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Wednesday
Jul252012

Smithtown's History - Alice Throckmorton McLean

 LIVES, LOVES AND LAMENTS OF THE PEOPLE OF ST. JAMES

“Alice Throckmorton McLean, a remarkable lady whose spirit lives on….”          

by Bradley Harris, Smithtown Historian (originally printed in Our Town)

This article is about Alice Throckmorton McLean, a remarkable lady who made St. James her home from 1919 until 1944.

            Alice Throckmorton McLean was truly a remarkable lady.  She “was a child of the gilded age and lived a privileged life within the wealthiest American social circles.”  She spent her childhood in New York City and on her father’s farm estate in South Kortright in upstate N.Y.   She was home schooled and taught by tutors.  As a young girl, she spent much of her time travelling with her father and learning the ins and outs of the business world.  By the time she was in her twenties, she was married and the mother of two boys, helping her father with the running of his upstate farm and carefully nurturing her children.  With her divorce at age 33, Alice Mclean moved to St. James where, throughout the 1920’s and 30’s, she led the life of a wealthy socialite spending her time riding, participating in fox hunts, horse shows, and polo matches.  Then with the approach of World War II, Alice McLean became the founder, organizer and president of the American Women’s Voluntary Services, a highly successful volunteer organization that grew to include 325,000 women across America dedicated to helping the war effort by providing material aid, assistance and information to the armed forces and civilians during the war years.  Her work with the AWVS and the contribution it made during the war is Alice McLean’s legacy to us all, and shows what one “resourceful, energetic and tenacious American patriot” can do to help others in time of need.  (“Alice Throckmorton McLean,” Harbor in the News, ttp://www.harborcountrydayschool.org/page.cfm?p=532)      

            “Born in New York City on March 8, 1886,” Alice was the youngest of the three daughters of an American millionaire, James McLean, and his wife, Sara Throckmorton.  (Barbara Van Liew, Head-of the-Harbor: A Journey Through Time, published by Main Road Books, Inc., Laurel, N.Y., 2005, p.162.)  James McLean  was Vice President of the Board of  the Phelps Dodge Corporation, then “one of the three biggest American copper companies,” and he amassed a considerable fortune.  Since the McLeans did not have a son, James McLean treated Alice as the son he never had, and arbitrarily decided to make his third daughter heir of the fortune he acquired through the copper industry.  For Alice, this meant that she would learn to do many things that young girls would not normally be expected to learn.  (“Profiles: Ladies in Uniform,” The New Yorker, July 4, 1942, p.21-29.)

             A wealthy man, Mr. McLean was an avid horseman.  He loved to ride and play polo, and as his daughter grew up, he taught her to do the same.  Alice became such a “dedicated rider,” she not only played polo, but learned “to drive horses in tandem and four-in-hand.”  Alice displayed her polo skills when she played with the men of the Smithtown Polo Club, and she displayed her horsemanship skills as a participant in the annual Smithtown Horse Shows.  Driving four horses abreast was no mean feat for a woman but she became an expert.  (Barbara F. Van Liew, op. cit., p. 164.)

            Alice “was educated privately” and “as a young woman, she was her father’s constant companion, accompanying him on trips throughout the U.S. and also to Europe and the Far East.  She learned to speak fluent French, German and Italian.”  This sophisticated young lady became quite  a catch in the marriage market, and at the young age of seventeen, Alice married Edward (Ned) Laroque Tinker, a Poquott lawyer who founded the Tinker National Bank.  They had two children named Edward and James.  Unfortunately, the marriage did not last, and by 1919, Alice and Edward had separated and divorced.  Alice and her two boys moved in with her parents.  (Barbara F. Van Liew, op. cit., 163.)

            The McLeans owned several homes.  James McLean inherited his father’s 1500 acre farm with a “huge handsome mansion” in South Kortright, Delaware County, in upstate New York.  In New York City, the McLeans occupied “their New York townhouse on East Fifty-fifth Street,” and on Long Island, the McLeans owned another large house with 50 acres of property in St. James.  (“Profiles: Ladies in Uniform,” The New Yorker, op. cit., p.21-29.)  The house in St. James that they purchased from William Minott in 1916, was a large wooden frame house, sheathed in white clapboards, that had been built by Mr. Minott as a summer home in 1910.  One of the first additions that Mr. McLean made to this house in St. James was a stable with 13 stalls that was constructed in close proximity to the main house, close enough so that Mr. Mclean could look out his bedroom window and see his horses standing in their stalls.  It was this house that in 1919 Mr. and Mrs. McLean gave to their daughter Alice with “their love and affection” after selling the house and property to her for “one dollar.”  Alice brought her two sons to live in this house in St. James.  Alice was determined to regain her independence and her parents helped her to do so by giving her the house.  She demonstrated her freedom by re-assuming her maiden name McLean and by legally changing her sons’ names to McLean as well.  From 1919 on, Alice McLean Tinker was known as Alice McLean.  (Barbara Van Liew, op. cit., 163.)

            When her father and mother passed away, Alice inherited the McLean family fortune and the house and farm in South Kortright.  She also inherited her father’s string of horses.  It is said that she owned over “100 horses at one time, polo ponies, driving horses, jumpers.”  In the 1920’s, Alice McLean “was an active member of both the Smithtown and Meadow Brook Hunts and was the only woman on the local polo team.”  From 1922 to 1924, Alice was chosen as “Master of the Hunt.”  When she rode in the hunts, Alice wore a “Roman habit with a top hat and veil tight across her face.”  Her interest in the hunts led her to keep a number of dogs.  She had “forty or so dogs – boxers, whippets, greyhounds, and family pets.”  She kept these horses and dogs in the “barns, kennels, and stables” on the 50 acres of her estate.  “The present-day ‘Barn Yesterday’ was where” Alice kept her many of her animals including her sheep and cows.  (Barbara Van Liew, op. cit., p. 164.)

            Sometime around 1924, Alice McLean purchased the Lawson House on the corner of Three Sisters Road and North Country Road with the hope that the Prince of Wales would stay there during his official visit to America in 1924. To make her own home more attractive and appealing to the Prince of Wales, Alice had her house remodeled, “adding a brick exterior to give it the appearance of ‘an English country house.’”  She even had “a ballroom constructed south of her mansion” to provide the Prince with a suitable place to dance.  Unfortunately, Alice was disappointed and the Prince of Wales never did come to St. James.  (Barbara Van Liew, op. cit., p. 163.)

            Even though she was keenly disappointed that the Prince of Wales did not visit her in St. James, Alice McLean made an annual pilgrimage to England, often taking her horses and grooms with her.  It was on one of these trips, with war looming in Europe, that “Ms. McLean was inspired to organize the American Womens Voluntary Services (AWVS).”  Patterned after the British effort of using women volunteers to assist in the war effort, the AWVS taught its volunteers  how to administer First Aid, how to take photographs, read maps, practice conservation, salvage materials, operate military canteens, help with soldier rehabilitation efforts and drive motor transport.  All of these activities were designed to prepare women volunteers for active participation in the coming war effort.  “By the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, Mrs. Mclean’s volunteer organization had 18,000 members with chapters across America.”  Mrs. McLean became the President of AWVS and directed the formation of a local branch of AWVS in Head-of-the-Harbor in St. James.  (Barbara Van Liew, op. cit., p. 164.)

            During the course of the war, women volunteers served as “cryptographers and switchboard operators 1942 New Yorker Magazine - Alice Throckmorton McLeanand served as fire watchers and crop pickers.  AWVS workshops turned out more than one million new and reconditioned articles of clothing for servicemen, hospitals and other users.”  The AWVS also published booklets and taught classes “on clothing repair,” conservation techniques, victory gardening, on salvaging war material and a host of other subjects designed to help the war effort.  The AWVS helped sell war bonds and stamps, and by the end of the war, had sold over “one billion dollars worth of war bonds and stamps.”  By 1945, “the AWVS numbered 325,000 members.” (Barbara Van Liew, op. cit., p. 164.)  

            Much of the work of the AWVS was not funded by the federal government and Mrs. McLean, who remained President throughout the war, “spent much of her personal fortune keeping the AWVS afloat.”  By 1944, “unable to maintain her holding in St. James,” Mrs. McLean relocated to South Kortright in upstate New York” to the property she had inherited from her father’s estate. (Barbara Van Liew, op. cit., p. 165.) Her English country house and 25 acres surrounding it went on the market “at a price of $85.000, but was never sold.”  The brick mansion was vacant for a number of years until the house “was purchased by the Christian Brothers of Ireland as a training school.“  Then in 1956, “several families” from “surrounding North Shore villages from Head of the Harbor to Port Jefferson” joined together to create a local private day school in Mrs. McLean’s former mansion.   Thirty-eight founding families “raised almost $20,000 toward the purchase” of the estate and raised the balance of the purchase price “through pledges and grants.”  In the fall of 1958, the Harbor Country Day School opened its doors to its first 38 students.  (“Harbor Country Day School: A Look Back,” article on the background and history of the school in the Commemorative Journal and 2009-2010 School Calendar that was published in 2009 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the school.)     

            Mrs. McLean lived on the estate in South Kortright until 1948, when “she donated her estate house there to a foundation established to aid Europe’s displaced children.”  She “then moved to Baltimore to live with one of her sons.  She died there on “October 25, 1968 still the President of AWVS.”  (Barbara Van Liew, op. cit., p. 165.)

            Mrs. McLean’s English country house in Head-of-the-Harbor has a new life today as the home of the Harbor Country Day School, a private school that serves some 130 children living throughout Suffolk County.  It is a day school that has nursery, kindergarden, and first through eighth grade classes which meet in the rooms of the mansion.  The original rooms of the house have been expanded and modified to meet the needs of the school children and classrooms occupy the first and second floors of the original house.  In 1967, wings were added to the back of the house adding a gymnasium and a library.  With class sizes that are never larger than 16, Harbor Country Day School offers a warm, homelike setting for the students, and they become much attached to Mrs. McLean’s former home.  Alice McLean would have been pleased to know that her house is now a day school, filled with happy school children.  But she probably knows this, since her ghost has been sighted in various rooms of the mansion watching over the activities that continue in the house today.

 

Reader Comments (2)

The Christian Brothers purchased--and later sold--the mansion in South Kortright that Alice inherited from her father. Today it is Phoenix House, a rehab facility for drug users.

Thu, May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDonald McGovern

The mansion in South Kortright was actually occupied by the Irish Christian Brothers until early 1967 when they found it too expensive to maintain. The facility had been used as a novitiate house of training for the Brothers and as the number of candidates fell so did the need for a home of this size. The story given to the Brothers who occupied the house was that the Christian Brothers order got the house for the price of the defaulted taxes on the property.

Sat, August 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael J. O'Brien

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