The Van Wickle Family
Blithewold was established as a private estate, but the owners always shared their love and enthusiasm for their home with family, friends, famous botanists, horticulturists, and devoted amateur gardeners.
Augustus Van Wickle was born in 1856, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. After graduating from Brown University in 1876, he went to work in his father’s coal mining business, “Van Wickle and Stout”. He moved up in the company rapidly, and was sent to manage his father’s mines in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. It was there that he met Bessie Pardee, daughter of Hazleton’s wealthiest coal baron, Ario Pardee. Augustus and Bessie married in 1882, and their daughter, Marjorie, was born in 1883.
As his good fortune continued, Augustus began to consider buying a second home. In 1894, he took his wife and daughter to Rhode Island to spend the summer in Narragansett, and while visiting friends in Bristol he bought a 72’ steam yacht from the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company. He then began the search for a suitable property on which to build a summer residence and found seventy acres of fertile waterfront land, with protected deep-water harbor for their boats, superb sailing, and easy access to the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
Building began immediately, and the shingled Queen Anne style mansion was ready for occupancy in the summer of 1896. Augustus and Bessie and their eleven year old daughter, Marjorie, were immediately swept up in the social life of the privileged classes of Bristol. The Van Wickles took parties out on their new yacht “Marjorie”, and served elegant luncheons on board as they cruised to Newport to watch the National Tennis Championships on Bellevue Avenue.
In June 1898, while Bessie was at home in Hazleton packing trunks to move to Bristol for the summer, Augustus went out skeet-shooting with his brother-in-law. As he leaned over to mark his score in the dust, his gun accidentally discharged. He was carried home, gravely injured, and died less than an hour later. Bessie was carrying their second child, a blessing they had been praying for. Five months later Augustine was born in Hazleton, and Estelle Clements, an old family friend, moved into the Van Wickle home to help Bessie. Estelle became a second mother to Marjorie and Augustine and a trusted companion to Bessie. She had her own room at Blithewold, and lived there as a member of the family.
In 1901, Bessie married William Leander McKee, an old hunting and sailing friend of Augustus. He was a partner in a successful leather manufacturing business in Boston, and the family soon purchased a winter residence on Commonwealth Avenue. In the summertime the mansion and guest house were filled to overflowing, with friends and relatives often taking up residence for weeks at a time.
In June 1906, the original Blithewold mansion burned to the ground and the following year a second, grander mansion was built on the same site, using many of the architectural features saved from the first mansion. The house we know today is built of stone, in an English Country Manor style.
Bessie’s older daughter, Marjorie Van Wickle, married George Armstrong Lyon in 1914, in the Enclosed Garden at Blithewold. George was a graduate of Harvard and Yale, and a Captain in the First World War. They bought a house in Brookline, MA, and a townhouse on Beacon Hill in Boston. Marjorie and George were tireless travelers, taking long trips to Alaska, Hawaii, New Brunswick and Wyoming, fishing and hunting big game. Marjorie became an accomplished watercolorist and many of her paintings are displayed in the mansion. But her true love was Blithewold, where she spent the rest of her life developing this beautiful property.
In 1919, Marjorie’s younger sister, Augustine Van Wickle, married Quincy A. Shaw, Jr. from a prominent Boston family. They moved to Calumet, Michigan, where Mr. Shaw worked in his father’s copper mining company. They had two daughters who were Bessie Van Wickle McKee’s only grandchildren.
In the early 1930s, the McKees felt the effects of the stock market crash. They sold their home in Boston and made Blithewold their year-round residence. Thirty-five acres of land to the south of the Mansion, which held the guest house, the golf course and the club house, were sold.
When Bessie died at Blithewold in 1936, Marjorie and Augustine inherited the estate. Marjorie ultimately bought her sister’s share, though Augustine continued to spend summers at Blithewold for the rest of her life. Marjorie died in 1976, at the age of 93, and her wish was that Blithewold be preserved and enjoyed by the public in perpetuity.
Thursday, October 30
Designing with Woodies and Shrubs with Polly Hutchison of Robin Hollow Farm
Sunday, November 02
Pruning Practices and Winter Interest Plant Walk
Thursday, November 06
Garden Design Luncheon The Slow Flowers Movement: From Field to Vase
Friday, November 07
Eco-Floral Hands-On Workshop with Debra Prinzing
Friday, November 14
Dahlia Days with Rick Peckham's Greenhouse, Little Compton, RI
Saturday, November 22
Children's Thanksgiving Floral Workshop
(Oct 24, '14)
I’d prefer to think that the season is in transition rather than ending but when we start throwing some of summer’s best blooms into the bed of Blithewold’s truck, it definitely feels more like a goodbye than a see-you-later. This week, once again, the rain and a woolly nor’easter held off just long enough for […]
Celebrating Our Arboretum
(Oct 23, '14)
There’s something very new and exciting going on this year in Blithewold’s Visitor’s Center during Christmas at Blithewold. Gail Read, Gardens Manager, Kris Green, Interpretive Horticulturist, and Betsy Ekholm, Horticulturist, have partnered with the garden volunteers to design a display to Celebrate Our Arboretum. Essentially, they are pulling different natural features from throughout the Grounds, preserving […]
A rabbit’s eye view with Noel Kingsbury
(Oct 17, '14)
We are so lucky that yesterday’s rain held off just long enough to take a ground-level tour of Blithewold’s gardens with British garden designer/plantsman/author, Noel Kingsbury. He showed us, plant by plant, exactly what to look for to help predict how different plants will behave in our gardens. He reminded us that plant growth falls along […]