The names meld together nearly into one word — Babcockranch. But, of course, it’s two words — Babcock Ranch. Those words mean so much and represent so much and have for decades that they’ve essentially merged into one.
The words and the place are an institution, part of Florida lore and history. Babcock and ranch go together like Florida and Sunshine State. Or ham and eggs or night and day. They are one and the same.
They’ve become so ingrained in the Southwest Florida consciousness that the distinct meanings of the words have nearly lost their identities.
There is the name and there is the ranch.The man named Babcock behind the ranch name is largely lost to history now. Mention Babcock and images of the ranch and nature and a new city of the future being developed and a swath of the past spring to mind.
The ranch is swamps and cypress domes and pine trees and cattle and horses and cowboys on wide open pastures that soon will be a carefully planned and cultivated ecocentric home to thousands.
But all this began long ago with a man named Edward Vose Babcock Sr., who was born far away, on a farm in Oswego County, New York, in 1864. At the time America was ripped apart by the Civil War and a place called Fort Myers was just that — a fort. The town that evolved into a city did not yet exist.Florida had been a state since 1845, only 19 years before Mr. Babcock was born. He died in 1948, three years after the end of World War II and long before Interstate 75 funneled millions of new tourists and residents into Southwest Florida.
When Mr. Babcock died Florida’s population was around 2.6 million. In 2015, the state’s population zipped past 20 million, which is nearly 10 times what it was when Mr. Babcock died of a heart attack at the age of 84 on Sept. 2, 1948, two months before Harry Truman upset Thomas E. Dewey in that year’s presidential election.
A man of many parts
The man behind Babcock Ranch played many roles in his life. Pittsburgh mayor. Founder in 1897, along with his brother, Fred, and other businessmen, the Babcock Lumber Co. Lumbar baron. Conservationist. Father. Philanthropist.And more.
Although he didn’t progress far in formal education beyond whatfindagrave.com refers to “grammar school,” Mr. Babcock was blessed with attributes that can’t always be measured by test scores or number of years enrolled in classrooms.
He was very smart and endowed with an enormous work ethic.
Mr. Babcock didn’t achieve all he would achieve by happenstance or winning a lottery. It took brains, foresight and hard work. Lots of all three.
He started at the lumber business when he was only 20 and in 1887, when he was 23, he and his brother Fred and three others launched the Babcock Lumber Co.
The boy from Oswego County became a prominent man in Pittsburgh, being appointed to the City Council by Pennsylvania’s governor in 1911 and rising to mayor in 1918.
Just how prominent was Mr. Babcock? He earned inclusion in a 1913 book titled “The Book of Prominent Pennsylvanians.” The book was published two years after joining the Pittsburgh City Council and five years before he became Pittsburgh mayor. And that was long before he was an Allegheny county commissioner from 1927 to 1931.
That 1913 book, according to ancestry.com, noted that Mr. Babcock was the son of Leman B. Babcock, who at the time of the book’s publication, was still alive. His mother, Harriet V. Babcock, was dead.
In addition to political offices and the lumber company, he had the Babcock Coal and Coke Co. in West Virginia. He was also vice president of a bank and director of a trust company.
But Mr. Babcock was more than just a smart businessman, as that book reported more than a century ago.
“The Book of Prominent Pennsylvanians” also remarked upon his “pleasing personality” and added that he was held in “high esteem” because he was “an honest citizen and an efficient public service.”
His work as a city councilman apparently went a long way toward explaining why he was elected mayor.
“Mr. Babcock as a councilman is ready to listen to individuals or delegations with patience and willingness, and to consult with his confreres in office on small matters as well as bigger ones,” according to “The Book of Prominent Pennsylvanians.” “He never gives judgment on any proposition placed before him without securing as much illuminating information relative thereto as possible.”
Much later, in 1982, a book titled “50 Years of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy” was published. Mr.
Babcock the businessman was far more than a businessman. He cared about the environment.
He cared so much that, according to this book, he was one of the 10 founders of the Western Pennsylvania
Before he started his eponymous Florida ranch,
Mr. Babcock owned the
15,000-acre Babcock Lodge in
Pennsylvania. A herd of bison roamed this land, according to the conservancy book. Excerpts from the book are on ancestry.com.
“His hobbies were hunting and fishing, and he enjoyed the out-of-doors so greatly that his dream was the establishment of public parks for the enjoyment all the people,” according to the book. “He gave land for such purpose in many if not all of the states where Babcock companies had lumbered.”
The book went on to add that his will, Mr. Babcock left one-third of his estate to “charities, friends, and employees.”
This book contained more insight into Mr. Babcock’s singular character.
“He never did things in a small way,” this book observed. “When the young lady who later became his wife visited one of the camps he pressed his courtship by bringing an orchestra from Philadelphia to play on a flatcar.”
That woman was Mary D. Arnold. Mr. and Mrs. Babcock had three children, a girl and two boys.
One of those boys, Fred, went on to run the ranch and cement his father’s Florida legacy.
Fred inherited more than business acumen from his father. He also inherited a love for the land and a desire to see it preserved for future generations.
The young Mr. Babcock did this in numerous ways. He sold 19,200 acres of land and donated more to the state for what is now the Fred C. Babcock-Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area.
From a very young age, Fred Babcock was learning the business and how to become a man. When he was 12, according to a 1993 profile in The Fort Myers News- Press, he was already 6-foot-2 and weighed 200 pounds.
He was put to work, according to the paper, at that age to work 11 hours a day in sawmills. But he was paid — 30 cents an hour.
Papa Babcock was proud of his son.
“He took me around like a mascot,” Fred Babcock, then 80, told The News- Press in 1993. “He wanted me to know every aspect of his business. Like a race horse, he sired me to be tough.”
Both men were wealthy but when The News- Press asked Fred Babcock about his net worth, he said, “It’s none of your damn business.”
But he happily talked about his father.
“My father taught me — and he was the smartest person I’ve ever known — to always have cash in the bank and plenty of friends,” Fred Babcock told The News- Press. “He said the most important thing of all is to be a good friend.”
Fred Babcock, a Dartmouth graduate with a degree in economic geography, was also very smart and a man of many parts, like his father.
“I was the first patron of the arts in Punta Gorda,” he said in that News- Press interview. “Now who would think that of me? Most people just think of me as an old cowhand.”
At the time of his interview with the Fort Myers newspaper, he well understood his mortality.
“I’m running out of time,” Fred Babcock said. “And I have so many things yet I want to do. Hopefully I will be remembered as a man who lived a worthwhile life and left many friends everywhere. I’m almost to the point of allocating minutes, seconds, hours.”
The clock was ticking.
He died in 1997 at the age of 83, which was a year younger than his father was when the elder Mr. Babcock died in 1948.
The ranch calls two counties home — Lee and Charlotte. At 91,000 acres it’s too large and sprawling to be limited to either of these two counties on Florida’s west coast.
When Mr. Babcock bought the property in 1914 it consisted of 156,000 acres. It was initially called the Crescent B Ranch and it was a vast tract rich in timber and some of the cypress was sold and became Coca-Cola crates.
In the 1950s, the family sold roughly 60,000 acres to the state for the land that is now the wildlife preserve.
The ranch was used for many things over the decades. A 1990 story in The Fort Myers News- Press detailed some of the activities:
¦ Tree farming
¦ Limestone mining
¦ Vegetable farming
¦ Alligator farming
¦ Experimental ostrich breeding
¦ Swamp buggy tours
¦ Hunting leases
It’s always been a rich hunting ground.
“I’d come down and quail hunt during the quail season,” Fred Babcock told The News- Press. “We camped out in tents and stayed in old shacks. It was a great experience.”
In his extensive newspaper interview he also talked about timber.
“The only natural resource this country has that’s renewable is timber,” Fred Babcock said. “We’ve cut the timber four times, but we grow as much as we cut. I love these woods.”
In 2005, eight years after Fred Babcock died, Syd Kitson, a former Green Bay Packers lineman, scored another sort of touchdown from the one that is seen on football fields.
Mr. Kitson, the chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners, made an offer to the Babcock family.
Once the deal was consummated, Mr. Kitson could begin work on a mammoth project, one that would preserve ecologically sensitive parts of the ranch. In all, more than 80 percent of the ranchland would be preserved.
The deal was so important that it merited a story in The New York Times with this headline: “Betting the Ranch in Southwest Florida.”
The Times reported that the family was selling 143 square miles for more than $500 million. Mr. Kitson knew the ranch included cows and cowboys but he joked to the paper that he didn’t know much about them.
“The closest I had ever been to cowboys was playing for Dallas,” Mr. Kitson told the paper.
After playing in 49 games for the Packers from 1980 to 1984, Mr. Kitson played in one game for the Cowboys in 1984, according to pro-football-reference.com.
Now, Mr. Kitson’s focus is turning Babcock Ranch, a place with a rich history, into a city of the future.
“Some people think I got hit in the head a few too many times,” Mr. Kitson has joked about his plans.
His city and his plans are no joke.
A 21st-century city is going up on land that was purchased in the 20th century by a man born in the 19th century. That was Edward Vose Babcock, a man whose name lives on in Southwest Florida.