In the days after Amesbury was featured as a “hidden gem” on a recent edition of WCVB-TV’s “Chronicle,” the small city on the New Hampshire border greeted a swarm of new visitors. Many of them were charmed to see a local artist at work on a large mural along Elm Street, on the approach to the city’s old millyards downtown.
Amesbury native Jon Mooers was putting the finishing touches on his latest work: a triptych of images from his hometown’s industrial past. The mural spotlights Amesbury’s nationally recognized roles in the carriage industry and the development of the electric car, as well as a little-known bit of history from the latter years of the city’s production heyday: a months-long stint in which a young Massachusetts resident named Amelia Earhart taught English to Amesbury’s immigrant workers.
“I pride myself on finding these little stories and telling them to the community,” says Mooers, 52, an artist who spent time in the 1990s on prop crews in Hollywood before returning to his hometown. He has painted more than a dozen large-scale works in the area, including murals in the local schools and a popular comic book-style panel honoring the late cartoonist Al Capp (a longtime resident) and his “Li’l Abner” characters in the archway leading to the city’s main millyard.
For his latest work, Mooers persuaded local businessman Dan Healey, who owns ARC Technologies, to let him transform the tennis-court-sized white wall of the company’s most visible building into a tribute to their city’s history of ingenuity. Before outlining his scenes, the artist painted the wall to look as though it is made of brick.
“That’s what I love most about it — the deception, the trompe l’oeil,” Mooers said recently, standing in the parking lot over which the mural looms.
The first panel, featuring a horse-drawn carriage, is marked with the name of the Morrill Carriage Company, one of the businesses that helped make Amesbury familiar across the country in the era before automobiles.
“The story is that at one time, one-third of the carriages in the country were produced here in Amesbury,” said Mooers. “There were probably 60 mills here at the time.”
He grinned as he imagined what the town must have been like back then – thousands of workers coming and going by rail, carriage, and bicycle as they covered three shifts.
“It must have been a zoo,” he said.
The subject of the middle panel, dated 1909, is the Bailey electric car, developed by an Amesbury company that had originally specialized in sleighs and carriages. Thomas Edison once conducted a 1,000-mile endurance run on his new storage battery using a Bailey. In Mooers’ mural, that’s the white-haired entrepreneur leaning on the fender.
The two gentlemen sitting in the car represent a bit of artistic license on Mooers’ part. One is modeled after Healey. (Standing nearby is his late father, ARC’s founder.) The other is a likeness of Bart Bailey, a great-grandson of Samuel Robinson Bailey, whose company lasted in various incarnations in Amesbury until the 1970s. Mooers’ father, Paul, worked for the Baileys for years and still draws a pension from the job.
Bart Bailey has become the caretaker of his family’s manufacturing legacy. He has served on the board of Amesbury’s proposed Carriage Museum, and his family owns two of a tiny handful of its namesake electric cars still in existence.
Though he and his friend Healey were pleasantly surprised when the artist revealed their likenesses, Bailey couldn’t resist joking about it.
“We’re a little concerned,” he said with a smile. “Everybody who’s painted on murals is dead!”
Amesbury’s industrial prominence took a huge hit during the Depression. But there was a time during the early years of the auto industry, said Bailey, when the little city “could have been Detroit.”
For the third panel, Mooers had planned to depict a much more modern mode of transportation – a fighter jet. ARC Technologies, which makes high-tech absorbing materials, does about 70 percent of its business with the Department of Defense, according to Healey. But the military was not keen on drawing such attention to its affiliation with the contractor.
Embracing his self-appointed role as a hometown historian, Mooers did some digging to uncover the details of a slice of local lore he had recently learned. The young aviation enthusiast Amelia Earhart lived in Medford for a time during the mid-1920s. When the state’s Board of Education instituted a program to teach English to the huge number of immigrant factory workers, she took a job as a teacher. After traveling from one mill city to the next to teach classes, she persuaded Biddle & Smart, one of Amesbury’s leading manufacturers of auto bodies, to hire her to teach its employees an English course.
It was not exactly Earhart’s finest moment. According to Susan Butler’s 2009 biography “East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart,” the young pilot didn’t find the work “challenging or stimulating” enough for her adventurous spirit.
Still, Mooers takes pride in depicting the onetime visitor alongside a gleaming yellow Hudson sedan, the body of which would have been built by Biddle & Smart. It’s especially fitting, he said, to mark Amesbury’s connection to Earhart during the 75th-anniversary year of the pioneering aviator’s disappearance on her storied attempt to fly around the globe.
“This is something we can teach the entire community,” he said. “Only a handful of us know this fact.”
According to Mooers, while in Amesbury, Earhart stayed at the historic Squire Bagley House, better known today for another famous temporary resident, Mary Baker Eddy, who wrote her first Christian Science manuscripts there. During her time in Amesbury, Earhart was often invited for dinner at William Biddle’s grand old mansion on Main Street.
“I like to picture her walking up that street and loving life,” he said.
As a muralist, that’s what he does: He conjures pictures of community life at its most inspired.
“When I find a wall that’s blank and big,” said Mooers, “that’s my thrill in life.”