Friday, June 7, 2013

A Sketch of the Life of Dora Jackson

Dora Jackson as a young woman. From Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Visitors to the Schenectady County Historical Society are often curious about the history of the building that contains our Museum. For many years, the building has served organizations -- first the G.E. Women's Club, and, for over 50 years, the Schenectady County Historical Society. However, it was originally built and inhabited as a private home. It was the home of Dora (Mumford) Jackson, a widow who lived in Schenectady for much of her life.

Dora Astor Mumford was born in New York City on May 17, 1831, the daughter of Samuel Jones Mumford and Caroline Givens (Astor) Mumford. Dora's mother died in February 1834, when Dora was not yet three years old. Shortly afterward, Dora and her infant sister Caroline were sent to Schenectady to live with her paternal grandparents, Benjamin and Harriet Mumford. Dora's sister would die a few short months later, in July of 1834. During the nineteenth century, the wealthy and established Mumford, Bowers, and Jackson families clustered along Washington Avenue, creating an informal extended family network in the neighborhood. This support was likely vital to young Dora as she grew up; her family life was marked by loss. In addition to the early deaths of her mother and sister, two of Dora's stepmothers died during her childhood and early teenage years, and her father would die soon after Dora's marriage. Dora attended Emma Willard School in Troy, graduating in 1847 at the age of 16.

In 1850, in Prattsville, New York, Dora married Alonzo Jackson. Alonzo Clinton Jackson was born in 1823 in Montgomery County, New York, to Allen and Diana (Paige) Jackson. When Alonzo's father died in 1836, Alonzo's uncle, Alonzo Paige, took responsibility for the educations of Alonzo and his brother, Samuel. Alonzo graduated from Albany Academy. He was still a seventeen-year-old student at Union College when he was appointed as a midshipman in U.S. service. He served in the Pacific for five years, and entered the naval school at Annapolis, Maryland. He passed with honors and shortly after served in the Mediterranean, not returning until late 1849. After Dora and Alonzo's marriage in 1850, the 1850 Federal Census shows the couple living with Alonzo Paige and his wife, Harriet Bowers Mumford Paige. Harriet was also Dora's aunt (Harriet is also well-known to local history enthusiasts as a diarist who commented on prominent people and community life in nineteenth-century Schenectady). Alonzo Jackson continued in service with the U.S. Navy, earning the rank of Lieutenant. Tragically, his life was cut short in 1853, at the age of 29. According to his death notice, he died of "a disease of the brain, brought on by too arduous application to the scientific duties of his profession."

Photograph of Alonzo Clinton Jackson taken by N.S. Bowditch, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. This image is a copy of the original photograph, which is in private hands. From Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

By the age of 22, Dora Jackson had not only lost both of her parents -- she had lost her husband as well, and was the mother of a toddler and an infant. The couple's daughter, Helen, had been born in 1851, followed by a son, Jones, in 1852. The 1855 New York State Census shows Dora and her children living with Alonzo and Harriet Paige. The 1860 Federal Census shows Dora, Helen, and Jones living with Samuel Jackson, Alonzo Jackson's brother. By the 1865 New York State Census, Dora and her children had a home of their own. The family lived "at 32 Washington Avenue in the familiar little white house so many years a landmark in Schenectady," according to the obituary of Dora's daughter, Helen (Jackson) Mason, in 1915.

The small white house was razed and the present house was built on the site in 1895, after Dora had been a widow for over 40 years. The house was built for Dora by her son, Jones. The house is a Colonial Revival style reproduction of a transitional New England Georgian style house of the 18th century with Federal period detailing. It was designed by American architect William Appleton Potter. A glowing memorial of Dora Jackson published in the newspaper after her death in 1899 notes that Dora's home was "doubly dear to her, from the love that prompted its building, - to the 'House not builded with hands,' for which her whole life was a preparation, one whose life was so closely interwoven with all of the best and brightest of both the old and the new Schenectady." After Dora's death, her son lived in the house. He died in 1906 after suffering from sunstroke in the garden. The ownership of the house then passed into the hands of Dora's daughter, Helen. After her brother Jones' death, Helen built a bungalow at 30 Washington Avenue; she spent summers there with her daughter, Gertrude Franchot Mason.

When Dora Jackson died in December 1899, she was remembered as a kind, lively, and religious person. She was active in St. George's Church, and is buried in the church's burial ground, along with her husband and son. "It is seldom one finds combined in the same person social attraction of a high order and a deep religious nature," reads her obituary. "Mrs. Jackson possessed the two qualities in a remarkable degree. Her home was always the centre of a gracious hospitality, enjoyed alike by young and old. Her youthful heart and kindly ways endeared her to all ages. Her devotion to her church was unwavering. The church bell was a signal that she always responded to." Dora Jackson was also remembered fondly by the Episcopal Diocese in Albany. The journal of the proceedings of the Diocese's annual convention in 1899 includes a tribute to her. The tribute describes Dora Jackson as one "whose life was enriched with all those outward graces of Christian womanhood, hospitality, kindness, sparkling cordiality and cheerfulness, quick and keen sympathy with all human things, and all those outward graces had their source in the deep-down spring of earnest personal religion and a love, that was alike devout and devoted, of her Lord." Her service as Chair of the Missionary Committee of St. Mary's Guild, and preparation of the missionary boxes, was acknowledged. "Her work in this direction was just about finished for the year," the memorial states, "and all the boxes for which she had been arranging, have now been sent to their respective destinations."

The house at 32 Washington Avenue was acquired by the General Electric Company in 1918, and was used as the clubhouse for the G.E. Women's Club, an organization for the company's female employees. The Schenectady County Historical Society acquired the house in 1958 and has remained ever since. Dora's former home has been transformed into a museum that highlights the history of the area over four centuries. Today, a photograph of Dora Jackson stands on the mantel in one of the rooms, bearing witness to the changes of a house built in love.

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