The demolition of Steve’s Sports Den two weeks ago has exposed the Victorian Otis Briggs House long hidden behind it. The house which is scheduled for restoration for a combined commercial and residential use by Bill Fuller of Middleborough, has prompted many residents previously unaware of the building’s existence to ask about its history.

The property on which the Briggs House is situated (and the original Cape-style house known as the Erpell House that stood upon the lot), was acquired in March 1875 by Nancy W. Briggs, wife of Otis Briggs (1837-1911), of Middleborough. Briggs, a noted liveryman, was undoubtedly eager to buy the property due to the increasing commercialization of Center Street at the time. The Erpell estate had an advantageous location nearly mid-way between the business center at Middleborough Four Corners and the depot on Station Street, and this location contributed to Briggs becoming the largest horse dealer in Middleborough during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

At the time of the sale, the local press was clearly aware of the property’s business potential writing, “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.”

Since the age of eighteen Briggs had been “prominently identified with the horse business”, first at East Middleborough and later at the Center Street location. It was here on Center Street that Briggs would operate a noted 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 constructed the present Italianate-style house upon the property. The Middleboro Gazette noted in October of that year that “Otis Briggs has begun in earnest upon his residence, on the Erpelle estate”. 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, 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 the negative impact the arrival of the automobile would have upon his livery business. In 1906, Briggs acquired the large three-story wood-frame 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.” (It now stands between the Briggs House and Savas’ Liquors). At the time, Briggs’ large stable also was extensively altered and put to use as a roller skating rink. Additionally, a storefront was built onto the front of the Briggs House at this time.

Briggs died in 1911 and his widow and his son, Alton E. Briggs, continued the commercial development of the site. 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 and a warehouse/garage which stood 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.

In 2010, the then owner of the property sought the demolition of both the Sports Den and the Briggs House. Demolition of the Briggs House was delayed by the Middleborough Historical Commission which declared the Briggs House to be a preferably preserved significant structure and that its removal would be detrimental to the historic resources of the community. Now, thanks to Bill Fuller, restoration is in sight and the Otis Briggs House will soon be able to reclaim its place as one of Center Street’s most historic properties.

For more local history visit www.nemasket.blogspot.com and www.recollectingnemasket.com.

 

 

 

 

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