Eccentric millionaire Roger Babson had an unusual hobby that mortified his family: During the Great Depression, he hired unemployed stonecutters to carve inspirational mottoes into boulders in Dogtown, a ghost town between Gloucester and Rockport, Mass.
Babson (July 6, 1875–March 5, 1967) didn’t care what his family thought. Supervising the work allowed him to revert to his boyhood pleasure of driving cows through Dogtown Common.
“My family says that I am defacing the boulders and disgracing the family with these inscriptions, but the work gives me a lot of satisfaction, fresh air, exercise and sunshine,” he wrote in his autobiography, Actions and Reactions.
Today, hikers can walk through the maze of trails in Dogtown and read Babson’s boulders for little lessons in self-improvement. ‘Courage,’ ‘Help Mother’ and ‘Get a Job’ are but three of the 24 slogans chiseled into stone.
Roger Babson’s ancestors had lived in the inland town of Dogtown, then called the Common Settlement, from about 1650 to 1750. They were farmers, merchants, midwives, preachers and sea captains who settled away from the harbor to avoid attack.
At its peak, an estimated 100 families lived in the Commons. Families started moving away, closer to the coast, as threats from the sea diminished after the War of 1812. Vagabonds and itinerants moved in, and the wives of sailors and soldiers who never came back kept dogs for protection. Some of the last residents were suspected of practicing witchcraft.
Babson was proud of his heritage, and wanted to improve upon Dogtown’s reputation for strangeness. He and his cousin Gustavus Babson in 1927 bought 1,150 acres of the rocky cow pasture that had once been their ancestors’ home. They would later sell it back to the City of Gloucester for a fraction of what they paid for it.
The son of a dry goods store owner, Babson went into investment banking after graduating from MIT. He was a nationally syndicated columnist and investor who famously predicted the 1929 stock market crash. He served on corporate boards and as assistant secretary of Commerce under Woodrow Wilson.
Babsonalso founded a gravity institute in New Boston, N.H., and established three colleges, including Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. His fortune largely derived from the securities analysis and investment firm he founded, now known as Babson-United. He wrote nearly 50 books, mostly about investing. But he also wrote a tourists’ guide to Cape Ann and a volume called Cheer Up! Better Times Ahead! published during the Great Depression.
Babson wanted to be president of the United States. A publicity stunt suggested he had a Lincolnesque rags-to-riches personal story. In 1929 he built a 500-square-foot log cabin in Dogtown. It was in the style of the original settlers and furnished with Colonial furniture and artifacts. ‘Boston Millionaire Deserts Civilization To Live With Birds in Wilderness of Witches and Pirates’ read a July 28, 1929, Boston Sunday Post headline.
Cellar Holes and Boulders
While not giving investment advice, Babson catalogued the cellar holes in Dogtown and hired masons to carve their numbers into nearby stones. After the stock market tumbled, he decided to give work to 35 unemployed Finnish stonecutters and at the same time impart inspiration to visitors to Dogtown. He consulted the self-help and inspirational books in his ‘Good Cheer Library’ for ideas. He came up with two dozen:
Courage, Ideas, Help Mother, Kindness, Loyalty, Be On Time, Get A Job, Industry, Initiative, Integrity, Keep Out Of Debt, Save, Spiritual Power, Study, Truth, Work, Be Clean, Be True, Prosperity Follows Service, Use Your Head, Ideals, Intelligence, Never Try/Never Win and If Work Stops, Values Decay.
Babson thought other cities would be so impressed with his boulders – which he called his ‘Life’s Book’ -- that they would adopt the practice and make it part of their educational system. He may have been right about the stock market, but he was wrong about that.
Some people hated the rock carvings. Babson acknowledged his family did. And when Babson’s masons carved a rock on Leila Webster Adams’ land without her permission, she launched a campaign against Babson’s defacing of the landscape.
“Just look at that horrible thing,” Mrs. Adams said to reporters. “Why the idea of a man like Roger Babson, so well-known and popular, going about carving such things as ‘Prosperity Follows Service,’ ‘Keep Out of Debt,’ and ‘When Work Stops, Values Decay.’ Whoever heard of such foolish notions?”
In 1940, Roger Babson finally got to run for president of the United States on the Prohibition ticket against Franklin D. Roosevelt. He campaigned against alcohol, drugs, gambling, indecent movies and publications and pledged to foster spiritual awakening. Babson also advocated reducing debt and taxes, helping farmers, conserving natural resources, and 'assuring workers and consumers a fair share of industry's products and profits.'
The man from Dogtown came in fourth behind Roosevelt, Wendell Wilkie and Norman Thomas.
Roger Babson died in 1967, after living a long and productive life punctuated by his eccentric pursuits. He hoped the boulder carving would continue after his death. It didn’t, but Babson College, Babson-United, the Gravity Research Foundation and the carved boulders of Dogtown survive.
This story about the strange boulders in Dogtown was updated in 2018.