J.L. Babcock's Marriage Quest
A fortune made in wool brought him proposals from around the country.
by Dave McCormick
From the June, 2020 issue
Upon the death of his uncle, Luther James, in 1889, James L. Babcock became Ann Arbor's most eligible bachelor. He was thrust into this role due to the stipulations in his uncle's will: If he married within five years on James's death, Babcock would receive $500,000, but he'd forfeit the windfall if he remained a bachelor. Apparently, James realized he didn't want his nephew to remain unwed and miserable like him.
When the terms of the will became known, Babcock was inundated with proposals from a bevy of young women and widows. Once the national press got the story, letters came to Ann Arbor from thousands of miles away and even from across oceans--so many that Babcock hired a secretary to respond to them all. But would he marry in time to secure his inheritance?
As the story was told in the Toronto Republican, Babcock had previously fallen in love with a beautiful young woman. The wedding date was set, but, according to the newspaper, Babcock's "dream of happiness was doomed." Evidently, James had voiced his opposition to the marriage, and Babcock had yielded to his uncle's wishes and called off the engagement. Some thought James's peculiar bequest was intended as partial restitution.
It certainly increased his options. Babcock reportedly received hundreds of letters, many with photographs enclosed. According to the Pittsburg Dispatch, they were postmarked from just about every state and territory in the U.S. Although the correspondence was from women of all ages, the paper reported, the largest group of correspondents was aged sixteen to twenty. Massachusetts was the state with the most sent by "old maids"--a category that at the time included women thirty-five to forty-five. Babcock told the Chicago Tribune that he even received two cables from Nottingham, England--the senders apparently were worried he might accept a proposal before their letters would arrive by steamer.
The Pittsburg Dispatch edition divided the letters into four categories: the gay and jocular; the serious and plaintive;
the businesslike and emphatic; and the sentimental and advisory, like the one that urged him, "For pity's sake ... don't marry one of those women who think only of money."
In an odd turn of events, according to the Waukesha, Wisconsin, Daily Freeman and Republican, Babcock received a number of letters from men, requesting the privilege of carrying on any superfluous correspondence he might have. Apparently, Babcock did refer some women to these men, but the women refused to hold correspondence with "second hand" parties. Like a contemporary Powerball winner, he also heard from men offering high returns on pie-in-the-sky investments or requesting loans, while others were not averse to downright begging.
James's wealth came from the wool trade. One hundred fifty years ago, sheep were grazing on hillsides in most farms in the county, and their wool was a hot commodity. According to Anne Rueter's article in the June 1983 Observer, in 1870 alone 188,000 local sheep produced one million pounds of wool, most of which was shipped from Chelsea to textile mills throughout the country. By the 1890s, wool was processed locally in six water-powered and one steam-powered factory. Production peaked in 1894, when 1.34 million pounds of wool was produced.
Babcock worked in the business and seems to have been financially secure even without his inheritance. In 1890, he acquired the 1858 Italianate Wells House at 208 North Division St. for nearly $10,000. According to Samuel Beakes's 1906 Past and Present of Washtenaw County, the property "was surrounded by beautiful and extensive grounds, richly adorned with flowers and ornamental trees and situated in one of the most delightful portions of the town."
This brick structure with "pressed metal pilasters at the corners" was built in 1858, as a two-story home for Dr. Ebenezer Wells, a physician who became mayor of Ann Arbor during the Civil War. Wells also was the president of the First National Bank, the first in Michigan chartered under the National Bank Act of 1863. An "elaborately carved Italianate-style entry porch" set the tone for the house.
Babcock's peculiar quandary was fodder for the local newspapers. Two newspapers especially involved with the story were the Ann Arbor Courier and the Ypsilantian.
A February 1989 article in Washtenaw Impressions reported how Courier editor Junius E. Beal cited an article in the Chicago Globe headed "A Man Who Must Marry." A reporter for that paper had cooled his heels for more than a half-hour at a Chicago hotel, waiting to put questions to "Mr. C.E. (sic) Babcock, a young gentleman from Ann Arbor who, suddenly sprung into publicity, on account of his Uncle's will, which left him $500,000 on condition that he marry within five years." The reporter described Babcock as "young, handsome, engaging in manners; indeed, quite a matrimonial catch."
In his following week's edition, Beal informed his readers that the wrong man had been interviewed. C.E. Babcock was not J.L. Babcock but was in fact, a student at the University of Michigan, and a member of the Beta Theta Phi fraternity. Beal sent in a stringer for the sole purpose of embarrassing his rival when it picked up the Chicago story.
James's will specified that each of his two sisters, and several other nieces and nephews, would receive $5,000. If Babcock did not fulfill the caveat in the will, they would share the windfall that otherwise would have gone to him.
In the end, Babcock did marry, with a year to spare. But he need not to have read all those letters. On September 30, 1892, the Port Huron Daily Times reported his wedding two days earlier to Miss Ella Stanley Butler of Waukesha, Wisconsin.
Butler had been right there, under his nose, for years: Babcock had long vacationed during the summers in Waukesha with his uncle, mother, and aunt. On those visits he would see Butler, but there was no hint of romantic interest on either side. The story is that he'd understood she was betrothed to another man; when he found that this was not the case, the pair soon married.
In 1894, after receiving his inheritance, the couple completely refashioned the Wells house to reflect their personal taste. Embossed wall coverings made of leather were brought in from Europe for the reception rooms; the carvings, mirrors, and marble were also imported. The Babcock coat of arms is commemorated in stained glass in the windows on the north side of a rear addition; other windows and doors featured refined beveled and etched glass.
After Babcock died in 1910, a third story was added to the Wells-Babcock house, and the mansion and carriage house were converted to multifamily use. Today the house sits within the Division Street Historic District.
[Originally published in June, 2020.]
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