H.H. Babcock Company, 1845-1926; Watertown, New York
Associated Firms: Hermann A. Brunn; Arcadia Truck Body Co.
H.H Babcock was a mid-sized regional carriage maker that made production bodies for a Dodge, Ford, Lincoln and Wills-Sainte Claire automobiles during the teens and twenties. They also produced an assembled car called the Babcock in small numbers from 1909 to 1913. The introduction of the stamped metal body combined with their geographic isolation caused them to exit the coachbuilding business a couple of years prior to the start of the Depression. Hermann A. Brunn worked at Babcock for a while prior to becoming supervisor of the New Haven Carriage Company. Brunn then went on to form Brunn & Company in 1908, which was one of the premiere American custom body builders of the 1920s and 1930s. Interestingly, a Babcock electric car was built in Buffalo, New York, but was unrelated to the Watertown firm.
Henry Holmes Babcock was born in Hamilton, N.Y. March 28, 1821, a son of Joshua A. Babcock and Laura Holmes Babcock, who were descendents of an old New England family. Mr. Babcock came to Jefferson County and spent practically all of his business life here. In 1845 he began the manufacture of the “Watertown Wind Mill” a wind-powered water pump used on large farms to pump water from the well to the surrounding fields and buildings. Babcock also built the accompanying pumps, cylinders, tanks, and wooden pipelines used during the installation. Wooden pumps were eventually supplanted by iron ones, and he converted his Factory Square plant into Watertown’s first carriage factory during the early 1870s.
The manufacture of buggy gears commenced in 1878, the same year that Babcock received his four sons into the firm, which was now called H.H. Babcock & Sons. In 1882 R. P. and A. R. Flower acquired an interest in the business which was incorporated as the H.H. Babcock Buggy Company. In time the plant grew to become one of the largest factories of its kind in the country and enjoyed a nation-wide reputation. His wife, the former Eliza Wheeler, whom he married in 1841, passed away on June, 29, 1900.
Babcock was also one of the last presidents of the village of Watertown before it became a city in 1869, and prior to that time had served as a member of the board of supervisors for several terms. He died in New York City on December 1, 1903, survived by his three sons George H. Babcock, F.W. Babcock, F.E. Babcock, and two daughters (a fourth son, Herbert P. Babcock, died in 1883). George H. Babcock became the next president, and upon his death in 1916, Yale educated Henry H. Babcock, son of Herbert P. Babcock and grandson and namesake of the founder, became president. Carriages, wagons and sleighs were still the standard mode of transportation in New York’s snow-belt until well into the 1920s, and the small firm prospered, purchasing two of their competitors, the Watertown Spring Wagon Company in the late 1890s and the Watertown Carriage Company in 1909.
Their first major vehicle bodybuilding contract of note arrived in the early 1900s for a series of 80 omnibus bodies for use in the City of Buffalo. No pictures remain and it’s possible the bodies were for the city’s extensive electric streetcar line which was used into the 1950s, but it may also have been for some smaller gas or electric buses that were starting to appear in major metropolitan areas.
After building increasing numbers of bodies for local Model T chassis, Babcock introduced six different styles of delivery van and depot hack bodies for Ford Model T and TT chassis that were marketed directly to Ford dealers. By September of 1915, they had received orders for over 1,000 examples. Unlike their competition’s wood framed bodies, Babcock’s featured their patented steel body construction that the used in all of their commercial bodies. By 1917, Babcock was making similar bodies for Dodge Brothers, again marketed through regional dealers, rather than the manufacturer. These Babcock commercial bodies remained popular through the mid-1920s, and were also made available for White, Olds and GMC chassis.
During the United States' participation in World War I, the company devoted all its plant resources to the manufacture of ambulance bodies and army stretchers. In March of 1917 Babcock got an initial order for 500 (another source says 600) ambulance bodies for the war department’s Medical Corps. The bodies were 8 feet long, five feet wide and 4’8” tall and built to accommodate 4 stretchers, bunk bed style. Another order for 3,500 ambulance bodies came in June followed by a contract for 90,000 litters (stretchers) that was received in September.
Babcock’s ambulance body was declared to be superior to all other makes by the War Department and was adopted for use in the army, some five thousand of these were eventually shipped overseas for use by the American Expeditionary Forces, and they were the only American bodies to see active service transferring injured soldiers from the front-lines. Based on their WWI reputation, Babcock’s limited production ambulances and funeral cars proved popular in the years immediately following the war. Built on Model T, TT and Dodge light truck chassis, they were sold through their respective regional dealers.
After the war was over, Babcock formed a subsidiary, The Babcock Manufacturing Supply Company, devoted to painting, trimming and upholstering automobile bodies. Babcock now had the capacity to work on 1,000 vehicles at a time. Babcock continued building light truck bodies, and also produced a few enclosed town car bodies for extended wheelbase Dodge automobiles. One famous customer was the penny-pinching New York banker, J.P. Morgan. A picture survives of his gorgeous 1922 Babcock-bodied Dodge Town Car with disc wheels.
Babcock received a large order from the Ford Motor Company for a run of Model T sedans later in the year followed by an August 1919 order from Franklin for sedan bodies, an arrangement that would continue into the mid-1920s, when the Walker Body Company of Amesbury, Massachusetts took over all Franklin body production. The additional contracts increased Babcock’s employment from 1918’s 240 hands to 375 by the beginning of 1920 and resulted in the construction of a cafeteria for the workers in early 1920. Regional sales offices were also established in Baltimore, Maryland, Des Moines, Iowa, and Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Two devastating fires ravaged the Babcock plants severely limiting their production capacity, the first in May of 1920, the second in January of 1921.
With the workforce cut back to 250 hands, Babcock split their body-building department into two units early in 1922, one for commercial bodies, the other for automobile bodies. The newly formed Pleasure car Division secured a small order from Lincoln in May of 1922 that called for the assembly and finishing of 250 sedan bodies for the firms new 1923 lineup. Another order came in August for 250 touring limousine bodies from Franklin. Upon completion of the first Lincoln order, a second was placed for an additional 260 sedan bodies in November. Total production for Lincoln totaled 510 in 1922 and Babcock would eventually produce 1331 bodies for the firm through the next year.
In October of 1923 Babcock secured an order from Wills Ste. Claire of Marysville, Michigan 250 7-passenger sedan bodies and 200 roadster bodies, with a stipulation that examples be ready for the New York Automobile Show in January. In February of 1924 Wills Ste. Claire ordered an additional 500 roadsters and 250 sedans bodies and Babcock issued an additional $250,000 in preferred and common stock to pay for the materials and employees needed to complete the new order.
In addition to their production automotive bodies, Babcock maintained a small business in building Suburbans or woody wagon bodies as we know them today. They took out an ad in Country Life in early 1924 advertising their Estate Car. " The car, indispensable for suburban home or country club, is ideal for hunting and fishing parties, picnics and marketing. The governess' car, the servant's conveyance - a handy car for scores of purposes. For its distinctive individuality, it has been selected by the House of Morgan, of Gould, of Swift, of Hill, and scores of America's first." Estate cars were normally built on Dodge chassis and some were built using all-metal construction with elaborate cane work panels in place of the wooden ones found on regular suburban bodies.
By the middle of March, 1924, employment was up to 550 men and new orders were coming in on a regular basis. Total production of Wills Ste. Claire and Lincoln bodies averaged over 80 per week for the first time ever. A small number of bodies were built for early (1922-23) Model A Duesenberg chassis, as well as late teens and early twenties White, Olds, and GMC chassis.
The May, 1962 issue of the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club Newsletter mentioned the bodies constructed for the Indianapolis manufacturer:
"DUESENBERG BABCOCK BODY INFORMATION WANTED
"While an earlier appeal by editor John B. Johnson of the Watertown, N.Y. Daily Times failed to evoke any news whatsoever from our readers, perhaps this additional information from him will inspire someone to take pen in hand:
"'A former automobile dealer here in Watertown who once worked for Babcock informs us that there were three Duesenberg bodies built by Babcock in 1922 or 1923. Babcock bought the hardware for the bodies and sent it to India to be gold plated, and then it was returned to this city where the body and chassis were put together.
"'As you may recall, in my earlier letters to you I was under the impression that this automobile had a connection with Siam. Now it appears that the connection is with India and that after the cars were assembled they were shipped to India.
"'I don't know whether this adds any clue which you can work on, but if it does, I would appreciate anything you can write me in running down this three body experience of the Babcock Company for Duesenberg.'"
In June of 1924, Lincoln placed an additional order with Babcock for 120 Sports Sedan bodies, and Wills Ste-Clair added several hundred more bodies to their standing order. Commercial body orders from the Federal Truck Company, Fleischman’s Yeast, Jewel Tea and other firms kept the commercial body division busy as well. Employment was down from March’s all-time high of 550 and the hands employed at the end of June numbered 450.
In 1925 the commercial division received a small order from the General Bakery Company for 50 delivery van bodies and a large one for 500 taxicab bodies from the Twenties Century Taxicab Association Inc.
Both Ford and Dodge also placed orders in 1925 for the commercial division’s new Suburban light truck body. Dodges initial order of 50 was completed by the beginning of 1926, and the Ford suburbans were produced on an as-needed basis.
Automobile body production took a turn for the worse in 1925, and by 1926 Babcock was working solely on commercial bodies and was looking for other work to keep what was left of their workforce busy. Radio manufacturer Atwater-Kent toured the plant in anticipation of a contract with Babcock to manufacture wooden radio cabinets, but no contract materialized.
At the time of its demise in July of 1926, Babcock owed $605,000 to over 250 creditors. $220,000 of the debt unsecured, the remainder secured by bonds and mortgages. The firm was sold to C. Wesley Gamble, head of the newly organized H.H. Babcock Equipment Corporation, which was made up of the firm’s creditors. Gamble traveled to Detroit several times hoping to secure new contracts for the manufacture of automobile bodies, but he returned empty handed. With the merging of several large automobile body corporations in the Midwest where the bulk of automobile manufacturing takes place, Gamble discovered that Babcock was too small and too far away from its markets to satisfactorily compete with the big guns already in control of the business.
Existing contracts were filled by July of 1928 and the doors closed forever on August 1st. The dies, jigs, patterns and manufacturing rights for the Babcock light commercial bodies were immediately transferred to the Newark, N.Y. firm, the Arcadia Truck Body Company, which added the Babcock line to its popular line of Arcadia truck bodies. Most of the property and remaining inventory was sold in 1930 to Abe Cooper, a Syracuse-based junk dealer whose firm, the Abe Cooper Watertown Corp. used it as a warehouse until it was torn down in 1979.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com