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Freedman’s Stands For More Than 200 Years Of Harness-Making Excellence



 

Gabriela, Samuel, Angelica, and David Freedman
 (l. to r.)

 

by Ann Bullard

The year is 1910. Young Issac Freedman stepped off the boat onto
Ellis Island and made his way to the city of Toronto, Canada. He brought little with him except his knowledge of harness making and a strong work ethic.

Almost 100 years later, the sixth-generation of Freedman harness makers carries on the family profession. Sam Freedman and now his son, David, upgraded the company’s original product line, expanding from delivery harness to top-of-the-line racing and show harness, cut-back saddles, show bridles and accessories. Their products fit everything from the smallest of Hackney ponies to the “gentle giants” of carriage and competitive driving.

“My grandfather was like five-foot, two inches tall and really tough,” David Freedman said. “He was a hard-working gentleman.”

Much of the family’s early history was lost during the Holocaust. Issac Freedman brought a few drawings, which are framed and displayed in the company’s Toronto headquarters. He spoke of his grandfather making harness for the Polish and Russian Czars.

Issac Freedman established himself among the tradesmen of Toronto. He specialized in making express, street and wagon harness and parts.

“He worked primarily for bread, milk and department store delivery men,” David recalled, adding that bread and milk delivery men made up most of his grandfather’s client base. “In Canada, drivers of bread and dairy wagons were responsible for their own repairs. They would stop at the shop every morning on their way to work, leaving repairs for the next day and picking up those that were ready. It was a pretty busy little shop.”

At the time, Freedman had three full-time harness makers. Freedman himself spoke only Polish; his friend and associate, Eddy Godfrey, also spoke English. Fortunately for the future of the firm, Godfrey had worked for Martin and Martin in England, making harness for show horses before he migrated to Canada.

Issac Freedman married and settled into his life in Canada. He and his wife raised three sons; only Sam was interested in the harness-making business.

“My father didn’t want to go to school,” David said. “In those days, you went to school or they put you to work. He began his apprenticeship [with his father and Godfrey] at the ripe old age of 10.

“Eddy knew the finer points of making Hackney show harness, fine harness and coaching harness,” David continued, pointing out there had been no carriage revival at that time. “Dad had a long apprenticeship under one gentleman who made wagon street harness and another who made show harness. He became pretty-well rounded by the time he was 16. He had an interesting childhood, attending a lot of horse sales, trading ponies and horses downtown at livery stables. He tried to get involved, including ‘catch-riding’ at the auctions for a nickel a ride. Dad was a horseman who had seen pretty much everything.”

Sam Freedman wanted to be a harness maker. He was an artisan, with an artisan’s mentality, one his son calls “a funny one to begin with. It’s rather like the horse business; you cannot leave it for whatever reason. The harness trade is like that – a combination of skill, craft and horses. It’s hard to get away from.”

The company survived the Second World War, but had no substantive breakthrough until the first post-war Royal Winter Fair, held in Toronto in 1945.

“Dad went there and saw show ponies and show horses. Frances Dodge (van Lennep), Elgin and Victoria Armstrong from Toronto and others involved in showing horses and ponies for years were there,” David said. “Dad had a big awakening. He decided ‘This is what I am going to do, to reinvent the company.’ I think he took a lot of heat from my grandfather and grandmother and others in the family. They couldn’t understand his vision of the show horse industry.”

New cars were on the streets. The days of the horse and carriage seemed behind them. Yet Sam Freedman persevered, driving a cab at night and making harness by day.

“He did a lot of things to stay in business,” David said. “There were numerous times he wanted to give up. Then Mrs. Armstrong came down and ordered a couple of bridles and harness which helped keep things going.”

The company “managed to stay alive until Standardbred racing took off after pari-mutuel wagering was legalized in Canada in the late 1950s. Our production went from one person to 27 people building thousands of Standardbred harness sets a year. We became the premier Standardbred harness maker in the world,” David said. “At the same time, we were building Hackney and other show harness for people in the States.”

Sam Freedman made yearly trips to such shows as the Chicago International, Devon and other events to meet with Saddlebred and Hackney pony trainers. During this time, he became close friends with Cynthia Haydon, described as Britain’s leading whip in the post-war years of the 20th century.

“She took Dad’s harness to England and all of a sudden ours became a global-type name. Mrs. Haydon had the best of the best in England. Freedman’s Harness became international fairly quickly,” David said.

Dr. Alan R. Raun of Reedannland first met Sam Freedman in the late 1950s. He has been a Freedman’s client for almost 50 years, and still uses one set of the first Hackney pony harness he got from the senior Freedman.

“Sam was making harness all by himself in the back of the shop when I first knew him. I bought three sets of harness from him in 1958. After that, we became good friends. His wife, Gilda, Dottie (Raun) and I went to dinner and the races several times together.

“Sam was a very colorful individual, who would help anyone who needed help. He usually was operating short of money, but if someone needed help, he’d make sure they got some money.”

Raun describes Freedman as “a stocky man and a gambler who loved the Hackneys and the Standardbreds. When we went to the track, everyone knew him. Grooms, trainers and administrative personnel would call, ‘Hi, Sam.’ ”

Raun recognizes David Freedman as “much less flamboyant and a much better businessman [than his father]. Sam wasn’t the best businessman but was a terrific craftsman. When Sam was making all the harness himself, you could recognize the harness he made.”

Freedman received recognition through Paul Downing, editor of The Carriage Journal, in 1954.

 

“Someone doing a dig in Williamsburg, Va., dug up buckles and other harness pieces in the area. They came up with some sort of blueprint that stated Colonialists used breast-collar type harness with so many stitches to the inch, a certain type of buckle and brass to pull coaches around. Downing and other carriage enthusiasts were looking for someone to replicate the harness for them,” David said.

“They couldn’t find anyone until they landed on Dad’s doorsteps during the 1954 Royal Winter Fair. They gave him the job,” David continued, explaining he has a blueprint of that harness hanging behind his desk. “That took him into the carriage business and into America. It gave him the credibility to work with other carriage harness, lending a lot of credibility to our name.”

David simply grew up around horses and the harness business. “I haven’t shown, but I’ve been around horses in every possible way my whole life,” he said. “I worked on a farm as a kid and groomed horses. I can drive and have spent time navigating for Chester Weber [whip of the U.S. Marathon Driving Team and 2006 Gold Medal winner at the FEI Games.]”

When his father retired at 65, his 27-year-old youngest son was ready to step into the top role. “Dad was a pretty interesting guy. He told me, ‘Go ahead, kid, and do what you want. But don’t ruin my business.’ ”

David has followed through, taking the company in new, as well as, proven directions. “I spend a lot of time taking things from the show to the carriage horse business and vice-versa. I want to keep our harness fresh and new. When I first developed a saddle in the mid 90s, I spent time riding in it.

“Dad wasn’t like that. His attitude was, ‘If they like this harness, great. If not, okay. He was more of a harness maker for the people and didn’t have the ability to reach out.”

As much as David loves the horse business, he has no time to own horses himself. “I’ve made it a point in my life not to get involved in what my clients do. I want to be there to support them. I think it’s better to be on their team than against them. When you’re showing against clients, that’s difficult.”

He constantly looks for ways to improve the tools his clients use. “There’s no way the thoroughbred-type saddles fit horses today. I first started fooling with saddles in 1996, redesigned it six or seven times and brought out the first saddle with an adjustable tree in 1997. We’ve had tons of success with it,” he said. “The Victory Pass Saddle has been through four generations of updates and is about to go through a fifth. Melissa Moore and Ray Krussell have been testing the latest product for about a year.”

He spends a lot of time in research and development. “I get a lot of information from trainers,” he said. “I put that plus my own experiences back in the trade.”

Three years ago, he launched the World Cup Saddle. “There is zero resemblance except in quality and leather to the Victory Pass Saddle,” he said. “It rides completely differently than the Victory Pass Saddle. I have a wider range of Saddle Seat clients; those who don’t like one saddle like the other.”

Freedman also has updated its show harness. “We’re trying to get back to the future while trying to replicate the past when it comes to quality. When it comes to development, it’s a different story. The Saddlebred breed has evolved. What fit Saddlebreds 30 years ago doesn’t necessarily fit any more. We’re looking for performance from these horses that could not be achieved using patterns of days gone by. Sizing is the same thing. We have adjusted tack to allow the horse more freedom, to carry a longer foot flight and perform at a higher level than before. We’re adding tools to the toolbox for the trainer.”

David elaborated. “On the show harness side, we’ve tried to adjust the sizing to fit today’s breed in the bridle. We’ve opened up the split in the back of the check to different variances or tolerances to allow it to break through at a different point. There have been changes in the actual hookup, making it easier to adjust, to fit so horses can perform at a higher level. The original fine harness was adapted from Standardbred harness and used as a crossover for show horses. It wasn’t breed-specific.”

Freedman spends a lot of time with the Saddlebred industry. “I never made a tail set until four years ago. I’ll do 300 this year. We’ll do 300 to 350 riding bridles as well. And we’re moving into the Morgan and Arabian worlds.”

Why that attachment?

“It comes from the UPHA,” he said in explanation. “About the time my parents passed away, I needed a place to rest – a home, a comfort level with people who do business with me. That came quickest through the UPHA. That’s why it’s closer to my heart than some others.

“Timing determines some of these things in your life,” he continued. “A lot of times, things have nothing to do with people’s personalities but timing, where you are mentally. We let a fairly large belt and handbag business go after my parents passed away. Saddles and fine harness work from the UPHA built this business for me.

“I’ve been more fortunate than some other harness makers. A lot of information comes from the top. Trainers like Mike Barlow, Redd Crabtree, Raymond Shively, Laurence Carss, John Shea, Larry Ella and Randy Harper have helped me over the years. I am a harness and saddle maker. I get information from trainers, and put that plus my own experience back into the trade. It’s something you can measure. It either is better or it isn’t.”

Personal contact is one of Freedman’s biggest selling points. He has just opened his first retail store, in Midway, Ky. “It’s the first time we’ve really gone to our customers. They usually come to us. It’s thinking outside the box and is pretty interesting. We ask how we can best serve that area. For me as a Canadian, outside the box thinking meant opening in another country. I should have done it 10 or 15 years ago.

 

The new store in Kentucky

“I fly in the neighborhood of 70,000 air miles, drive 70,000 kilometers a year and make eight to 10 trips overseas,” he said, adding “it seems like monthly. I don’t know how often I’m in the car. The store in Kentucky means another 12 trips a year.”

Freedman attends shows at Devon, Lexington, Louisville, the American Royal, Morgan Grand Nationals, New England Morgan, the Arabian Nationals, Scottsdale and the Royal Winter Fair in addition to carriage driving competitions. He starts each year at the UPHA Convention, having missed only one since 1984.

“That was the year our son was born,” he said, referring to his chaotic home life.

David and his wife, Angelica, have been married 15 years. Their two children, Samuel, age nine and Gabriela, age seven, are named for his parents who died in 1991 and ’92. For seven years, Angelica ran the company’s front office. Today, she is a full-time student, studying social work at York University.

“Angelica is the super-volunteer of all time. She’s involved in every single thing imaginable,” David said fondly. “She is on the campaign team for our local mayor. She’s the social director, putting on events for the 2,000-home area in which we live. She is a busy person who likes to be involved in a lot of different things.

“The children do their own little things. They do karate and other fun things. Both are painting right now, but there’s no sign of interest in harness making. I won’t push it but will leave things with them the same way my dad left it with me. It’s a hard thing to do. Now, I’ll let the kids experience life and keep part of belonging to the business out there so they have a place to go if they want.

“There is a small part of me away from the business,” David said, adding he spends almost every waking hour with his work. “I spend as much time as I can, mostly in the winter months, with my family. On weekends, my wife, kids and I are on the ski slopes.

“I am an avid ski racer on the Masters Circuit and the City League as well. About 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, I get my ski-racing gear on and go to the local slope. It’s what I do to help me keep that competitive edge.”

While David has expanded Freeman’s Harness’ horizons, he also has returned to some of its roots.
“We had moonlighted in ladies belts and handbags,” he explained. “We’ve come back strong with travel bags and briefcases. We’re also doing a lot of branding with the United States Equestrian Federation. We’ve designed three special bags as well as a knapsack, a carry-on and boot carrier. A lot of this is being offered at the Midway [
Ky.] store.”

Today, three teams of skilled, certifiable harness makers are the nucleus of Freedman’s 5,000 square foot shop. They employ a total of 14 people at the Toronto facility.

“It’s the only type of shop that works like this globally, that produces such quality,” David said. “We have a lot to offer these types of artisans.

No question: David Freedman is a busy, somewhat driven man. After all, he’s upholding a family tradition that has endured more than 200 years. Their distinctive horseshoe trademark, unobtrusively etched into their leatherwork, is a quiet testimony to the work of five generations of artisans who have gone before.

It’s a tradition that David happily embraces.

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