In the 19th and early 20th centuries, livery stables were a common sight in Vincennes. With horses being the principal means of transportation, a place to house the animals, along with buggies and other horse-drawn vehicles, and to purchase the same was a necessity. Some humorously termed the stables “horse hotels.”
One large livery stable in the city was owned by John T. McJimsey. McJimsey built his livery on Third Street, just off Busseron, in 1884. He leased the property, where a pork house had stood, in the autumn of that year and the livery opened in early December. The building could house 70 horses and had a large carriage room.
Besides carriages, surreys, phaetons, wagons, buckboards, and carts, McJimsey carried organs and sewing machines.
McJimsey developed a reputation for the fine horses and vehicles he carried. An item in the Jan. 30, 1885, edition of the Weekly Western Sun read: “McJimsey startled the whole population yesterday by appearing on the streets with a magnificent tandem team attached to his fine sleigh.”
In December 1885, he spent $1,200 (almost $33,000 in today’s money) on a new landau, a four-wheeled convertible carriage, which the Western Sun described as “positively magnificent and a wonderful luxury to our people.” It even came with a coachman in livery. Its primary purpose was for ladies to go calling and was complete with a beveled mirror, a case for calling cards, and a call bell.
There had been some concern about businesses, such as liveries, that were extremely susceptible to fire, being in the downtown area. Those worries proved prescient when, just before Christmas of 1885, only a year after opening, the McJimsey livery burned, engulfing several other businesses in what became a major conflagration. The fire began in the hay mow and was rapidly out of control. It quickly burned the Gardner undertaking establishment and an adjacent building.
Due to a shift in the wind, the flames jumped Third Street and the four-story Grand Hotel (where Old National Bank now stands) was soon on fire, although, fortunately, the hotel was vacant at the time.
Twenty-two horses were stabled in the building when the fire broke out, 16 of which were unaccounted for by the time the blaze was extinguished. Some of the horses were being boarded for residents. Carriages and even the elegant landau went up in flames.
McJimsey soon rebuilt his livery at the same location. Work started on a 90 x 100-foot two-story brick building at the start of March 1886. Local architect John W. Gaddis drew the plans and specifications.
The livery business was a lucrative one. In the spring of 1886, McJimsey sold the Vincennes Fire Department a horse for $200 and in the spring of 1887, he advertised that he could sell a better buggy than any dealer in the city for $65. In 1887, the four principal livery men in Vincennes, McJimsey among them, established the rate to board a horse at $12 per month.
In 1888, he opened a branch livery stable in Bridgeport and a branch store selling buggies and organs in Olney, Illinois.
In the summer of 1889, McJimsey sold the livery, but kept his carriage and wagon business, which was in an adjacent building at 23 North Third St. At the end of that year, he moved that enterprise to the southwest corner of First and Main streets, where he and his son, Guy, operated the McJimsey Buggy Co. Their inventory included buggies, wagons, bicycles, sewing machines, pianos, organs, and baby buggies. They were the distributor of Studebaker buggies and wagons. A 1901 ad boasted 75 different styles of buggies on their display floor. The company’s motto was “McJimsey Has It For Less.”
In the spring of 1901, due to the declining health of John McJimsey, they sold the company to Richard Robinson and George Donaldson, who ran the Robinson-Donaldson Buggy Company there for many years.
John McJimsey died on Oct. 19, 1927, at the age of 87. He was interred in Fairview Cemetery.
In 1908, the four-story LaPlante building, often touted as the city’s first modern office structure, was constructed where the Third Street livery had stood. That building was razed in 1966 and the site is now a parking lot. The First and Main Street building was torn down in 1933 when the Clark Memorial was constructed.
Brian Spangle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published this year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.