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The stately old mansion built by Captain William
Vicary still sits on a gentle knoll overlooking the Ohio River
in Freedom, Pennsylvania. Long a source of wonder, its unusual
construction and elegant style speak of the wealth and status
of its former owners.
Captain Vicary, a retired Philadelphia merchant sea captain, whose later career included: being a former President of the Columbia Bridge Company, member of the Abolitionist Society, land speculator, businessman and farmer, moved with his family to his lot on Big Sewickley Creek. Always looking for land deals, Vicary carefully scouted this area of Beaver County in which to construct his family home. Finding the correct spot, Vicary purchased 604 acres of land, lots #33, 34 & 35, from Mark Wilcox on February 18, 1826, on which to situate his mansion.(1) Within a few months following the purchase, Vicary hired John Moore of Youngstown, Ohio to do the actual construction. The original contract called for Moore to erect a stone dwelling measuring fifty two feet long by thirty eight feet wide along with a stone smokehouse, necessary, and spring house to be finished in December of 1826 for the sum of $2,450. He was also to construct a barn for an additional $650.
On the first of April, 1826, Vicary made several additions and changes to the original contract where he asked for the walls of the mansion to be made of cut stone with parapet walls; that the walls should be coped with cut stone; that there should be an ash house and oven of cut stone with partitions in the kitchen along with other revisions to both the house and barn. All of the buildings were to be completed by April 1st of 1827, and were to eventually cost an additional $1,435.
The mansion was not completed until November of 1829 because Vicary, unsatisfied with Moore's lack of progress and quality of work, took possession and paid his own people to complete the contract. This led to a dispute as to final payment between Vicary and the builder that resulted in a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case.(2) Although Vicary eventually won, the case dragged on several years following his death. It is from this case that we find many of the details of the above contract.
Three stories high and consisting of twenty rooms, the final product boasted eight main rooms each eighteen feet square with red oak floors supported on hand hewn beams. The inside walls were brick finished with plaster, and the main entrance door was made of solid oak two inches thick and supported by heavy iron strap hinges. The outside walls are of two foot thick cut sandstone blocks that were "faced" or smoothed. Large shutters adorned the windows on the outside. We know little of the Vicary Mansion furnishing, except what was brought to our attention in an 1899 newspaper interview with his granddaughter, Anna M. V. Hetchie-Harvey. According to that interview, the master bedroom contained a four poster family bed draped with dimity and covered by a heavy white Marseille bed spread. The study contained such items as the Captain's logbooks from his sea voyages, his Masonic regalia, and a book written and autographed by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and world famous physician. In the parlor, it was said that Mary had an English piano with only five octaves that gave off a tone of considerable volume.(3)
Vicary lived here until his death in 1842, and Mary, his wife, continued living in the mansion with her children. Sadly, Mary lived long enough to bury her remaining three sons before death finally claimed her in 1853. As the sole remaining heir, the mansion was inherited by daughter Hannah, who shortly following her mother's death, became the wife of local physician Dr. Thomas Freeman Robinson. As with all new occupants, changes to suit their tastes and needs are inevitable, and the Robinsons were no exception. One major addition made by the Robinsons was the creation of a stone mausoleum built for their daughter Leonora who died at the age of four years. The mausoleum was described in an article written in the Pittsburgh Sunday Dispatch in 1899 by Laura Withrow as follows:
"The mother's heart was broken. She
wanted her child still to be near her, even though death had come
between. Thus was conceived the idea of building a family vault
on the lawn near by the house.
The remains were temporarily interred in the garden and the vault was constructed, the designs being furnished by Dr. Robinson.
The entire vault is covered with earth, thus forming an immense mound back of the ornamental front. The vault is built of massive stonework. Benches are at either side of the interior, an especially large one being in the rear end....The great mound is a bead (sic) of myrtle and violets. Arbor vitae trees form a perfect circle around the vault. An iron fence, the double gate being hung on stone pillars, incloses (sic) the front... On the urn, surmounting the whole are two beautiful figures. One is that of a kneeling woman, wringing her hands in sorrow for her dead. The other, in the guise of a woman, is an angel of light hovering over the sorrowing one with a message of comfort." (4)
With the death of Leonora, the Robinsons' only surviving child, Anna M. V. Robinson inherited the mansion in 1880. Following the untimely death of her first husband, Tobias Hetchle, Anna married and shared the mansion with James Harvey. As with their predecessors, the Harveys also made some changes and additions to the mansion. These changes included: adding the large front porch that is still visible today, adding a smaller side porch, removing a large stone wall from the yard, and placing glass in the large oak entrance door.
Sometime around 1912, the Harvey family packed their belongings and moved to Los Angeles, California. The empty mansion was rented to a prominent Freedom family named Bischoffberger. In a letter written to Mrs. Alton Bonzo by Margaret Schuldt, a daughter of the Bischoffbergers, in 1979, Mrs. Schuldt talks about some of the changes made by her family:
"... Papa fixed the large room in the attic as our party room. He had a beautiful hardwood floor laid. There were two good sized bedrooms off the large room. ... Papa had made an apartment above the kitchen & laundry. There was an outside stairway going from the apartment over the kitchen." (5)
Surprisingly, even though they were renters, the Bischoffbergers made changes to the house and must have expected to buy it at some point. One of the true enduring mysteries of the mansion is why it was never sold to them. According to Mrs. Schuldt:
"You see my Dad wanted to buy the house & was told he could have first chance on it when we lived in it but it was sold, you might say, right out from under him & that was their reason for moving out to one of our own houses on Eighth Street .... Which made them quite unhappy...." (6)
In any event, the mansion was sold to Freedom resident Joseph Nannah in 1924 for the princely sum of $10.(7) Nannah made his own changes by removing the large stone fireplace in the kitchen because it was not useful. Also, in 1925, the stone mausoleum was dismantled and the bodies removed to Oak Grove Cemetery in Freedom, where they now rest. At this point, it is unclear as to who was actually responsible for the removal of the mausoleum, but it was most likely the Harvey/Hetchie family as the area where it stood was later partitioned into lots and sold.
Once again, the mansion was passed on to an only daughter, Hazel, a teacher for the Freedom, Conway and Monaca school districts for 45 years. In 1948, a victim of rising costs and maintenance problems, Hazel placed her own "stamp" on the mansion when she divided it up into three apartments in order to help pay the bills. In the 1950's, Miss Nannah had the wooden floor of the large porch removed and replaced with the concrete floor that you see today. Miss Nannah and her various tenants lived here until the land was appropriated by the state for the construction of Route 65 in the late 1960's.(8)
Faced with the impending destruction of this historical structure, a one-woman letter writing campaign was begun by Mrs. Mildred Arbutina Pappas. A former Freedom resident, Mrs. Papas conducted her campaign from her new home in Washington, DC. Thanks to her efforts, and help from local organizations and governments, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation built a retaining wall to save the mansion. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 18, 1974, ownership of the land was transferred to Beaver County in the mid- 1970s, with the mansion being purchased from Nannah heirs, Gerald and Aloha Fehr Phillips, for $41,000 in 1982. (9)
In February of 1999, the William Vicary Mansion became the official home of the Beaver County Historical Research & Landmarks Foundation. Today, the mansion is being restored to its former grandeur and is open to the public for all to enjoy.
1 Deed of sale, Mark Wilcox to William Vicary dated February 18, 1826, Beaver County, Pennsylvania,
(Recorded May 30, 1826), Vol. G Page 388, Beaver County Recorder of Deeds.
2 Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Western District, Pittsburgh, "Vicary Vs. Moore."
3 Laura With-row, "Captain William
Vicary - The Legend," Pittsburgh Sunday Dispatch, February
5 Letter from Margaret Schuldt to Mrs. Alton
Bonzo, dated September 24, 1979, Beaver County Historical
Research and Landmarks Foundation.
7 Deed of Sale, Anna M.V. Harvey to Joseph
Nannah dated November 19, 1924, Beaver County, PA,
(recorded November 22, 1924), Deed book 333 Page 182, Beaver County Recorder of Deeds.
8 "Freedom Home is Rich in Historical Lore," The Beaver Valley Times, March 26, 1955.
9 Debra Utterback, "Vicary Changes
Proposed Under County Option Plan," The Beaver County Times,
February 22, 1987.