In the 1850’s and 60’s outside of Cincinnati, OH a young family was starting that, towards the end of the century, would have an impact on the Flagstaff economy that endures to this day. In this article we will meet the five Babbitt brothers, learn more about the circumstances that brought them to the land at the base of the San Francisco Peak and discover in more detail the family’s contributions to our community. So, let’s get started!
The Babbitt Brothers In Ohio
In the middle of the 19th century, Catherine Spellmire, a German immigrant, and David Babbitt, a native of Massachusetts, were simple farmers in the outskirts Cincinnati, OH. Together they were raising a farm and a family of six living children until, in 1868, everything changed for the young family. Unfortunately, Catherine was widowed by her husband and left alone to raise a 15-year-old daughter and five even younger sons. The boys were David, aged 10, George, aged 8, William, aged 6 , Charles, aged 3 and Edward, aged 1. After David’s untimely death, Catherine packed up her family and moved them into Cincinnati where she managed the family matters until her death in 1883.
With the death of his mother, and also that of his sister in the same year, David was forced to become the head of the Babbitt household, but he would prove to be a natural leader and savvy businessman from the beginning. In 1882, David and George at the ripe ages of 24 and 22 opened a grocery business in Cincinnati and this simple endeavor would be the first in a long string of endeavors for the family. The grocery was located across the street from the household of George Verkamp and his daughters and as the Babbitt’s and Verkamp’s became well acquainted George also became impressed with savviness of the brothers. The two family’s fates would become even more intertwined in the years to follow.
The Babbitt’s Look West
As the other Babbitt brothers matured, they also became involved in the family grocery business and after just a couple years the boys began looking to the west for new possibilities. They had heard of an abundance of opportunity in the ranching industry and in 1884 David headed west to scout out a new location for the family. He first went to Wyoming and Montana, but on this initial trip he was unable to find a suitable and affordable site. He returned to Ohio and the young men pushed hard to save up as much money as possible, so that in 1886 David and William could embark once again with a savings of $20,000 and a focus on the southwest.
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Their search initially took them to New Mexico, but they found the prices of land and stock to be too high and at this point fate would come from the unlikely tip of a ticket agent. David and William headed for the train station in Albuquerque, NM and the ticket agent told them of a booming town along the line called Flagstaff and maybe they should check it out. Apparently, this was enough for the brothers and in February 1886 they hopped off a train in downtown Flagstaff.
Interestingly, they arrived just a couple weeks after the major fire of 1886 had obliterated most of the businesses across downtown, but it appears that they were able to look past the destruction and see the possibilities as well. One likely factor in this was their ability to quickly meet many of the towns influential characters through their acquaintance with Dr. Brannen, the physician for the Ayer Lumber Mill, the railroad, and the cousin of early setter and merchant P.J. Brannen.
The Babbitt Brothers In Flagstaff
George and William sent the good news to their brothers and returned to Flagstaff in April 1886 for good. Charles followed just a couple weeks later, while Edward stayed in OH for school and George stayed back just long enough to tie up the family affairs. George and Edward arrived in 1887. While the four older brothers would stay in Flagstaff for the rest of their lives, Edward would go back to OH to study law and over the decades jump back and forth between the two cities, with Cincinnati as his true home.
The Babbitt brothers dove head first into the cattle ranching business and within two weeks of their arrival David and William had spent almost the entirety of their $20,000 in savings to procure around 1200 heads of cattle and they called their new outfit the CO-Bar ranch in honor of their hometown of Cincinnati, OH, and so the first endeavor of the Babbitt brothers had officially begun.
At this point, the Verkamp family, George and his daughters, that we mentioned earlier once again enter the story. In 1886, David married Emma Verkamp, in 1890 Charles married Mary Verkamp, and in 1895 Edward married Matilda Verkamp, and the relationship between the two families was set in stone. George Verkamp’s generosity and business acumen would help build the futures of his daughters families for decades to come. So, David Babbitt and his crew had finally found the ideal location to start their new lives as cattle ranchers in the west and began the process of building their empire, but there is more to the story.
The Babbitt’s Go Into Business
The four older Babbitt brothers had come west to pursue a life in the cattle ranching industry, and they were just in time to get a good deal on some cattle but they were a bit early for it to solely sustain their lifestyles. It was still a good and profitable industry but it wasn’t booming, and so the family was forced to seek other business opportunities. Charles and William continued to run the ranch, while David and George went into business.
George bought a small bakery along route 66 (or Front Street as it was known at the time) and eventually he would have the very first soda fountain in town. He also acted as the bookkeeper for P.J. Brannen’s general store. Neither of these operations would continue into the longterm.
David, on the other hand, had received a $10,000 dowry from his father-in-law George Verkamp as well as an offer for an advance of up to $50,000 should he be able to find the right opportunity, and he started off his endeavors with the purchase of a couple plots of land on the corner of San Francisco Street and Aspen Ave (then known as Church Ave). On a side note, the other Babbitt brothers that married Verkamp women would also receive $10,000 dowry’s and it is said that in the end George Verkamp had contributed up to $100,000 to the endeavors of his daughters and their Babbitt husbands.
Babbitt Brothers Trading Company
Out of a simple framed structure sitting on the corner, David Babbitt opened a lumber and tool supply store and started doing business in a way that had not yet been attempted in town. He began making deals to purchase large amounts of product at wholesale prices and reselling them for lower rates than his competitors. His business quickly took root, and within a couple years it was apparent to the family that they should move forward in the world of merchandise.
On the last day of 1888 the four eldest brothers invested in the Babbitt Brothers Trading Company, and each brother, except William who continued to run the ranch, was assigned a specific role based on their special skills. Over the years, the Babbitt Trading Company dealt in everything from wagons to sewing machines, from groceries to livestock, and they even operated a bank, made ice and perhaps most oddly they ran a funeral parlor. In one of his books, Platt Cline references a saying that the Babbitt’s were a go to for any needs from “the basket to the casket” and that kids would teasingly say that “even the sheep say Baaa-bbitt” in Flagstaff.
The Babbitt Trading Co. Today
One enduring remnant from the Babbitt Brothers Trading Co. is the beautiful building now located on the same corner as David’s original store. In more modern times the building became known as Babbitt’s and it was the largest department store in Arizona. However, in the 1970’s the mall was completed and the many stores including this one left downtown. At one point was slated for demolition, but instead was bought and saved by the Babbitt Foundation. We will go much further into the details of this building on our downtown Flagstaff walking tour so be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to be notified when that episode is released, if it hasn’t been yet. The Babbitt’s mercantile operations once spread all across northern Arizona, but they are now scaled back to just the Babbitt’s Wholesale Company which specializes in the wholesale distribution of Pendleton blankets and home wares.
Before we jump back to the cattle industry, one additional industry that the Babbitt family pioneered in Flagstaff was that of the automobile. Now, around 1910 in Flagstaff the primary modes of transportation were the horse, the carriage and the train, but the car wasn’t far behind. David Babbitt’s son Edwin had become fascinated with automobiles and, eager to prove his business acumen, to his father he suggested that the Babbitt’s invest in the auto industry.
The Flagstaff Motor Industry
It appears that, although skeptical, David approved of his sons endeavor and helped him start the E.D. Babbitt Motor Company. The decision proved to be a good one as in 1912 the National Old Trails Highway that ran from coast to coast ran directly through Flagstaff and with it came the ability for residents to travel longer distances in personal vehicles. As a result the auto industry and the Babbitt’s stake in it boomed. Babbitt Ford is still a staple business in Flagstaff today and when Jim Babbitt retired he sold it to his partner and the current owner, Alan Chan.
The Cattle Industry Booms
While the trading company found prosperity in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century and the auto industry blossomed in the early 20th century the ranch would eventually become the most profitable, widespread and enduring endeavor of the lot. At its peak, the Babbitt Ranches spanned over a million acres from Kansas to California and not only had they bought out many of the other ranches in and around Flagstaff, but they also ran a ranching loan company. If they didn’t actually own outright one of the ranching operations of the time, chances are they were involved monetarily in some form or fashion.
Among the operations they purchased in the Flagstaff area were the Arizona Cattle Company with its A-1 brand and the Hashknife outfit. By the time last of the five original brothers passed away in 1956 the world and Flagstaff had changed to a degree that the family had to scale back their operations significantly, but the Babbitt Ranches continue to this day with a few of the best operations in northern Arizona and every year they hold a colt sale under the famous Hashknife brand of the past.
A Legacy Of Service
Lastly, from the beginning into today the Babbitt’s have been known for their emphasis on service. This commitment is apparent in so many ways, but just a few examples from over the years are the many public offices held, to their contributions to land conservation and the Babbitt Foundations efforts to conserve historic buildings including the 1888 Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. If you’d like to learn more about this restoration project visit their page here.
While we could go on about the Babbitt family for many pages, we will have to call it quits for today. If you have any fun Babbitt facts that you would like to share please tell us in the comments below.
I hope you have enjoyed this article and if you’d like to check out our videos on the history of Flagstaff go ahead and click right here. Also, don’t forget to subscribe and until next time, keep exploring my friends. We’ll see you later.