I heard about a couple of heiresses who saved woodlands

in upstate New York a good century ago, so I go to check out the story. I come home weighed down with paradoxes.

Two sisters, Maria and Rachel Williams, grew up fabulously wealthy in turn-of-the-century Utica, a town that became so rich from textile manufacturing it came to be known as the Knit Goods Capital of the World. The girls’ grandfather amassed his fortune in burrstones (used for grinding grain) as well as Pennsylvania coal fields, steamships and railroads in addition to the aforesaid textiles. Their mother Helen and her brother Samuel added to the wealth by investing in iron manufacturing, with an ultimate portfolio of probably half a billion dollars in today’s terms, and put up a mansion called Fountain Elms on fashionable Genessee Street.

Now more known for its tomato pies and Utica greens, the town was then the family’s oyster. Sisters Maria and Rachel came of age and married two brothers, Thomas and Frederick Proctor. Neither couple had children. The Proctor men, Vermont natives, made their living as hoteliers and bankers and dabbled in politics, hobnobbing with some of the most powerful elected officials of the time.

So, while their husbands furnished respectability, their wives brought the cash. They gifted the city with farmland purchased to make parks, many of them designed by leading landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. — scion of the great one — starting with 7 acres that eventually became 700.

Wanting to see the lands Maria and Rachel endowed, I go to find the Switchbacks at South Woods in Roscoe Conkling Park, created in 1909. This being Good Friday, the gate admitting entrance at Master Garden Road is locked.

I manage to sneak in behind a park garage. I search out the trailhead.

I’m too nervous about my parked car getting a ticket to venture far into the woods. Dipping in, I notice first of all that this urban forest is filled with a surprising amount of noise from the wind circulating through the treetops beneath a scalloped swirl of clouds. Secondly I see some beautiful old specimens. There is a grove of white pines standing on their tippytoes.

Many trees by the trailside have ancient silver tags, a sign of the care taken long ago to inventory them for posterity. One beech is nicely autographed.

It just feels good to linger a little among these trees, some of them fully three hundred years old, including bitternut hickory and basswood, green ash and hophornbeam. To quote Thoreau, the nineteenth-century bard of sauntering: In my walks I would fain return to my senses. Black bear once roamed this forest. The place is still rife with habitat. Home sweet home.

A stream flows through. I’d heard about another brook in the vicinity, Starch Factory Creek, named for an 1807 industry on its shores, whose waters flow into the Mohawk river. This brook looks pristine in the early springtime sunlight.

How were Maria and Rachel so prescient as to know in 1909 how important it would be to secure this scrap of local forest against a future Utica that they had no idea would be swallowed up by fast food strips, tract housing and pizza joints, where fully a quarter of the population live in poverty? True, some people knew then that the urban poor needed outdoor spaces. Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. told the City of New York in 1872 that the midtown Manhattan park he was building would serve as the “lungs of the city.” It still seems amazing that the sisters were aware of just how critical it would be in the future to have a greenspace such as this one preserved.

Thinking to get some answers, I visit their house, a grand Italianate home now owned by the Munson, a Philip Johnson-designed museum originally called the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute. You can access the house through a connecting light-filled corridor.

Its plashing fountain has been preserved.

Retirees crowd the lobby of the museum to see an afternoon screening of Everything Everywhere All at Once, but I have the creaky old mansion all to myself. Some of the early furnishings still haunt the place, giving a sense of Maria and Rachel’s pampered upbringing.

Most of their home now contains perfect period rooms, the same as you would find at historic house museums anyplace in America. Some of the wallpaper might be original.

The girls’ mother, Helen preferred the more traditional landscape artists over the Impressionists then coming into vogue.

Hoping for more intimate knowledge of Maria and Rachel, I enter the hallowed precincts of the Founders Rooms. Here the girls’ early lives are plumbed in photos and placards.

You can see the juvenile versions of them in an 1857 painting.

Their intricate dollhouse welcomes viewers.

Its legend tells me that the miniature world was considered by their mother to be not only for pleasure but also, perhaps primarily, for instruction in proper household organization. Her decrees to dismantle the rooms after playtime (not accepted agreeably by her daughters) forced them to place the objects in their proper locations each time they played with them.

I can imagine Maria and Rachel putting their dollies to bed the same way I had as a child. But what about the two sisters as adults, ladies with the foresight to preserve trees?

There is no placard, no legend, no mention. Not one word.

I see their silver souvenir spoon collection and their thimble collection proudly on display here—Maria acquired 125 thimbles from all over the world.

I also see the timepieces collected by their gentleman husbands.

A series of personal belongings are layed out along with faded labels in Maria’s handwritten cursive, including a funny old fake flower corsage with the legend: Worn on tenth anniversary April 9th, 1906.

I see pictures that show the women to be aristocrats of their age, including one of Maria along with Thomas and Frederick, photographed by Rachel, posed in the Adirondacks in 1910. At that time, the most affluent Americans had begun to flee cities and rusticate in the wild in deluxe wall tents with picnic baskets organized by the cooks and maids imported to service them on their vacations.

That is as close as the Founders Rooms get to the sisters’ passion for the outdoors.

Taking my leave, I ask the friendly blue-fleece-attired docent, Why is there nothing in the Founders Rooms about the sisters’ funding of the Utica park system?

I guess they didn’t really feel it was significant enough, it didn’t rise to the level of their art collections, he tells me.

I drop by the Education Department. Knock, knock. I interrupt an Educator busy at her computer. Barb takes issue with my wording, correcting me: Well, I don’t think they ”bankrolled” the preservation of the woods. I believe it was their husbands who were instrumental. That line, I know, is not strictly true. Barb brings in her colleague from the next-door cubicle. She advises me that the two girls were taught from a young age to donate part of their weekly allowance to charity.

In formal photos of grownup Maria she looks to be a woman with presence of mind, even when wearing an artificial flower corsage.

The Educators send me off to the museum library. There, a knowledgable person helps me exhume folders of yellowed clippings and catalogs from a file cabinet.

Always a thrill for a researcher to find herself elbow deep in original documents. Some experts say that Maria’s husband Thomas spearheaded the parks project, that he even rolled up his sleeves to collaborate with Olmsted, Jr. on some of the design work. That may be so. But the sisters were the ones who endowed the parks with their gigantic inheritance, and without them we would not be hiking in Utica today.

When most people think of nineteenth-century naturalist influencers, they might conjure up John Muir, Thoreau, perhaps John James Audubon or John Bartram –  rather than two urban heiresses who could have put their money towards pretty much anything they wanted and chose to safeguard woodlands. Theirs is a secret history, buried in timeworn assumptions about what women of their time did or did not do, should or should not do. Saving trees is not part of that construct.

You have only to track down the grand, over-a-century-old northern catalpas lining the lane to their South Woods to grasp the truth.

I have circled back and reentered the Switchbacks. This time I am unafraid, and go farther into the woods. A pair of kindred soul hikers suggest that my car will in all likelihood not be towed. So I walk.

When we walk, said Thoreau, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall? I now see details I missed the first time around. Some tree drama.

Also a conjoined black cherry with character to spare.

Again, Thoreau: My walks are full of incidents.

Thank you, Maria and Rachel, for making it possible for me to return to my senses in your woods.

I wouldn’t have missed this walk in the park for all the pizza in Utica.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

5 responses to “I heard about a couple of heiresses who saved woodlands

  1. Laura Compagni-Sabella

    This is such an interesting way to understand parks. Community funding, planning, and advocacy of parks is often invisible to the public. We tend to focus on the history of structures within a park plus the flora and fauna. Rarely do we acknowledge the people and processes that preserved the green space to begin with. Thank you for reminding me that this is such an important part of the story. Laura

  2. Thanks everyone. Glad you enjoyed. I’ll check out Women of Privilege!

  3. Karen K. Smith

    Love this. You’re fondly remembered in Briarcliff Manor for your books & programs for the historical society. Just mentioned Love, Fiercely & Issac Newton Phelps to someone. Would love to stay in touch. Karen Smith

  4. Higgins, Michelle (DEC)

    Wonderful post Jean. I’d love to see the Proctor Parks and the Olmstead Park in Utica. I’ve heard so much about them from the CNY Conservancy that does such great work there. Michelle

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