Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Mary Jones Blake

Mary Jones Blake, my maternal great-great grandmother was born on this day-January 12th in 1861.  One hundred and fifty five years ago.  I grew up hearing the occasional anecdote about her, but never really learning the facts of her life. 
Mary Jones 1861-1946
at St. John's in the Wilderness Church, Stony Point NY 1903

Mary's life was an ordinary one, but at the same time extraordinary. She was born four months before the United States Civil War and died after the conclusion of the second World War.  The 1865 New York Census lists her parents as basket makers and they lived in Johnsontown, NY a rural hamlet forty miles and a lifetime North of Manhattan. Mary's parents were born in Johnsontown, and I suspect their parents were as well. So was her daughter and all five of her grandchildren including, in 1906 my grandfather.

In the 1920's and 1930's when Mary was a grandmother, Johnsontown and several surrounding towns were demolished by NY and NJ Pallisades Interstate Park Commission to make room for Lake Welch, a swimming area, park and picnic area for people with newly discovered leisure time. The families residing in these towns were poor, with little or no education. They had no means or wherewithal to fight the government and few put up any kind of resistance. 


Johnsontown School and Oscar Jones, school custodian and my cousin.


Homes and buildings were demolished, creeks were dammed to create swimming areas and people gathered their belongings and moved.  To this day, all that remains are a handful of stone foundations, a marker indicating where the school house once stood and a several crumbling cemeteries.  

Driving through this park land regularly made me want to learn more about Mary and her family and soon after I started to do research, I got really lucky. Seriously, I won genealogy lotto. 

First, my Mom's cousin Bill decided to downsize from a very large house to a small apartment.  This meant he no longer wanted to hold on to the boxes of papers, photos, and other paraphernalia that had been in the attic of one relative or another for years.  Bill would sit with me and put things in context, he could identify many of the people in the grainy black and white photos, he would tell stories of aunts, uncles and grandmas, including Mary. "Take this box of papers or I am throwing it out," he said. That box held yellowed clippings of obituaries, marriage licenses, and Mary's confirmation certificate.

Bill would call me whenever he found a new box and I broke into tears when he unearthed the bible where Mary had scrawled the names, dates of birth, and death of all her siblings.  

The second lucky thing that happened around this time was that I learned about Mary's connection to St. John's in the Wilderness Church.  The one building that remains in the park.  

 St. John's in the Wilderness Episcopal Church was built in 1880 through the patronage of Mrs. Margaret Zimmerman, a wealthy widow who resided part time in the nearby town of Tuxedo Park.  Mrs. Zimmerman built the church in memory of her husband, who died suddenly on their honeymoon.   One of the first things I learned about Mary, was that in the 1880s and 1890's she worked at St. John's.

The church and parish school for orphaned boys were run by Ada Bessie Carey, a British woman who dedicated most of her life to the boys of the school and the families of St. John's.  I was able to learn the history of St. John's and the dedicated work of Mrs. Carey because soon after Bill gave me that bible, I came across a new book in the local history room of the New City Library.  That Much Good Might Be Done, St. John's in the Wilderness: the Legacy of Ada Bessie Care and Margaret Furniss Zimmerman by Odessa Southern Elliott.  

Mrs. Elliott was the wife of the Vicar and the couple served as the caretakers of St. John's for more than thirty years.  I wrote her a letter asking if she had come across any mention of Mary in her research.  Fortunately for me and my research, Mrs. Elliott couldn't have been more helpful. She found passages about Mary in Mrs. Carey's journals and shared them with me, she brought me to St. John's and showed me what would have been Mary's room, we sat with the box of photos Bill found in the attic and actually identified some of the people.  




Thanks to Mrs. Elliott and her research, I learned so much more about Mary than I could ever ascertain from a census record:she was a hard worker, a loving mother and dedicated to the boys of the school.  

This year marks one hundred and fifty five years since Mary was born and fourteen since I started researching my family and the lost towns they called home.  I am a much better researcher now and I am grateful for all the help and support I had when I was just starting out.  I realize how lucky I am to have found Mrs. Elliott and that she was so willing to share with me.  I am grateful too, that Bill recognized the value of what was in the attic and gave it to me to sort.  

Mary is still a bit of a mystery to me, but I am still working on things.