According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, excelsior means “fine curled wood shavings used especially for packing fragile items.” Excelsior Street was named after the Excelsior Top Company, a manufacturer of tops, dashes, and trimmings of the carriage trade. Perhaps the company got its name from the fine wood shavings that resulted from all of the work that went into the production of carriage items. It seems excelsior was also used to indicate high quality products at one time. Perhaps we will never know the origins of the name of the company, but Excelsior Street was named after the company because it opens directly across from the former location of the Excelsior Top Company.
According to D. Morris Kurtz, the Excelsior Top Company was started in March of 1881 by L.K. Tenney. He rented a portion of an old shop on Port Watson Street and began manufacturing carriage tops with one employee. Tenney was an experienced carriage top maker who decided to take a gamble and invest money in a business endeavor he could call his own. He put up all the capital and went on the road to take orders. He was an instant success. Within two months of beginning his business, he needed to expand operations and he moved the shop to a larger location near Benton’s planning mill. By the end of his first year, the business had produced $40,000 worth of product and needed more space again. In January of 1882, he moved to headquarters at Cortland Machine Company’s building where more employees were added, and business doubled by the end of his second year.
With business expanding so rapidly, land was purchased on Elm Street from our old friend Theodore Stevenson (see our post on Stevenson Street) and ground was broken for a new factory. A notice on November 30, 1882 indicated that Stevenson sold an acre of land and contracted to build the factory for a grand total of $3,600. The three story 40 x 90 feet building was to be completed by January 1, 1883. Excelsior Top Company moved into the new digs on January 10, 1883. The factory had a 20-horsepower engine to drive the machinery necessary to turn out a steady stream of products which were shipping from Maine to California.
There was some conflicting information as to the owners of the company in these hectic early years. One source has Tenney as a partner with Graham Straat in the beginning and the other I looked at did not indicate a partnership. It does seem that the business passed to Fitz Boynton (see our Fitz Avenue post) and William R. Stoppard sometime in 1882, but it’s unclear what happened to Mr. Tenney. We have no family file and no obituary for him, so perhaps he moved out of the area after such astounding success. In 1883, the business passed to W.H. Newton and Charles E. Selover. Newton would manage to keep the business going into the early 1920s, despite the growing automobile industry. By 1921, the company was manufacturing silverware cases and trunks. It appears he sold it and retired, and the business was vacant in 1924 according to the city directory.
The carriage and wagon industry was a tremendous part of the economy of Cortland County in the 1800s, and when the automobile came along, few companies were able to transition into the new century. When the carriage industry fell, it took sister businesses like harness manufacturers and blacksmiths along with it. Think about the number of horses that were no longer needed that were phased out. That’s a lot of horseshoes, a large part of a blacksmith’s business!
The horse and buggy days may be gone, but at least we have a street in Cortland that pays tribute to just one of the many important carriage manufacturing businesses from our past. Excelsior is also the New York State motto: Ever upward! Just as Cortland survived the demise of the carriage industry, it will withstand other changes in our lifetime and be stronger for it, I am certain. ~Tabitha