SEBRIMG — For over 50 years, he’s been helping folks pull through.
From dusty orange grove back roads, to the muddy ruts of palmetto-strewn fields and pastures, to the winding, watery byways of cypress swamps, Harold Young’s drive has been there.
Since 1952, through Young Welding & Fabrication, Harold has been manufacturing “swamp buggies,” four- and two-wheel vehicles built to get hunters, emergency personnel and pleasure riders into the inner-bowels of Florida’s murky innards.
And since 1986. Harold and his son, Nick, have been assembling buggies in the Young Fabrication shop, 7100 South U.S. 27. There, they’ve been putting together six- and eight-wheel, multi-seat, raised buggies for individuals, hunting teams and county and state parks.
Now 84 years old, Harold has been making swamp buggies since U.S. 27 was a two-lane highway and most of southern Highlands County was more dirt and sand than tar and cement.
During their workday Tuesday, Nick and Harold worked on maintenance for a buggy used at Big Cypress National Preserve, Ochopee. During the day, they reworked power outlets, adjusted headlights, repaired seats and did transmission adjustments.
While Nick worked on the front end, Harold took time out to go through pictures of buggies he’s put together over a half century. Among them are Dana/Spicer units and parts from Jacksonville with which engines, drive shafts, headers, mufflers, radiators and gearboxes are carefully assembled to become 90 to 110 horsepower engines that can barrel a buggy through the most inhospitable terrains.
Harold, who opened his first Sebring buggy shop near Cooper Road in 1952 and moved two times before settling at its current location, said over the years, he’s built buggies for notables such as golfer Jack Nicklaus and George Matthews whose family built the railroad from Key West to West Palm Beach. Over the years, he said although the thrill of turning a wrench has waned, the satisfaction of a job-well-done hasn’t.
“It’s not as much fun as when I was younger, like it used to be,” said Harold, who was born in Lancaster, Pa., and moved to Sebring with his family in 1939. “When I was younger, I’d rather build a buggy than eat; now, I’d rather eat.”
Harold’s interest in building buggies began when he was 15 and he and friend got stuck in a vehicle in the woods near what’s now Highlands Hammock State Park.
“We got stuck about midnight and got home walking about 5 a.m. I thought, ‘We’re going to have to have something to get out in the woods and to not have to walk home again.’”
Over the years, Young Fabrication’s buggies have been used for personal use and for sites and organizations such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Audubon Society, Ben Hill Griffin Inc., Everglades National Park, and Big Cypress, which uses three Young buggies. Harold and his son built a water-tank firebuggy for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.
On the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, at least five of Harold’s buggies have traversed the 27,000 acres over the past 15 years. Ben Nottingham, Refuge manager, said he depends on the Youngs’ buggies for wildlife surveys, prescribed burns and law enforcement.
“His buggies are durable and dependable and they have ‘turf tires’ which won’t scar the ground surface,” he said.
Another of the Young’s regular customers is Gator Howerton, who uses the buggies to hunt invasive coyotes around Highlands County.
“We use it once or twice a week. He still builds sturdy buggies and he goes through everything to make sure it’s right,” he said.
Harold, who lives in Sebring with his wife, Iris, said although the buggy bug still bites, at his age, it’s time to put down the wrench, retire the screwdriver. He said sometime this year, he would do his best to retire and leave the business to Nick, who began working on buggies when he was 6 years old.
“I’m supposed to have already quit,” he said standing in a bay with a timeless grin, his green baseball shading a weatherbeaten forehead. “Nick has learned everything he needs to learn from me. If he needs to know more, he knows where to find me.”
According to “Naples 1940s to 1970s” by Lynne Howard Frazier, swamp buggies were invented by Ed Frank in Naples during early development of the Everglades in the 1930s and 1940s.