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Mary Gossler Vicary

Milestones Vol 27. No. 1

By Julie Mukahy and Roger Applegate

On a hillside overlooking the Ohio River in Freedom, Pennsylvania, sits a stately old stone mansion erected by Captain William Vicary and his wife, Mary. Many stories and legends surround the builder, but very little attention has been paid to the life of the extraordinary woman he married.

The lady of this old mansion, Mary Gossler Vicary, was born on December 5, 1783, the oldest child of Philip and Anna Maria Gossler of York, PA. Mary's father, as well as four of her uncles, served in the Revolutionary War. Philip was captured by the British during an engagement at Fort Washington in 1776, and was exchanged two months later. He reenlisted for a second term in 1780, and was sent west to fight the Indians. Following his revolutionary service, Mary's father ran a tavern in his hometown of York. Testifying to his popularity in York, Philip was elected and served as the Assistant Burgess in 1791 and was later elected the Chief Burgess in 1795 and again in 1797. According to his military records, Philip Gossler was commissioned a captain in the Provisional Army by President John Adams in 1799.

'While we know little of Mary's early years, we do know that in 1797, at the age of fourteen, Mary received her education at the exclusive Bethlehem Female Moravian Seminary. Founded in 1742, the Moravian Seminary was the first school for girls in America, and boasted such noted alumni as the nieces of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, as well as the daughters of John Jay, Ethan Allen and Daniel Leet. According to the book, 'Mind, Body, & Spirit: Moravian Academy 1742-1992," Mary's Moravian training was considered liberal and progressive for that era. Her curriculum would have covered religion, intellectual and cultural pursuits, social studies, science, vocational training, music and English. Teaching was based on "close and loving supervision and on good adult example, rather than on punishment."

Following her education at the Moravian Seminary, Mary became the bride of Captain William Vicary in 1806. Vicary was a merchant sea captain from Philadelphia who was twelve years her senior. The wedding followed closely his return from a voyage to the East Indies, after which he gave up the sea. Legend has it that he gave up sailing because Mary grew tired of the long separations, and begged him to move away from the "siren's call" of the ocean. In any event, Mary and the Captain packed up and moved to Columbia, Pennsylvania, a small but growing town along the Susquehanna River. It was here that the Gossler family had previously moved, and Mary's father, Philip, operated the ferry and also owned a coal and lumber business. Most likely upon their arrival in Columbia, Philip presented the Vicarys with a house and two lots valued at $3,000 located on Front Street near the river. No description of the house has been found. However, in Robert Goodell's extracts from the Bethel Cemetery records, we find that "the Vicary home was up Front Street somewhere near the site of the old Collector's office. The house stood within spacious grounds beautifully kept and standing about thirty-five feet from the sidewalk..."

In 1811, the Gossler and Vicary families witnessed the birth of Mary's daughter, Ann Elizabeth on January 20th. Unfortunately, the family's joy would be short-lived. Ann Elizabeth died just four months later and was buried in the Gossler family plot in Mt. Bethel Cemetery. Within the next few years, Mary would bear two more children in Columbia, Philip and William C., both of whom would live on to adulthood.

During his time in Columbia, Mary's husband became one of the earliest burgesses (in 1816) and in later years, became the president of the Columbia Bridge Company yielding a salary of $100 per year. It was also during this time that he began purchasing tracts of land throughout Pennsylvania, including some land in this area of Western Pennsylvania.

In 1821, with the help of wagons manned by some of Vicary's land tenants, the family made the long arduous journey to a new home several miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to a place called Sewickley Bottoms. This is where the Vicarys celebrated the births of the last two of their children, John and Hannah.

It was also in Sewickley that Mary was reunited with Eliza Leet, a schoolmate of hers from the Bethlehem Female Moravian Seminary. Eliza was the only child of the famous soldier and surveyor, Daniel Leet, and the wife of noted Western Pennsylvanian David Shields. At the time, she was described as the richest woman in Western Pennsylvania. Incidentally, the land purchased and settled on by both the Vicarys and Shields had been surveyed by Eliza's father, Daniel, as part of the Depreciation Lands used for payment to Revolutionary War soldiers.

While staying in Sewickley Bottoms, Mary and her husband, William, became friendly with both George Rapp, the leader of the Economy Society, and his followers. In a letter to his son, Father Rapp mentions how every Sunday some of the Economites would make the trip to the Vicary's house to visit. Those visitors who spoke English talked with the Captain and those who spoke only German talked with Mary, as she was of German descent. Their friendship proved to be mutually beneficial as William and Mary sold several tracts of land to the Economites in 1825.

In 1826, Mary and William decided to move on and build their mansion.

The Vicarys purchased 640 acres of land further north along the Ohio River in what is now Freedom, Pennsylvania, from Mark Wilcox, a prominent Delaware County judge, whose paper mill printed currency for the Federal Government. It was on this spot that they began the construction of their new home. Made of large dressed sandstone blocks quarried on their property, the mansion was finally completed seven years later in 1833. Three stories high and consisting of eighteen rooms, the eight main rooms were made eighteen foot square with red oak floors that were supported by sturdy hand hewn beams. The main hallway boasted a massive oak front door that faced the Ohio River. On the third floor was a ballroom built for entertaining guests, as well as two smaller rooms that may have served as chamber rooms. Although the outside was plain, it must have been an impressive sight at the time, as most of the houses owned by their wealthy friends were made of brick or wood.

We know little of the Vicary mansion furnishings, except what was brought to our attention in an 1899 newspaper interview with their granddaughter, Anna 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 log books 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 famous Philadelphia 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. We can only assume that Mary would have displayed the instrumental skills learned during her Moravian school days to entertain such notable visitors as her friends the Shields and John Way, Vicary's land agent, as well as their good friend George Rapp.

In the comfort of the newly finished residence, William continued his land purchases and sales and oversaw the farming of his properties, while Mary saw to the management of the mansion and the raising of their children. In 1837, Vicary partitioned land around the mansion and created a village named St. Clair that would later become a part of Freedom. At the ripe old age of 71, William passed away in his beloved mansion in 1842. From the Captain's will, we know that the Vicarys had at least one "problem child." In his will, the Captain mentioned that his younger son, Philip, had contracted the bad habits of "intemperance and idleness." Philip would receive an inheritance of only $100 per year until such time as he "changed his ways." However, prior to the Captain's death, a major change must have occurred in Philip because the will was amended. The Captain noted that he was now satisfied that Philip had again become "temperate and industrious." Unfortunately, Philip, at age 34, preceded his mother in death and never collected his inheritance.

Mary Vicary outlived her husband and all of her children save one, until her death in 1853. Sadly, only her youngest child, Hannah, would survive Mary and carry on the family line.

Following Mary's death, the mansion was passed down through several generations of the family. A granddaughter rented the house out for a period to an old business partner and finally sold it in 1924 to Joseph Nannah for $10. In the early 1970's, the old mansion was slated for demolition when the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation began the construction of a highway through this area. Fortunately, the Beaver County Historical Research & Landmarks Foundation, county and local governments and concerned citizens were able to save the structure. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, the mansion is currently undergoing restoration and has become the permanent headquarters of the Foundation.

Today, the old mansion is alive again with the happy sounds of children learning skills such as: spinning, weaving and etiquette - skills that Mary would have taught her own children. The hustle and bustle of many visitors harkens back to an earlier time and fills the once lonely rooms. Herbal gardens and flowers again surround the old house. Carpenter's hammers and painter's brushes are helping to breathe new life into the old structure. Mary is gone now, but we can only hope that she would be proud to see a new generation of people bringing love and happiness to the Vicary Mansion.

The Authors would like to give special thanks to Ron Ciani, whose research and assistance helped to make this article possible.