Sherburne History Center

Sherburne History Center
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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Charles Babcock: Father of Minnesota's Highways

Mercantile of W. L Babcock and Sons, circa 1900. 
SHC photo collection 1995.017.004
Highways, roads, streets and avenues play pivotal roles in daily life.  Smooth, comfortable transportation proved important to development of business and commerce in the state.  For Sherburne County, one individual stands out as vital to the growth and development of the county and the highway system running through the state: Charles Babcock.   

Born in Orrock in 1871 to Willard and Serepeta Babcock, Charles Babcock grew up on a farm, later worked in his father’s mercantile store and still later became President on the Bank of Elk River.  In his early life no hint was made of his eventual success, or his importance, as Highway Commissioner of Minnesota.   

After childhood years in public education, Charlie Babcock attended the University of Minnesota.  The economic crisis of 1893 caused him to drop out and return to work in the father’s store in Elk River.  According to his biography, while at the store he realized the way to improve business and build relationships with county farmers was to provide easy transportation and access to the market.  With this in mind, he began a political career, running for county Commissioner in 1908.  After two years of service he realized the state government and the state highway commission would better serve his mission.   

Babcock was appointed to the Minnesota State Highway Commission in 1910.  He served until 1917 when the commission was abolished and replaced by a Department of transportation under the governor’s direction.  Charles Babcock was appointed the first of the Minnesota State Highway Commissioners.   

Charles Babcock as State Highway
Commissioner.  SHC photo
collection 1995.017.008
In the 16 years he served as the Commissioner, his primary achievements included an amendment to the State Constitution that called for the use of tax dollars to fund the building and maintenance of the state roads.  Known as the Babcock Amendment, taxes were levied first on automobile registration and later as a gasoline tax to fund roads.   

Locally, Babcock was influential in directing the Jefferson Highway through Sherburne County to St cloud.  Still later, with his influence, the road was paved from the Anoka County line north through Elk River and eventually through the entire county. 

After his death in 1936, the highways in Sherburne County were expanded and improved.  By the 1950s, the Jefferson Highway had been rerouted and renamed Highway 10.  It became a major state road and expanded to a four-lane highway.  The impact of Charles Babcock with his understanding of the importance of good roads cannot be understated.  It seems appropriate that Charles Babcock be known as the Father of the Minnesota Highway System.

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