Saturday, March 3, 2018

Otis Briggs House (1876)

The gable of the Otis Briggs House (1876) is visible behind the later addition that long housed Steve's Sports Den.
     A house on the site of 147 Center Street is first recorded as having been occupied in 1846 by Mrs. Susan Erpell (Erpelle), the widow of C. H. C. Erpell about whom very little is known. During Mrs. Erpell's occupancy, the immediate neighborhood was strictly residential with no businesses to speak of. A mention of the apparently well-tended Erpell property from 1857 describes what must have been a delightful yard with a "garden of myrtle between [the house] and the sidewalk and three mammoth cherry tress standing in the outer edge of the sidewalk."
    Mrs. Erpell died about 1863 at which time the property passed through her will to Lydia R. Thompson of Middleborough.  She in turn sold the ¾ acre property to Alden Miller of Middleborough on April 27, 1870, for the sum of $1,800.  At the time, this section of Center Street remained residential with the Bourne and Weston Houses occupying the lots where the Glidden building now stands. 
    Miller lived in the house only a short time, before disposing of it on June 3, 1872, to Salome K. Coombs of Lakeville, wife of James M. Coombs, editor of the Middleboro Gazette.  At the time of the sale, in addition to the house, another building (in all likelihood a barn) was standing on the property and was included in the conveyance.  The Coombses lived there briefly before relocating to a more prestigious address on South Main Street.  The Coombses may have been prompted to move by the increasing commercialization of Center Street at this time.  Although residential dwellings continued to be built along the stretch of Center Street between School Street and present-day Everett Square, the construction in 1874 of a new manufactory to house the Leonard & Barrows shoe manufacturing firm immediately to the west of the Erpell House on the corner of Center and Pearl Streets may have been somewhat off-putting.

Briggs Stable Token
     Mrs. Coombs sold the property in March, 1875, to Nancy W. Briggs, wife of Otis Briggs (1837-1911) of Middleborough.  Briggs, a noted liveryman, was undoubtedly eager to buy the property for the same reasons the Coombses were probably inclined to sell: the growing commercialization of Center Street.  The Erpell estate had an advantageous location situated as it was nearly mid-way between the business center at Middleborough Four Corners and the depot on Station Street, and it permitted Briggs to become the largest horsedealer in Middleborough during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  At the time of the sale, the local press had clearly been cognizant of the property’s business potential: “The ‘Erpelle’ estate is offered for sale for the simple reason that the owner has other prospects.  It is a piece of real estate of which may be justly claimed a prospective value, being centrally located on the line of travel of the people, and just the place for a dry goods house or manufactory.”
      Briggs had since the age of eighteen been “prominently identified with the horse business”, first at East Middleborough and later at the Center Street location.  It was here that Briggs operated a sale and livery stable until his death, being Middleborough’s largest horse dealer for nearly half a century.  Briggs “had a wide acquaintance throughout this section, and was considered an expert judge and handler of horseflesh.”
     Many of Briggs’ horses were acquired in Vermont and sold through the Center Street stable which held a high reputation locally.  “…Perhaps most of the horses sold in town are those brought down from Vermont by Mr. Otis Briggs, who has his agent constantly on the lookout for the best animals, and a walk through his stables will suffice to show that he has a handsome well selected lot of horses”, noted one local newspaper in the 1870s.
     Briggs’ business trips were the frequent subject of news items carried in the local papers, and the horses procured in Vermont were eagerly awaited.  “Otis Briggs, one of our larger dealer in horses, harnesses, carriages, etc., and who always has a good turnout for one who desires a pleasant drive, is now in Vermont, purchasing horses for several of his customers.  We expect to see some fancy steppers.”  Perhaps not a “fancy stepper”, but no less a fine animal was the 1,250 pound Vermont-bred horse which Briggs sold in late 1882 to the Colby estate in neighboring Taunton. 
     The outstanding quality of Briggs’ selections was reflected throughout the era in the prices for which his horses ultimately sold and Briggs was believed to have “handled more high priced horses than any other man in New England.”  In July, 1877, Briggs received ten horses, six of which he sold within two days and one of which was valued at $1,000.   Many of the horses traded were Morgans, a breed particularly admired by Briggs who brought them from Vermont breeders by the railroad “carload”.  Briggs was also associated with the trotting interests in town, being affiliated with the operation of the Fall Brook trotting park on Cherry Street where standardbreds were raced for a number of decades at the close of the nineteenth century.  In his youth, Briggs had owned and apparently trained a number of standardbred horses, “among them Mountaineer, Victor E., Archie B. and Baby Lambert.  With improved speed devices some of these would doubtless have come close to the 2-minute mark.” 
     A year after acquiring the Erpell property, Briggs, in 1876, entirely refurbished the estate.  In the spring of that year, Briggs purchased the 30 by 50 foot so-called “old part” of the barn of James E. Peirce on South Main Street and had it relocated to the northwest of the house on Center Street where it was used to house his extensive livery business.  Shortly thereafter, Briggs contracted with a Mr. Woodbury to remove the former Erpell stable (probably the second building mentioned in the 1872 deed between Alden Miller and Salome Coombs), the physical work of moving the stable being done by Charles Tinkham in early September, 1876.
     Also at this time, Briggs constructed a new house upon the property.  The Middleboro Gazette noted in October, 1876, that “Otis Briggs has begun in earnest upon his residence, on the Erpelle estate”, and another notice the following month mentions “parties now building the dwelling house for Otis Briggs.”  The design of the house including its relatively high foundation wall (which would have intentionally raised the house above the mud and muck of the stable yard) support this date.  Still later that year, in November, Briggs engaged James F. Eldridge to sink a well on the property.  Undoubtedly, the changes were financed by Briggs’ lucrative trade and are reflective of those affordable by a relatively well-to-do businessman.
     Eventually, Briggs moved into other areas of business, most likely recognizing just what the arrival of the automobile portended for his livery business.  In 1906, Briggs acquired the large three-story woodframe School Street School which had been built in the 1850s, and had it relocated the following year onto his property where it was “remodeled into stores and tenements.”  At the time, Briggs’ large stable was extensively altered by contractor George W. Starbuck of Middleborough and put to use, according to fire insurance maps of the period, as a roller skating rink.  Additionally, a portion of a small structure known as the “old Erpell Building” (probably the original Erpell House) between the stable and the Briggs House was taken down at this time in order to accommodate the relocation of the schoolhouse.  Following the removal of this structure, Starbuck erected onto the front of the Briggs House a new store building measuring 28 by 32 feet to be occupied by E. H. Stetson (which firm temporarily occupied the eastern end of the old Erpell Building during the summer of 1907).  This new store building was later described as having three stores occupying three stories.
Staircase, Otis Briggs House (1876)
     Briggs died in 1911, and his widow (and his son Alton E. Briggs, the owner of the property after 1920), continued the commercial development of the site, so valuable had it become for these purposes.  The years surrounding 1900 had seen the construction of the Sullivan Block (now Glidden Building) and Pasztor & Klar’s bakery immediately to the east, and the conversion of the properties on the opposite south side of the street to business use as well.  In 1939, Joseph LaPlant, Jr., of Brookline briefly took possession of the Briggs property which was owned by Ray C. Johnson of Boston between 1939 and 1947.  It was during Johnson’s ownership that a small portion of the property was conveyed to Ermioni A. Savas for the construction of a package store.
     In 1947, the property which then included the Briggs House and the market building which stood in front of it, the former School Street School, the former Briggs stable (which had been moved) and a warehouse/garage which stood (and remains) at the rear of the property, was acquired from Johnson by antique and used furniture dealers Thomas B. Nichols and C. Ernest Aubrey who demolished the former stable.  The antique business of Nichols and Aubrey occupied the premises during the 1940s and early 1950s when they were succeeded by the Kearney sisters.  On January 29, 1954, the eastern-most portion of the property including the Briggs house was conveyed to Stephen C. Stanley of Middleborough.  Since that time, the house has been used as storage for the business operated by Stanley, Steve’s Sports Den.