Benjamin wasn’t the only Franklin

An earlier 1929 Daily Leader advertisement illustrates Franklin owners happily driving their cars, not yet aware they might not really own them. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz )

Many of the July 28, 1929 Morning Herald readers were probably quite shocked at the headline, “Investigate Affairs of the Franklin Agency.” Later that day, the Amsterdam Recorder reused the Herald’s headline in their late afternoon edition, adding news that the auto agency’s tangled finances also affected several prominent Amsterdamians. If true, the financial manipulations of one of Gloversville’s leading car agencies, Arthur B. Chapman Inc., were a complete surprise.

The Recorder reported, “An investigation has been on-going for several days into the business affairs of Arthur B. Chapman, President and Treasurer of A. B. Chapman Inc., Franklin Motor Car Agency of 23-25 South Market Street, Gloversville. Amsterdam doctor Robert C. Simpson recently bought a Franklin from this agency upon which there was a chattel mortgage attached, unknown to him when he purchased it. He states he may have to give the car up at considerable personal loss. Edwin C. Shuttleworth of the Mohawk Mills Shuttleworth family also bought a car from this agency under similar circumstances.” Poor Dr. Simpson. I wish I’d known this story when he was alive: he was our faithful family doctor for many years.

Other Amsterdam buyers were Doctors Bouton, Tomlinson and Howard. Meanwhile, Franklin purchasers in Gloversville, Johnstown and smaller area towns also discovered their fine Franklins weren’t really theirs, each being encumbered by a bank loan equal to the value of the vehicle while still in the showroom, all quietly mortgaged by Arthur Chapman on four-month notes to help pay for his fancy showroom, notes never paid off as they should have been before the cars were sold. One wonders what Chapman was thinking, considering the scheme had to catch up with him sooner or later. The unlucky owners only discovered these loans existed by receiving letters from the Fulton County Trust Company, politely informing them that ‘their’ note was due. No wonder an investigation was begun.

The Morning Herald predicted “the investigation may reveal a shortage of around $1,000,000.” The County Clerk’s office was inundated with calls and visits by agitated Franklin owners having recent dealings with the Chapman Agency, asking whether their cars were included in the mess. During the course of the day, more than twenty-five more illegal cases were discovered.

Before this crisis erupted however, other Gloversville car dealers had long envied Chapman for having a Franklin agency, and some probably also wondered how he afforded such a beautiful showroom. Franklins during the twenties sold consistently although not spectacularly. They were not the most expensive cars available, but even so, they were often the choice of prosperous motorists who could afford any car, but wanted the closest thing to trouble-free motoring: Franklins were the only successful automobiles with air-cooled engines on the road. Although by the 20’s the Franklin Company of Syracuse had adopted traditional-looking radiators on the nose of their cars, these were stylish fakes. Franklins didn’t need radiators because there wasn’t any water cooling system in them to go wrong; they couldn’t overheat in summer unless the engine’s fan motor broke, and wouldn’t freeze and ruin the engine during winter, having no water to freeze. No wonder many doctors bought them.

In the end, Gloversville’s Franklin Agency continued under new management, although the company didn’t have a very long future. The July 31st, 1929 Morning Herald reported, “The Franklin garage property has been purchased by leather manufacturer A.J. Baker, 307 South William Street, Johnstown. An investigation into affairs of A.B. Chapman, Inc. revealed a system of high finance and irregular manipulation of personal notes and chattel mortgages.” On November 1st, 1929 the Herald reported Chapman as being indicted on twelve counts of forgery.

There the matter seems to have languished and died. Perhaps money recovered from auctioning the Chapman’s Johnstown home at the corner of South Perry and First Avenue, plus the automobile agency building, realized enough money to release the twenty-five plus Franklin owners from their mortgage difficulties. Arthur and Ruth Chapman declared bankruptcy, leaving Fulton County after settlement of his convoluted financial activities.

College-educated and still relatively young, Chapman wisely retreated into the less financially-complicated field of education, marketing knowledge rather than cars. A notice in the December 17th, 1936 Morning Herald updated local readers on his activities, if anyone still cared. “Arthur B. Chapman of Syracuse, formerly engaged in the automobile business here, has accepted a position as English instructor at Pulaski Academy. He is married and has a son. He has been an instructor at Peekskill High School, Manlius, and Georgia Military Institute.” In 1939 Chapman became Pulaski’s school superintendent, retiring twenty-five years later in 1964. He died in 1971 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The excellent but under-appreciated Franklin died much sooner, a victim of the Depression, but before it did, it was advertised as the favorite car of air ace Charles Lindberg. The company named their ‘Airman’ series after him, but even publicising that their auto was the choice of the famous Lone Eagle wasn’t enough: the company closed its doors forever during April 1934. One of Lindberg’s Franklins resides at the Saratoga Auto Museum. The Franklin, though conservatively styled, was a very dependable car. Many still exist, and like any old auto, run reliably if maintained. If your Franklin needs servicing, don’t fret: professional Franklin restorer Lee Schopmeier conducts business on the Meco Road, and he promises not to mortgage your Franklin while working on it.


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