Now that Black History Month is over, March is Women’s History Month and Richmond In Sight is on top of that, too. Harry Stilson’s wife, Mary, wasn’t your usual “little woman.” Literally, sure, she was tiny but she had the determination and ingenuity of an Amazon. Mary Perry

Mary Elizabeth Perry was born in Michigan in 1885 into a hard life. She lost her father as a child and became responsible for the family’s survival. Mary juggled school and work, fighting to get her education and teacher’s certificate. Once money ran out and the family lived in a tent for six months. The Seventh Day Adventist Church, which the Perry family attended, held camp meetings in tents but those tents weren’t designed for extended periods of habitation. Mary, her mother, and younger brother pitched their “church meeting tent” beside the Grand River and lived there. The photo below isn’t the Perry tent but it’s similar to the one they owned. Sounds like fun but Michigan summer nights are really cold and the campsite didn’t provide conveniences like water (other than the river) or electricity.

church meeting tent

Mary sold taffy and popcorn to tourists visiting the resort hotel across Michigan’s Grand River which paid for food and the Ferris Institute certificate needed to teach. When school opened and a pay check was promised, they moved into a rented house. Below is one of her teaching contracts. MPS contract

Teaching was dangerous in those days. I have Mary’s school bell but the horse whip she kept by her side for protection from the larger boys went missing over the decades.

The (mis)adventures of Mary and Harry Stilson are described in my first book, From A Richmond Streetcar so I won’t repeat them but in 1907 Mary left her husband and children in Virginia to return to Michigan and care for her invalid mother. She built the house they lived in, which is still standing, an enlarged version of the small house Mary built.

During those tumultuous years, Mary divorced her husband, a scandalous action in those days. She and Harry reconciled after several years and the death of their son in World War I but apparently never remarried. In 1930 census records, they are both listed as divorced and she states her role as Harris Stilson’s housekeeper and relative. To the world, however, they appeared as a middle-aged married couple. Here, on the porch of their home on Grayland Avenue, they look content. 025 harry,mary

Harry must not have objected to her unusual talents because he preserved the record of her carpentry for posterity. Here’s Harry’s photo of the child-sized secretary she built for her son out of scrap wood. His camera and movie camera sit atop it so I put them back for the “now” picture.

086 secretary,old   secretary now reszed

Mary continued her carpentry, restoring the farmhouse her son bought in Charles City County. A 1935 Garden Club tour brochure included Red Hill Farm on its program and listed Mary’s “renovation costs” of $109. The description noted that much of her material was “found around the property.” In other words, she recycled. In later years, she put in a bathroom for her daughter’s family and converted one room into a kitchen for my parents’ half of the home place. Not your usual women’s work.

My upcoming book relates her journey to France as a Gold Star Mother to view her son’s grave. Harry taught her to take photographs and I have the envelope of her first efforts labeled “Mary’s first lesson in picture taking.” mary's first lesson

After her lessons, she sailed off, recorded her experience in photographs, and brought them home for her husband (or whatever he was!) to develop. Not too tame a life for a girl with no money, no education, and nothing but grit to keep her going. That same 1930 census stated that Mary did not attend school, although she supported her family as a teacher. She educated herself like she taught herself carpentry, drawing, and photograph-tinting. Mary Perry Stilson wasn’t famous but she is worthy of admiration in this month recognizing Women’s History.

 

 

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