Frank Babcock’s Monumental Amesbury Factory
Editor’s note: This article is based on research by Mike Harrold, who has produced an extensive collection of documents related to Amesbury history. Mike is a volunteer researcher on the Industrial Survey Team of the carriage museum.
When 23-year-old Frank Babcock arrived in Amesbury in 1873, few knew the mark he would make on the town – a huge monument of a brick factory building that would survive until 1942. Mike Harrold of the Amesbury Carriage Museum industrial survey team decided to dig into the story of Babcock and his factory. The narrative starts in Amesbury and then continues in Buffalo, N.Y., where Babcock relocated in the 1890s, leaving the monumental factory he had built on Chestnut Street in Amesbury.
When he came to Amesbury as a young man, the industrious Babcock took a series of jobs in the carriage industry. Only ten years after his arrival here, he had become an influential member of the business community and was able to start a new carriage-making business on Chestnut St. His holdings eventually consisted of a new four-story brick building and several existing adjacent buildings. When lumped together, Babcock’s properties made up the largest factory in Amesbury. Legendary Locals of Amesbury by Margie Walker says the Babcock Company was producing 5,000 carriages a year and employing 300 workers.
Only four years later, in 1888, a terrible fire destroyed many of Babcock’s buildings. But supported by others in the business community, he was able to replace the burned-out ruins on the site with a huge factory building in 1889. This imposing structure provided almost 200,000 square feet of floor space and was five stories tall on the lower side. It was the largest factory building in Amesbury’s history.
According to Mike Harrold’s research, Babcock left management of the new building in the hands of Amesbury Building Corporation, and who then rented space to several carriage companies there. The directors of the management company included Amesbury business people, and Haverhill businessmen provided financial backing.
Harrold believes Babcock moved to Buffalo in the early 1890s where he helped found the Buffalo Electric Carriage Co. By 1903, Babcock was completely in control of the company. He made news back in Amesbury when he and his wife completed “the longest journey ever made in this country by an electric vehicle.” They had motored from Boston to New York City in only five days.
Babcock’s business success continued until about 1915 when his company halted production of electric autos and began manufacturing auto bodies for other companies. It appears that Babcock retired sometime after 1915 and moved to Canton, Conn., where he died in 1921.
Meanwhile, the giant factory Babcock built years before in Amesbury remained in active use. The S.R. Bailey Co. bought the building in 1903, and it changed hands again in 1915 when it was purchased by Biddle & Smart Co. for manufacturing auto bodies. The building became known as Plant No. 5 and was part of a complex of ten buildings used for company operations.
Early in the Great Depression, Biddle & Smart Co. failed and closed their operations. The town took over ownership of the Babcock Building by tax title action in 1933. Left vacant, the condition of the structure began to decline until 1942 when it was sold to a demolition company for $4,100 and taken down.
For much more about Babcock, his life in Amesbury and Buffalo, and his line of electric automobiles, read Harrold’s Frank A. Babcock: Carriages, Buildings and Cars in the Researching Place section of the Amesbury Carriage Museum website.