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PROFILE : Carriage Trade : John Morgan traded in grocery career for risky, but rewarding, profession in non-rapid transit.


Five years ago, John Morgan had a kind of identity crisis.

It wasn't that he turned to drink or left Connie, his wife of 34 years. He didn't start gambling. Yet what else could you call it?

For a practical, workaholic sort, a man past 50, to throw over a tidy grocery business, which had carried him for three decades, and turn to . . . carriage building?

Sometimes Morgan can hardly believe it himself.

"It's a little scary," he said of the venture, looking around his Oak View shop crammed to the rafters with anachronistic carts, coaches, sleighs, harnesses and the parts thereof. "In the beginning I intended to work part time in a grocery. It just kind of got blown out of all proportion."

The last time he counted, which wasn't lately, there were 65 vehicles in the inventory of Morgan Carriage Works, in conditions ranging from mint to just dragged in off the farm, rotting.

It's a kind of compulsion to bring the things into shape. So much so that Morgan goes on treasure hunts around the country to add to his collection, salvaging vehicles most folks would pay to have hauled away.

"That's a Sears Roebuck runabout," he says proudly of a pathetic heap of wood on wheels. "Those two are Studebakers," he says, indicating two rusty, bedraggled carts with mohair bursting from their brittle seats. "I got them off a farm near Temecula."

Beyond the shop, in a yard patrolled by a small, cheerful dog and a laconic burro, other relics wait their turn for restoration, standing hub to hub in disordered rows around the acre lot. There is hardly room for an antique car chassis.

It started with cars. Restoring them was a pastime he shared with his son, Pat. But only Pat, 29, has time for them now, in between sessions with carriages.

In the old days, when Morgan owned Ven Oak market in Oak View, all four Morgan children helped in the business. But Pat longed to be outside working on cars. Later, like his father, he was bitten by the buggy bug, and parlayed the skills he acquired painting and welding automobiles into carriage restoration.

Both men are fascinated with the craftsmanship that went into the old vehicles, and painstaking about rebuilding them. They break a carriage into component parts and remove every ounce of paint. "We can't guarantee a paint job unless we know what's under it," Morgan said. Then they reconstruct missing woodwork, and depending on the customer--or their whim--restore a natural wood finish or apply three coats of enamel.

Connie Morgan takes time off from keeping the company books to rebuild upholstery. Some leather work Morgan sends out to Amish craftsmen in Pennsylvania. Nothing leaves the shop unless it meets his standards.

"Sometimes people say, 'Just spray a little paint on it,' but it doesn't work that way," Morgan insists.

He also builds from scratch; and clients around the state and beyond are beginning to come to Oak View for custom work. Officials from the city of Paso Robles recently dropped in with a photograph of an old horse-drawn streetcar they wanted copied. Morgan designed the entire car from the photo and fashioned it with oak seats, mahogany siding and all fittings crafted on the premises.

Demand for streetcars being what it is, the business has to look elsewhere for a steady income. In part, it has begun renting a handsome surrey with a driver and groom (Morgan and Connie) to escort brides and grooms to nostalgic weddings.

This side of the business is less comfortable for Morgan. Carpentry and horsemanship come easy. Going out to meet the public and to pose for photos in a bowler hat and string tie do not.

"I could be a hermit real easy," he says.

Morgan grew up on the Limoneira ranch in Santa Paula and still considers himself a country boy. He met Connie, who he says is "the only person I've ever been close to," when they were 15 and 14 respectively. He married her five years later.

She thought he would become a carpenter, but he felt it wasn't steady enough, so he went into the food business. He worked up to manager at Vons in Ventura, then struck out on his own.

The move to carriage building isn't like him and he knows it. But the children were through school, and one day he went to a defunct carriage works in Templeton in search of parts for his middle-aged hobby, "buggy driving."

Pat remembered his father saying: "They have all this neat stuff there--I want to just buy everything."

And he did.

And now, though struggling to make the business lucrative, Morgan sees himself on the ground floor of a sport that he hopes will grow up around him: competitive carriage driving. Long popular on the East Coast, it has hit California only recently. Pat Morgan discovered it about two years ago.

"It's a lot more fun than I thought it would be," says the younger Morgan, a seasoned dirt bike racer. "They had carts going sideways and tires throwing up dirt."

Pat already took a best-in-show award at last year's Meadows of Moorpark--a three-day driving event that included reinsmanship, a marathon and an obstacle course.

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