In a place awash with stories, it’s no surprise that Colonial Williamsburg’s carriage drivers have their share. They’ve been in the driver’s seat for everything from typical tours of the town to life-changing moments.
“I picked up a man on Botetourt Street,” said Edward Merkley, who has been driving carriages here for 23 years. “He was preparing to propose to the woman we were about to pick up, and he was extremely nervous.
“I told him not to worry, that I had seen a lot of proposals in our carriages and no one had ever said no,” he continued. “That just made it worse, since it hadn’t occurred to him she might say no. He started to hyperventilate.”
Merkley began to wonder whether he would have to handle the proposal himself. But, like most carriage stories, this one ended happily. The hopeful groom recovered and the object of his affection said yes.
Eric Hunter, who has been a coachman for 20 years, recalled another tricky wedding-related story. “We had picked up the bride and groom at the Williamsburg Inn and brought them and some members of the wedding party to the Governor’s Palace,” Hunter said. “Then we went back to pick up the rest of the party.”
Merkley recounted what happened next. “We found the wedding party. They were all dressed up with drinks in their hands. They were happy for a ride to the Palace.
“It was only when we got to the Palace that they said, ‘That’s not our bride!’ We had picked up another wedding party.”
Hunter and Merkley returned to the Inn, found the right party and reunited them with their bride and groom.
Carriages were part of the 18th-century street scene in Williamsburg, of course. Tavern keepers rented them, and prominent residents — including Robert Carter Nicholas, John Randolph, Benjamin Waller, George Wythe and the governors who lived in the Palace — owned them.
The Foundation purchased its first carriage in 1929. The first carriage to run in the restored town was on the streets in 1935.
Initially, carriages were used for deliveries and to bring hostesses to exhibition buildings, as well as to carry visitors.
By the late 1940s, Colonial Williamsburg had established a carriage program and two carriages were regularly carrying passengers. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a triumphant post-World War II visit in 1946, and Queen Elizabeth II took a ride in 1957 and again in 2007.
Some celebrities prefer to remain incognito. Dan Hard, who has been driving carriages for 29 years, once picked up William Lee Golden, a member of the Oak Ridge Boys, a country and gospel quartet. Golden and his wife were joined by another man and woman, neither of whom recognized the singer.
“You’ve got to keep your eyes open,” Hard said to the second couple. “You never know who you might run into.” Golden smiled but remained anonymous.
Sometimes the clues are elusive, even to the drivers. Hard himself failed to recognize the Ohio State University colors worn by all the members of one family he picked up. When a woman in the group asked about a tree they passed, Hard told them it was a buckeye — which is also the name of Ohio State’s athletic teams. The woman asked if buckeye nuts were good for anything. They’re useless, Hard answered.
“I’m living proof of that,” said one member of the party, who then showed off his Ohio State class ring.
But Hard saved the day. Buckeye nuts had two uses, he told the family — they’re good for growing more buckeyes and for throwing at Michigan fans.
Drivers are not tour guides but they are prepared to point out the sights of Williamsburg or to chat about whatever subject guests bring up. Lillian Maassen, who became a coachman in 2016, discovered she was driving a family whose children went to the same small college she had attended in Northfield, Minn. What’s more, the parents had gone to the same small college Maassen’s parents attended in Holland, Mich.
A coach driver’s training takes 60 to 90 days, often driving with Coach and Livestock Director Paul Bennett. The rigorous system Bennett uses can be traced to Edwin Howlett in 18th-century Paris. Howlett devised a method for navigating coaches through the narrow streets of London and Paris. The training prepares drivers for an assessment by the Carriage Association of America, which grants international accreditation.
“I will never forget the first time I got in the training carriage and felt the raw power at the end of the reins,” Maassen said.
“You’re always learning. You’re learning from the horses every day and they’re learning from you,” she said.
That knowledge and mutual respect is important, said colleague Amanda Payne, who also started driving in 2016. Especially when you have approximately 2,200 pounds at the end of the reins.
The carriages run in all sorts of weather. Hunter recalled dropping off ministers from various countries who were attending a meeting at the Palace. “It was raining so hard that by the time they returned there were ducks under the carriage.”
But many of the ministers were so taken with the 18th-century transportation that they chose the carriage over the van that Colonial Williamsburg had offered to ferry them back to the Inn.
The always popular carriage rides are becoming even more so. And Bennett has an idea to help meet that demand. He would like to implement a taxi carriage that would allow people to hop on and off at various stops. “It’s a large city and we need to be able to move more people.” Bennett saw the concept work at the Beamish Museum, an open-air living history museum in the north of England, where he was a stable manager.