Miss Mary Cheney
originally published in the January 25, 1967 Manchester Evening Herald

Webmaster's notes: In the early days of the Manchester Historical Society, members wrote articles about the town's past, which were published in The Manchester Evening Herald. This article, author unknown, was found and copied by Dick Jenkins and transcribed by volunteer Maureen Hevey in 2017.
� Susan Barlow, webmaster.

Of the many people who enter the Mary Cheney Library, probably few are aware why it bears a woman's name and not the family name of the once famous silk manufacturers.

Mary Cheney's name would have to be on any list of Manchester's foremost women and probably it would top any list.

Miss Cheney's Family

Born on Sept. 28, 1855, she lived in Manchester 79 years until her death on March 3, 1934. Her parents were Frank and Susan Cheney; her brothers were Frank Cheney Jr. and Paul. She had two sisters, Katherine and Alice, who died in 1908, with whom she helped to establish and maintain the South Manchester Library.

The events of her childhood are unknown except that she grew up in a home with a happy mother and with a father who had an inventive mind. He was the youngest of eight brothers, seven of whom were involved in the silk company, Cheney Bros.

Her brothers outlived her. Frank Jr. and his sister had many traits in common. Both were keenly interested in Manchester and in the well being of its people.

Her immediate family and all relatives called her "Polly," but she was known as "Miss Mary" to townspeople.

Taught by Cousin

She attended classes held by Miss Jane Cheney, "Cousin Jane" to her.

The Bidwell and Spiess "History of Manchester," [click to access in this website] prepared for the town's Centennial, has a picture of Miss Jane Cheney on page 218 with the caption, "Miss Jane Cheney, a member of the first class graduated from the New Britain Normal School, taught in private schools in Manchester and elsewhere for 20 years, 1850-1870."

Mary Cheney House

Miss Mary always lived in the grey brick home of her parents, which is now a part of the South Methodist Church campus. In later years, the house was a contrast to her personality. It was big, while she was small; the ceilings were high, but she was short; the woodwork was dark and heavy, with much ornate carving, whereas she often wore simple fragile silks in soft tones and a neckband of ribbon or velvet; the floors of the central hall were of inlaid tile in yellow, beige, and blue and gave a cold, formal look, while, though reserved, she had a warm personality.

To the south of the house was a sloping lawn and at its end a garden with a brook and forget-me-nots on its blanks [sic]. It was not a large garden but it seemed to be always full of flowers and shrubs in bloom. People wandered through the garden to see its beauty and sense its serenity. They were welcome to enjoy it and it gave Miss Mary pleasure to have a beautiful thing to share.

The artist Russell Cheney captured a bit of the garden in his painting of Canterberry [sic] bells and a portion of the house. The picture hangs on the south wall in the lobby of the library that bears her name.

[Webmaster's Note: To see a larger view of a Russell Cheney's painting of a portion of Miss Mary's garden, please click the image at left.]

[Webmaster's Note: To see a larger view of a painting of Miss Mary's garden, please click the image at left.]

Center Park Given

The writer of a newspaper article at the time of Miss Mary's death made an error in saying that she had purchased the land which is Center Park and given it to the town in honor of her father. At the Municipal Building is a map, land records, and a report of the re-study of Center Park land made in 1956. They show that, by 1896, the land between Main St., Center St., Linden St. and Myrtle St. was in three parts.

There was a small plot where the Soldiers' Monument was placed and dedicated on Sept. 17, 1877. On Oct. 10, 1896, the heirs of Frank Cheney, the father of Miss Mary, gave the town land for a Hall of Records. (This building, opposite the Municipal Building, is now used as the comptroller's office.)

Chestnut St., which once went to Main St., was cut off by vote of the town at a meeting of May 15, 1905. A further vote was that "Susan Jarvis Cheney (the mother of Miss Mary) be hereby authorized to lay out a park ... and to make such changes in grades or othedwise [sic] in and on said tract of land, including laying walks, placing or removing trees, shrubbery or constructing other improvements thereon as she thinks best."

At the town meeting of Oct. 7, 1912, it was voted "that the town of Manchester accept the deed of gift of the public park at the Center offered by Mrs. Susan J. Cheney and also the sum of $15,000."

One may assume that, with Miss Mary's interest in growing things, she was helpful to her mother in her ideas for landscaping the park. They had Charles Platt, an architect from New York, draw up plans for the flagpole area. The fountain with the bronze dancing bear cubs was placed near the Main St. entrance. It is still used.

The park has been little changed except for the erection of the library, which was paid for by funds from the Cheney Bros. Silk Co., the town, and the federal Works Progress Administration (a welfare program during the Depression). Work was started on the library in November 1936. Gustave Schreiber and Sons was the contractor. Architects' plans were prepared by Beers and Farley of New York under the personal supervision of Frank Cheney Farley, a nephew of Miss Mary's. He had earlier designed the local Municipal Building and the Nathan Hale School.

Her Benevolences

Miss Mary served on the town recreation committee and the library committee and she was, for 25 years, a member of the Ninth District School Committee. During this time, every child in the district kindergarten received a gift at Christmas through her generosity.

Fred A. Verplanck, long-time superintendent of schools, said at the time of her death: "Her interest in the teaching of music in our schools was keen and was often expressed in very substantial form. Many young men and women will recall with gratitude a college course made possible by her interest in them.

"Her characteristic modesty always governed her benevolences. Those who had the privilege of distributing her bounty were always charged with secrecy."

One young man who benefited by her generosity eventually planned the landscaping of the grounds of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu.

World War I brought its sorrows and burdens to many local families. Often in some mysterious way a family would receive just what they needed, for Miss Mary seemed to take the problems of Manchester people upon herself. In some cases it might be a basket of food; in others, clothes or footwear, or a doctor's bill paid.

Hospital Service

At the time of Miss Cheney's death, The Manchester Herald quoted C. Elmore Watkins, chairman of the board of trustees of the Manchester Memorial Hospital, as saying: "Miss Cheney was one of the original trustees of the Manchester Memorial Hospital. Looking back at those first years, when the new institution was finding its place, it is clear that our hospital could not possibly have been the success it was without her.

"She was one of the first to catch the vision of its possibilities and thereafter gave of herself and her means without stint. Not only did she faithfully attend board and committee meetings, but for years she was almost a daily visitor to the hospital. As a member of the house committee, she knew every detail of its operation; consequently her advice was based on practical, first-hand knowledge and was always helpful.

"When donations were asked for the furnishings of individual rooms, she let whosoever would select the prominent rooms upstairs. When they had all made their selections and only the kitchen was left, she smiled and said she would take that.

"There was no bronze plate with her name on the door but that kitchen continued to be her special interest. As replacements were needed, she quietly made them, many times without the knowledge of anyone except the superintendent."

Mr. Watkins concluded his comment with: "There is no one to take her place. There never will be. Future boards of trustees will have to struggle on without her."

Miss Cheney traveled between her home and the hospital in the only electric auto in town. It was a small black car with a top speed of 20 miles an hour. It was steered by horizontal bars. Her chauffeur was Alfred Gustafson.

Committee Activities

Miss Cheney was a member of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and she had served as a regent. One project that interested her was the erection of a fountain "in memory of Revolutionary Soldiers of Orford Parish." It was designed for use by people and by animals. The fountain was placed in a parklet at the Center and ceremonies marking its dedication as a gift to the town were held July 9, 1921. It was moved from the Center when the highway was changed; unfortunately it has been badly damaged and is not in use.

Miss Cheney was a member of the historical committee for the mammoth Centennial Celebration of the town in the fall of 1923. Among other activities, the committee staged an exhibit in the East side Rec, with a noteworthy collection of antiques and "treasures," and encouraged the publication of "The History of Manchester."

Reference was made to Miss Cheney in a previous article in the "Manchester: Past Places, People" series as being the only person to ride on both the first and the last trips of the railroad that ran from North Manchester to Cheney Mills until January 1933. Covering 1.94 miles, it was famous as the shortest independently organized railroad in the world.

Honored at Death

At her death, the Manchester merchants closed their doors during the time of her funeral as a tribute to Miss Mary.

On June 7, 1934, the DAR placed on the grounds of the Pitkin Glass Works ruins a bronze plaque and an arborvitae tree which is still growing. Miss Cheney had been instrumental in urging the preservation of the ruins as a landmark of local historical importance, and the DAR had undertaken the responsibility.

Among the many tributes which appeared at the time of Miss Mary's death was one signed only "M.M.C.", which is worth quoting: "To me, a little more than a newcomer to Manchester, is the name Mary Cheney a kind of legend -- the legend of a fairy godmother who was not a shining figure in cloth of gold but a little woman with grave blue eyes -- dressed often in black -- who appeared so quietly to perform her magic that only a few knew she was there."

The Somanis [sic] yearbook of the Manchester High School class of 1934 was dedicated to Miss Cheney with the following poem:

In Memoriam

Friends, let us pause a moment
In silent tribute to a friend
Whom Heaven lent us for
awhile, and has now
Recalled to continue her work
in the vast unknown.
A sweet little lady in somber
clothes we remember her,
With kind blue eyes lighting
up a tired face,
Going about in her quiet and
useful way
Providing happiness for others.
She is gone -- First Lady of
But her inestimable goodness
remains in our hearts,
While our schools, parks, and
her own beautiful garden
Live on, as silent testimonies
of her thoughtfulness.

Note: Any historical data suitable for use in further columns about Manchester's past will be welcomed by members of the Manchester Historical Society's Public Information Committee: Mrs. Frank Atwood, 110 Westland St.; Edson M. Bailey, 99 Tanner St.; William Coe, 463 E. Center St.; Mrs. Helen Estes, 36 Porter St.; Mrs. Horace Learned, 30 Forest St.; Mrs. Harry Maidment, 99 Robert Rd.; Miss Anna McGuire, 23J St. James St.; Herbert Swanson, 233 S. Main St.