Margaret Woodbury Strong
and her Museum of Fascination
The Silver Spoon
An attractive young woman lived at 96 Lake Avenue just across from John Charles Woodbury's family home at 107 Lake Ave. She was Alice Motley, daughter of a prominent milling family. Romance bloomed and in 1883 the junior partner took another partner. Their first child died at birth and after 14 years of marriage, perhaps by surprise, their second child, a baby girl, was born. It was 1897 and the baby, to be named Margaret Woodbury, collected her first silver spoon. The water used for her baptism was furnished by her grand-uncle Daniel A. Woodbury. He brought the water from the River Jordan and had it sprinkled on her from a silver porringer.
Her dad helped the family firm known as the Strong, Woodbury & Company, Whip Manufactury, turn out more than 85,000 buggy, coach, riding and team whips each year. These whips, due to their quality materials, design and construction, were considered to be the finest available in the area. When Margaret's grandfather E. F. Woodbury passed away in 1892, he left her father not only the factory, but also $175,000. This was indeed a heady sum in Victorian times. For the Woodbury's it certainly helped to make the '90's gay!
Steam Engine Works
Her family's patriarch had made his way to the shores of Cape Ann in 1624. Her great grandfather served in the Vermont legislature and then moved to Rochester in 1848 to establish a steam engine and boiler works at 254 Mill Street. Her grandfather continued to manufacture steam engines and then joined Colonel Henry Alvah Strong in 1866 to produce buggy whips at 111 Allen Street at the corner of North Washington Street. Her grandfather had married Frances Holyland, also of English ancestry, and of their three children, only Margaret's father survived to reach adulthood. He became the junior partner in the whip concern.
The Life and Travels of Little Margaret
What was life like for an only child of wealthy parents at the turn of the century? It was indeed, most pleasant. There were long summers at the Kennebunk Beach cottage, a six-month tour of Japan in 1905, a European tour in 1906, six more months on Hawaiian beaches, Shanghai waterfronts, elephant riding in Ceylon, the pyramids in Egypt and a pleasant tour of Cannes and the French Riviera in 1908. By the time Margaret celebrated her eleventh birthday she had traveled to more countries and had seen more sights than a dozen people would experience in a lifetime.
Nothing was usual or humdrum for Margaret. Even her education was untraditional. She could read at age five, and was tutored during her early youth showing an exceptional aptitude in the area of language arts. At age nine she entered the Columbia Preparatory School for Girls on Goodman Street. Here she not only made the academic honor roll but also displayed an unusual flair for dramatics and gymnastics. In two of her favorite sports she truly excelled. They were archery and golf. By age thirteen Margaret was enrolled in the Gamble School for Girls in Santa Barbara, California. The writer can find no evidence that she graduated from any school, but her travel, her eclectic education, stimulating adult role models and her inquiring mind would serve her well throughout her life.
Queen of the Country Club
In 1915, at age eighteen Margaret Woodbury made her social debut at the Country Club of Rochester. Dressed in a stunning blue gown, silver slippers and an upswept hairdo, she was both an intriguing and an attractive young woman.
Her association with country clubs began at the Kennebunk Golf Club where her dad was president. There, with her aunts, the Motley's and the gentle guidance of her father, she learned to swing a golf club with great coordination and skill. By the age of 13 she was breaking 100. At age 20, with the assistance of Walter Hagen, P. G. A. champion and C. C. R. pro, she would soon be shooting in the low 80's. The game became a passion and in the 1920's local sports pages headlined her accomplishments. They read: "Mrs. Strong Takes Title at Oak Hill," "Mrs. Strong Wins Woman's Sweepstakes," "Mrs. Strong Breaks Woman's Record at Santa Barbara," and "Mrs. Strong Holds Course Record for Country Club of Rochester." She was a natural and most versatile athlete.
Not quite a summer-winter romance, Margaret's first attentive theatre escort was Homer Strong. He was 39, while she was but 17. Homer was the distant cousin of her father's partner in the buggy whip business, Colonel Henry Alvah Strong. He and his two brothers operated a small Rochester firm at 285 State Street. They sold machine tools and steel supplies to local tool and die concerns.
On March 6th, 1920 Homer, at age 45, announced his engagement to Margaret. A Kennebunkport, Maine, wedding was planned for the fall. Thus on September 9th, 1920, at the little church of St. Ann's-on-the-Rocks, a young woman of 23 became Mrs. Margaret Woodbury Strong. Following a New England honeymoon the newlyweds returned to Rochester. There, at 270 Culver Road, Margaret's proud parents had purchased and fully furnished a new home as a wedding present. A large block of Kodak stock was also added to Margaret's portfolio at the same time. Additionally, their new son-in-law was also rewarded. The Woodbury's quietly established a handsome trust fund for Homer. After all, the new bride had to keep up appearances and the life style created by her doting parents had to be assured.
Margaret and Homer
Tne next year brought the birth of their only child, Barbara, on October 7th, 1921. The following ten years then passed swiftly with Margaret content in her life as mother and her activites centering on several golf courses, garden clubs and weekly social events and dinners. Homer, a retiring and gentle person, dabbled in law and spent most of his time perusing his interests in philately, Sandwich glass, bee culture and gardening.
Life was to change with the passing of Alice Woodbury, Margaret's mother, in 1933 and her father in 1938. Together, Margaret's parents bequeathed more than two million dollars to her. Much of the money was in Kodak stock, and $500,000 from her mother was a trust fund which would grow to more than 10 million dollars. Perhaps it was their passing that prompted Margaret to want to find a more solitary home in the suburbs. Twin Beeches, a rather substantial 20,000 square foot home had just been placed on the market. The Italianate stucco mansion was owned by Homer's distant cousin, the late Alvah Griffin Strong, who was Colonel Henry A. Strong's grandson. Alvah built his home in 1925 and had much of the mansion's interior decorated with walnut and maple molding. This he had milled from trees cut on his Sodus farm.
Located on 700 Allen's Creek Road in Pittsford, the home is situated on a fifty-acre site adjacent to the Oak Hills Country Club. From the road little can be seen of the extensive estate. Only occasional glimpses of the orange roof tiles and limestone exterior can be seen. The size of the mansion can be better appreciated when you discover that it has thirty rooms, 15 of them bedrooms, 8 fireplaces, an indoor pool, an elevator and, of course, a wine vault in the basement. It was just the ticket for Homer and Margaret.
So in 1937, as Betsy Brayer, author of Margaret Woodbury Strong and the Origin of the Strong Museum, points out there occurs the coincidence whereby "the property passed from the grandson of one of the whip-making partners to the granddaughter of another." It was Homer who renamed the mansion "Tuckaway Farm. " He must have truly enjoyed this pastoral site with its rolling lawns, apple orchard, tall pine trees, wildflowers and babbling creek. Deep in one corner of the property, surrounded by magnificent old beech trees, Homer had his own hide-away constructed. Here he read and was entertained by a large flock of ducks who used the bordering creek as a part of their great migration flight-way. It was reported that the flock grew so vast in numbers that more than 600 pounds of corn were used to feed them each week.
Barbara Woodbury Strong
As an only child she, like her mother, was tutored during her early childhood. Later she entered the Santa Barbara School for Girls and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. We know that Barbara was married early during the war years and after a divorce, remarried a second time. Both of these marriages ended unhappily. So great was Barbara's depression that her health failed and her life ended in 1946 at age 24. Her mother insisted that Barbara had passed away from natural casuses. However, it was widely rumored that she had put an end to her own life due to her broken wartime romances.
When The Fascination Began
While we are all quite aware of the vast amount of material acquired by Margaret, the indefatigable collector, we may not know how the fascination all began. Most sources tell us that Margaret was absolutely entranced by the wonderful objects she saw during her world travels. As with all children she wanted everything. However her parents wisely limited her to only those purchases which would fit in her small shopping bag.
Now Margaret was unusually sharp for her age and quickly determined that if she acquired only small items, then her shopping trips could be extended and the variety of her purchases could be greatly increased. It should be noted that her passion for collecting was undoubtedly inherited from her father. Her dad was an avid stamp and coin collector with a special interest in American gold coinage. In 1920 John Woodbury became the ninth president of the Rochester Numismatic Society. His presidential medal is the rarest and most prized of all local numismatic items.
Collecting In The Early Years
Following her parents lead, Margaret started a lifelong scrapbook collection. Copying her mother she took an interest in Japanese artifacts. Her collections of 400 "Yatate" or small portable Japanese writing sets, "Inro" or medicine cases, and "Tsuba" or Japanese sword guards were probably the best in any private collection. And it was these highly detailed and carved artworks which held young Margaret's collecting interest. Veteran art connoisseurs would envy her early good taste.
From her aunt, Maude Motley, she acquired her interest in bookplates, So great was this childhood interest that her estate inventoried over 86,000 examples of this collection alone.
Although it is not mentioned by her biographers, it has occurred to this writer that Margaret must have seldom thrown anything away. She had to be the ultimate saver. What patience and forbearance her parents and husband must have exhibited. The nuclei of her collections were built before she was twenty. Further, the purchase of a 30 room house meant either the inspiration for a very large family or the perfect site for a very large collection. It seems obvious that Margaret had her interests in the latter, not the former.
The Collection Quest Begins
With the passing of Barbara in 1946 followed by the death of Homer in 1958, a great vacuum must have been created in Margaret's life. Her choice was then to fill her vast mansion with friends or with objects. Apart from her staff, Margaret had few close companions. She may have felt her collections would not fade away as her loved ones had. Perhaps she feared losing them. Or perhaps she reasoned that crowding her life with her collections would fill her present years and bring comfort on her later days. Whatever the answer, Margaret Woodbury Strong had the three qualities required for a world-class collector: she had a driving passion for collecting, the rooms to store her treasures, and the almost limiltless resources with which to carry out her "fascination" quest.
Collecting For The Love Of Collecting
That's the direction Margaret's life took in the last decade of her life. Henry Clune, writing in his book, The Rochester I Know, tells several tales which help us to appreciate Mrs. Strong's eccentricity, frugality, and personality.
She wore what she pleased, usually "in the mode of general housework," never wore a girdle, and "no one on the bowling alley, or the golf course, in a garden, at an auction, or at meals in a restaurant, or in her home ever saw her without her hat."
Her collecting forays often began when her chauffeur took her into town in one of her five automobiles. "She reveled in her ability to buy out, if the fancy struck her, an entire collection." Think about the happy antique store owner who asked if she wished to purchase one ornate-handled cane only to be told, "No young man, I'm buying the entire lot." On the other hand consider the poor shop owner who was asked. "Do you know who I am?" When he answered, "No I'm sorry I don't," he was truly sorry. For, at this reply, "she would turn curtly on her heel and walk away."
Sometimes her collecting moods took an unusual twist. One such occasion occurred in Kennebunkport. She bought a large quantity of material from an old hotel in that city. This included the bathtubs. In a perky mood, she had this tub collection lined up all along the property line of her sizeable cottage. To appease, or maybe to tease the townspeople, she then had her gardener plant flowers in each of the more than 50 tubs. She also encouraged would-be artists to paint the bathtubs. We can only imagine the stir that that must have generated in that staid New England community.
Another tale, from another source, tells how Margaret enjoyed her Lilliputian buildings. Several of the larger ones were outdoors and exposed to the elements. She called them "Rochester's Tiniest Suburb" and commented with a grin, "Silly isn't it? But it's fun. " During the Christmas season, when snow covered the small roofs and tiny icicles formed on the eaves, she would have her chauffeur place colored Christmas tree lights both inside, and as trim, outside the houses. To Margaret they must indeed have looked like a Rochester suburb in miniature.
The Museum of Fascination
On July 16, 1969, Margaret Woodbury Strong passed away with her dream of a "Museum of Fascination" unrealized. She had however, done two things which would insure that that dream would someday be fulfilled. First, she had applied to the State Education Department in 1968 for permission to establish her own museum corporation. Such permission was granted. Second, she made a will which gave its executors "liberal and sole discretion" as to how her estate could best be managed "to provide a perpetual endowment fund, the income from which, in perpetuity, will be sufficient to properly staff and maintain said museum…including provisions for the acquisition of additional appropriate collections…of display interest to the public."
Margaret and Her Millions
Just how could a Rochester woman amass the fabulous fortune she was to leave behind her? She was not the queen of England, Donald Trump, or a Rockefeller. She had never really worked in her life nor had she won the lottery. Mrs. Strong had acquired her fortune the old-fashioned way. She had inherited it.
It all began with a fire in 1880 which damaged the home of Colonel Henry A. Strong, her father's partner in the buggy whip firm. Henry found lodging in the home of a widow named Maria Eastman and her son George, a young clerk working for the Rochester Savings Bank. Over the kitchen table in the Eastman home, an enthusiastic George described his ideas and persuaded Henry to lend him a $1000. for a new photographic enterprise.
By 1884 the Eastman Dry Plate Company was well on its way to success turning out 4000 plates a month. It was at this point that the Colonel sold his share of the whip factory and became the first president of the Eastman Kodak Company. George Eastman was to further honor his good friend and financial backer by establishing and cooperatively funding, with the Rockefeller's, the Henry Alvah Strong Memorial Hospital.
It was also in 1884 that George's fortune had advanced to a degree that he could close his mother's boardinghouse and rent a cottage in the backyard of the Woodbury's home. John Charles Woodbury was now convinced of the quality of Eastman's stock and invested heavily in them. By 1910, when Margaret was 13, he would retire financially secure, close the factory, and concentrate on his golf game.
Thus Margaret's inheritance, money from her mother that came from the prosperous Motley Mills and the Kodak stock from her father's early investments, would provide that basis of her fortune. Showing her frugality, she never touched the capital, "but let it accumulate as the stock split, and always reinvested the dividends."
Mrs. Strong, the community shop keepers knew, was always good for her purchases. She therefore developed the practice of paying her utilities, her department store accounts and many of her other bills on January 1st. This allowed even more interest to accrue on her money. She even borrowed from local banks to finance her collecting campaigns rather than touch her capital.
The result of such financial planning left Margaret Woodbury Strong as the world's largest individual Eastman Kodak stock shareholder. Her closest female financial rival may have been Electra Havemeyer Webb, who had similar collecting propensities and created Vermont's Shelbourne Museum. At any rate, the total of Mrs. Strong's Kodak shares came to $77 MILLION. Additionally, the value of her collections was appraised by the firm of Parke Bernet at $4.0 million. This figure is possibly one of the most conservative ones imaginable. Her paintings, four by Winslow Homer, two by Grandma Moses, thirty-three by Charles Grupe, twenty by Abbott Graves, thirty-nine by Charles Woodbury (no relation), eight by Joseph Arentz, plus over 300 works by local artists would, alone fetch at least half the appraisal figure.
Three Hundred Thousand Items
Sometimes words alone cannot convey the remarkable numbers of items in any given collection. The following is a partial list to show the magnitude of Margaret's acquisitions:
The Strong Museum's first director, Holman J. Swinney, estimated the size of the warehouse-like collection of collections he encountered at Margaret's Tuckaway Farm estate to be three hundred thousand pieces—almost a third of a million. Swinney eventually found that she had amassed her mementos into some fifty major categories, and many lesser ones.
He further determined that a great deal of the material had three significant characteristics. First, much was in miniature or small in scale; second, most was highly decorative or, if utilitarian, it too was in a decorated form; and finally very few of the vast assortment of items were hand made. Margaret was attracted to those materials which had been mass produced during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. She had, by careful design or by the remotest chance, assembled one of the world's greatest cross sections of the Industrial Revolution's products. They seem especially representative of the "ideals and attitudes of Northeastern America during the tremendous changes wrought by the onrush of industrialism and the expansion of America after 1820."
© 1997 Donovan A. Shilling