John and Janet Pucci were both born in Ohio and raised as neighbors. Janet’s father owned a RV park called Springbrook Farms, hence the name of their Wilmington carriage business.
On their wedding day, John surprised Janet with a horse and carriage at the ceremony. John knew a friend who ran a horse and carriage business. At that time, the business idea came about after friends and relatives had also come along.
They founded the Springbrook Farms Carriage Company downtown in 1987. At that time, downtown was experiencing a rebirth and the Puccis saw the bones and structure of a vibrant future.
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Because of the timing, they thought they could help with the ongoing revitalization process while rescuing horses and starting their own business. And 34 years later, tradition meanders through the streets of downtown Wilmington, giving locals and visitors a unique glimpse into the history of the city.
To quote John and Janet: “We are more concerned with economy horses than carriage rides. The horses are our family. “
How it started
The friend who organized the carriage rides wanted to retire, so he called John and asked him to organize the next wedding for him. He told John he would train him on how to run the tour business.
So they started making a living from it. They had a great time but they were just paying the bills and not making any money.
They had a friend in Pittsburgh who went horse and carriage tours on weekends. He invited her to go on tours with him. He worked in the Station Square neighborhood, a riverside location in the city of Pittsburgh. At that time, Station Square was still in its infancy in terms of revitalization. John and Janet knew nothing about Wilmington at the time.
John studied the idea of using the draft horses like his friend. They were strong and docile, especially the Percherons. Amish farmers had a problem with the big processing companies going on horse auctions and outbidding their competitors. Then they would take the horses out of the county for processing.
John and Janet decided that when they got into this business they would call up Percherons who needed a home, not a farm. To this day they have a continuous connection with the Amish farmers who are trying to save their draft horses from the processors.
John and Janet only use rescued gelding Percherons to save them from the fate of the processors.
When Springbrook buys the horses, the Amish train them for the town, and the horses have long and easy lives on Springbrook Farms.
The horses like the attention they get from the audience. John and Janet take special care of the horses.
John helped found Carriage Operators of North America (CONA) to establish and maintain strong operating standards for the industry.
Transition from Ohio to Wilmington
Janet didn’t like the cold Ohio weather. But she didn’t want to go back to Florida because it was too hot. She liked the North Carolina weather, especially the Wilmington area.
They took some vacation and traveled across North Carolina in search of the ideal location for their newly planned business. When they landed at the bottom of Market Street in downtown Wilmington, they knew they had found the right place.
Bob Jenkins, the ultimate downtown personality, has been of great help and encouragement to the Puccis and a role model for their business. Carl Marshburn and the Henrietta were also encouragements. Times were tough at first due to the loss of Belk’s, JCPenney’s and Sears to Independence Mall, but they got better every year.
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It wasn’t an easy path, but they persevered and stuck to the program to make their business the success it is today.
Cruelty to animals problems
During John and Janet’s tenure as operators of Springbrook farms, they were occasionally criticized for being cruel to their horses by making them work so hard.
Animals do not have the same status as they used to be and are sometimes not treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. The Puccis said their primary goal is to protect their animals and enable them to live full lives, even after they have left the carriage business. Their love for animals, especially their horses, is the main motivation behind running their business.
To demonstrate this point, John helped found CONA. The main purpose of this organization is to publish and promote standards for the dignified treatment of animals.
They also built a high-quality shelter in the city center to protect the horses in bad weather. It also serves as a safe place for hooking up and hanging off the road. Here, too, the safety of the horses comes first. They also have a local ordinance in place to ensure good treatment of the horses.
The final part of treating their horses ethically involves the farm they set up in Brunswick County, from which their horses are rotated to Wilmington, and which provides a place where they can comfortably spend the rest of their lives. One of her cherished horses, Radar, lived to be 33 years old.
Despite the pandemic and the ups and downs of building a business over the years, the Puccis have built careers and made a living. No, they did not get rich from this venture, but they led a comfortable life. When she started the business, Janet had to sell hot dogs on the riverside to supplement her income. Business was sluggish at first.
No, they did not get rich from this venture, but they led a comfortable life.
As with most companies, the pandemic has had a somewhat negative impact. They separated the seating arrangements in 6 foot increments and placed barriers between the drivers. They disinfect the seats after every journey. They marked the sidewalks near the entrance of the wagons and put up safety signs, all before regulations were mandated.
After 34 years of hard work in a company, you’d think most people would be interested in retiring.
When asked about retirement, John and Janet said they would consider retiring if they could find people who share their vision and goals for running the company and are ready to provide the all-important training for the horses and offer drivers.
Then they may be ready to move “to pasture”.
Gene Merritt is a Wilmington real estate developer and conservationist. He was the co-founder and first Executive Director of what is now Wilmington Downtown, Inc. He was also the founder of the annual Riverfest downtown.