Concord Coaches find a new home

By RAY DUCKLER

Monitor columnist

Published: 07-01-2023 5:40 PM

The process to recapture some of the city’s rich past isn’t exactly rolling like the mighty Concord Coach once did.

But Abbot-Downing Historical Society presidents Tom Prescott and Dave Baer had some specific news about the completion of a museum specifically designed to showcase a treasured portion of the city’s grand history, highlighted by Concord’s universally known creation, the Concord Coach.

“Two years,” Baer proclaimed, at a recent meeting of the Abbot-Downing Society.

It’ll be a welcome sight. A long-dormant building will be transformed into a history class, compliments of the Abbot-Downing Historical Society and its effort to secure funding.

The new site, known as the Concord Stables, was once owned by the Concord School District before it sold the building a few years ago to the city of Concord, at a cost of $1. The building has been vacant for decades, since the Department of Public Works moved its headquarters, but its walls and ceilings still drip with nostalgia.

Once, in the 19th century and on into the 20th, the facility was used to store the horses that pulled Concord’s famous coaches, for fixing roads, collecting trash and personal travel.

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“The horses would walk up the ramp to get to main floor and the horse stalls,” said Prescott, owner of Johnny Prescott and Son Oil company. “It’s an amazing building, and it’s pretty much the way it was back then. There are wood panels between the stalls.”

The entire plan includes the sale of an old barn, owned by the Abbot-Downing Historical Society, on the grounds at the Hopkinton Fair, an institution that needs the space more than the society.

“We’re hoping, with help from our attorney, that we can give them the building, and we would like for them to have it,” said Esther Crowley, the society’s secretary.

The Concord Coach became a preferred mode of transportation in the 19th century, a product of local manufacturers. The first coach produced by Lewis Abbot and J. Stephens Downing rolled out in 1827.

The ride, though, was a literal pain in the butt, inspiring the dynamic duo to invent something called thoroughbraces, a suspension system made of thick leather straps that acted like shock absorber and supported the coach’s body with a rocking motion.

The new product was a hit. The Concord Coach began to dominate the traveling landscape across the entire nation, adding to the city’s growing reputation as a tourist destination, located at a crossroads in New England with a giant train station and a unique, groundbreaking carriage often seen in western movies.

About 150 original Concord Coaches remain, with the city of Concord in possession of 12 of them. Eight will highlight the new museum’s showroom, working in concert with Prescott’s own four-coach display in a museum open year-round on the grounds of Prescott Oil.

With all the paperwork nearly done, leftovers like choosing an insurance policy to guard against liability and a major clean-up of hazardous material at the stable building are up next.

“We’ve had a lot of activities over the past few weeks,” Baer said. “We’ve had digital mapping done of the building. We’ve had lots of activities over the past few weeks. We’re heading in the right direction.”

Prescott is one of the most familiar names that emerges when resurrecting the Concord Coach surfaces for discussion.

“I have a strong family connection (in Concord),” Prescott said. “My family gave me the desire to learn about Concord history.”

Prescott said he and his wife never took vacations, choosing to save money to buy these coaches. Prescott wouldn’t reveal the cost.

His four coaches stand out, but his cavernous showroom had so much more. Like the 15-foot-tall clock that used to sit on Main Street. The one Prescott winds each week by hand, unlocking a door in the front with a special key (he has the original key as well), unveiling a solid iron block, the weight used to move the clock’s hands.

He’s got gas pumps from another era, original lanterns using candles and, in an adjacent structure, a truck from the 1920s that still runs.

But the coaches steal the show, their manufacturing a big piece of the city’s foundation. There are coaches for 12, nine and six passengers. The red paint is smooth and shiny.

The “Glen’s Fall & Lake George” carriage is the 12-seater, with room for nine more people, on the roof, in the cheap seats. If the carriage got stuck, the roof riders would be responsible for pushing it free. The others sat inside and waited.

And while Prescott’s museum is pristine, with a cobblestone floor and finished wood ceilings, the new spot, according to Baer, is marvelous, too.

“It’s a beautiful space,” Baer said. “Dave (Prescott), have you been there? It’s a hidden gem.”

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