Mary Fuller Frazier 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 in today’s money — to a small, impoverished town in Pennsylvania where she was born, but which she’d visited only once in 60 years.

Mary Fuller was born in 1864 in Perryopolis, Pa. She grew up there with an uncle, Alfred M. Fuller, a multimillionaire coal and cattle man who in 1917 bequeathed her $5 million — nearly $80 million today.

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

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

By 1948, she was building a new house outside Philadelphia, planning to move there. That January, she put her Ridgefield estate on the market and admitted herself to a sanatorium where, that August, she died. (The house, just south of Pinecrest Drive, was later owned by Sherwood Summ. Tony Czyr subdivided the acreage.)

Frazier left an estate worth $2 million ($20 million today). Most went to Perryopolis. Among 18 much smaller grants was a $100,000 trust 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 Perryopolis bequest made national headlines. Life magazine did a two-page spread which included a picture of the mausoleum with the guard’s trailer. (Frazier herself was never pictured.)

A town of 1,700 people south of Pittsburgh, Perryopolis was once part of 56,000 acres owned by George Washington. He 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. When the town was developed after his death, it was named not for Washington but Oliver Hazard Perry’s War of 1812 victory over the British on Lake Erie.

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

—Jack Sanders