Ridgefield notable: Mary Fuller Frazier, heroine of Perryopolis

Mary Fuller Frazier

Mary Fuller Frazier

Contributed photo

One of the more peculiar — and nicer — people to have lived in Ridgefield was Mary Fuller Frazier. The eccentric heiress arrived in town in 1946 at the age of 81, lived in a small portion of a large house, and then departed for a sanatorium and her death.

While here, she made out a will that gave $1.5 million — $15 million today — to the small, impoverished town in southwestern Pennsylvania where she was born, but which she’d visited only once in 60 years.

Mary Fuller was born in 1864 in Perryopolis, Pa., and spent much of her childhood there cared for by an uncle, a multimillionaire coal and cattle man. At his death in 1917, she inherited some $5 million — nearly $80 million today.

She left Perryopolis in 1887 and returned only once in 61 years. She married and divorced twice, and lived most of her life in eastern Pennsylvania.

In March 1946, she paid today’s equivalent of $1 million for a 13.5-acre estate on North Street, living alone with her servants and known locally as an eccentric. A court later described her “palatial” 12-room house in Ridgefield where “only a few rooms were furnished. Rugs in rolls were in evidence throughout the house and were never finally laid.”

In January 1948, she put her estate on the market and admitted herself to a New York City sanatorium where, that August, she died, leaving behind $2 million ($20 million today), most of which went to Perryopolis.

Among 18 much smaller grants was a $100,000 fund to provide a watchman and upkeep for the family mausoleum in a Perryopolis cemetery. As a result, a guard was hired and lived in a trailer parked in the cemetery near the mausoleum.

The bequest brought national headlines and much attention to Perryopolis, a community of 1,700 people south of Pittsburgh. Most of it was once owned by George Washington who drew up plans for the town, laying out the roads in the design of a wagon wheel — just as Washington, D.C. would later be laid out. Its name commemorates Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory over the British on Lake Erie in the War of 1812.

Frazier had indicated she wanted her gifts “to provide lighting, a water system, schools, roads, and other things the town needed and that funds be provided for the upkeep of these improvements so there would be no burdens on the taxpayers.”

Today, largely thanks to her, the community has Frazier High School and Frazier Middle School, as well as the Mary Fuller Frazier Library, plus other facilities and services it might not otherwise have had — including streetlights in the village. —Jack Sanders