Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Mothers of the Five Towns: Margaret Slocum Sage

There is a winding road called Sage Avenue which meanders through Back Lawrence.  It crosses a body of water that has been known both as Sage Pond and Dixon Pond.  Nearby, the large gray house that occupies a prominent spot overlooking the bay was for many years  the vacation home of financier Russell Sage and his second wife, Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage.
Russell Sage, who began his career as a grocer in Troy, New York, was one of the financial powers of the Gilded Age.  After holding a series of small public offices, he served in Congress between 1835 and 1857. When he left Washington, D.C., he became a financial broker in New York City and eventually bought a seat on the stock exchange.  He was known as a ruthless  and manipulative businessman.  When he married Olivia Slocum in 1869 after the death of his first wife, it was in part to improve his image.

Born in 1828, Olivia lived in a world where men controlled the nation's finances.  A descendant of Pilgrim Miles Standish, her affluent family was able to send her to the Troy Female Seminary (later the Emma Willard School).  She became a teacher, devoted to educational reform and  cared for her ailing mother.  She was over forty when she married Sage, who had already made a fortune on Wall Street and had interests in over 20 railroads.  Closely associated with Jay Gould, Sage was one of the "robber barons"  who was reviled by the press for making his fortune at the expense of others.  For over 37 years she lived her husband's shadow in what has been chronicled as a loveless marriage.

During this time, the Sages summered at Cedar Croft, their home in Lawrence.  Built in 1888 for H.T. Palmer, a retired British naval officer, the home was acquired by Russell and Olivia Sage around 1886.  Anecdotes of Russell Sage racing his matched colts, Meek and Humble, down Central Avenue show a very different side of the dour financier.  Though he cultivated his reputation as a skinflint,  he actually contributed generously to charities.    During his last days, Sage enjoyed sitting on the wrap-around porch of Cedar Croft, shielded from the wind, watching the ships pass on the bay beyond his beach..

When Sage died in 1906, he left an estate of almost $70 million to his wife.  Olivia, who throughout her life preferred to known as "Mrs. Russell Sage," started putting the money to work "for the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States of America."  To this end, in 1907, she established the Russell Sage Foundation with an initial gift of $10 million. The Russell Sage Foundation is today one of the world's preeminent philanthropic organizations.  According to its website:

In its early years, the Foundation played a pioneering role in dealing with problems of the poor and the elderly, in efforts to improve hospital and prison conditions, and in the development of social work as a profession. The Foundation was also responsible for early reforms in health care, city planning, consumer credit, labor legislations, the training of nurses, and social security programs. Since World War II, the Foundation has devoted its efforts to strengthening the social sciences as a means of achieving more informed and rational social policy.
In her 80's and assisted by her attorney, Robert W De Forest,  Mrs. Sage invested in the planned community of Forest Hills Gardens.  Intended as affordable working-class housing, its costs soon made it beyond the reach of its intended constituency.   Her support of women's health and education was demonstrated through sizable bequests to existing women's colleges and the establishment of Russell Sage College for Women in Troy, NY.   The Emma Willard School, the New York  Women's Hospital and the Childrens' Aid Society.  Harvard, Yale, Syracuse and New York Universities were all recipients of Sage funding.

In the Five Towns, then known as The Branch, Mrs. Sage established the Sage Industrial School in 1907.  Located in Inwood, the school was geared to the needs of the area's growing immigrant community.  Classes which taught English language skills were included with vocational instruction:  sewing, laundry work, basketry and cooking for the girls; carpentry, masonry and plumbing for the boys.  Both parents and children could take advantage of the facilities provided for hygiene and recreation.  In 1911, the name was changed to the Nassau Industrial School and in the 1930s was included in the Five Towns Community Chest organizations.  From the Depression years onward, and expanded its focus from a school to a clearing house for social services and meeting place for community groups.  In 1942, the name was changed to the Five Towns Community House.  In the 1960's Nassau County funding expanded the organizations services and today the Five Towns Community Center in Lawrence provides a variety of health and educational programs for its participants.

Further reading:

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