1963, some dating to the late 1940s. However, Swab was the first to manufacture a detachable non-military Type I Modular ambulance body in any great numbers, and between 1964 and 1974, they manufactured over 300 examples. By comparison, the firm had produced only 100 rescue squad bodies between 1937 and 1974.

(*A Type I Ambulance denotes a truck-based ambulance with an enclosed cab, behind which is mounted a modular, detachable ambulance box. The budget-priced Type II Ambulance is a raised-roof conversion of a standard van body, designed for use in congested city streets. The Type III Ambulance combines a van front end with a modular rear compartment. Although Type III boxes are detachable, they include an entranceway onto the driver’s compartment, a feature not found on Type I ambulances.)

Although Swab had been manufacturing livestock and animal transport bodies since the 1930s, they didn’t experience any success with the line 1973 when they introduced their first FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic) animal control bodies. Originally available with 12 compartments, smaller 4 and 5-compartment designs soon followed and today Swab is one of the country’s largest animal control body manufacturers.

A December 12, 1978 fire destroyed Swab’s original Market St. factory. The firm’s offices were relocated to 1 Chestnut St. and all manufacturing was transferred to a new facility located on S. Callowhill St. Their 34 N. Market St. Chrysler-Plymouth dealership was unaffected by the fire, but due to declining sales and increased competition from regional auto malls, was discontinued in 2003.

Today the firm continues to produces their successful line of animal control bodies as well as their popular line of fire and rescue bodies. In 1996 Swab introduced a hybrid of the two which provides fire departments and ambulance services with a cost effective alternative to expensive Suburban and SUV-based medic units. Based on Swab’s animal rescue line the new ALSF series body provides a compartmentalized equipment body which can be mounted to a 2- or 4-wd light truck, allowing paramedics quick access to their equipment immediately upon arriving at a medical emergency.

Type I Ambulances remain available on special order and Swab continues to modify and refurbish existing fire and rescue equipment and build an occasional custom-built commercial body for regional customers.

The firm’s matriarch, Etta Margerum, passed away on February 9, 1968 at the age of 80, and her son, long-time Swab president Jonas B. Margerum, passed away on June 11, 1998 at the age of 89.

Current officers are as follows: President, Anthony Margerum; Vice-President Sales, Fred Margerum; Plant Manager, Don Green, Bookkeeper, Cindy Richards. The Swab family’s fifth generation is ably represented by Stuart A. Margerum who works as a Swab sales representative.

© 2004 Mark Theobald -






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