1894 – 1898
The year 1894, when Augustus Van Wickle purchased the estate, marked a major transition for the property. For hundreds of years, the use of the land had been primarily agricultural. Like the previous owners, the Gardners, the Van Wickles were outsiders who had made their money elsewhere and had no previous connection to the town. They were also seasonal residents, who typically spent less than half the year at Blithewold.
Augustus Stout Van Wickle (1856 – 1898) was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the younger son of Simon and Anna Randolph Stout Van Wickle. He attended the New Jersey Classical and Scientific Institute and Brown University. After graduation from Brown in 1876, he worked for his father’s coal-mining business in Ebervale, Pennsylvania. The company grew under his management as he diversified its business activities to include iron, lumber, and banking. Bessie Pardee (1860 – 1936) was born in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, to Ario Pardee, “the millionaire coal and iron merchant,” 5 and his second wife, Anna Maria. Bessie and Augustus were married in 1882, and moved to Cleveland where their daughter Marjorie was born the following year. In 1887, they moved to Morristown, New Jersey, to be closer to the New York office of his company. In 1888, after the death of his father, Augustus assumed increasing responsibility for the family businesses and in 1892 moved his family back to Hazleton, Pennslyvania.
The Van Wickles’ choice of Bristol as a location for their new summer home was serendipitous. While on vacation in New England in the summer of 1894, Augustus and Marjorie were brought by steam yacht to Bristol, then a quaint New England village. They visited the renowned Herreshoff Boat Works, where Van Wickle purchased on the spot a 72-foot steam yacht from designer and builder Nathanael Herreshoff. His host, Dr. Herbert Howe, also showed him the Gardner property.
My father loved the place. But he restrained himself from buying it to at least consult his wife! A week or two later, we went to Narragansett again. This time my mother was with us. Mr. Herreshoff came to meet us in the new yacht to bring us to Bristol for the day.
. . . Then my father brought mother to see the Gardners’ place. She fell in love with it also, and so the family became the owners of Blithewold.
The Van Wickles were drawn to Bristol’s mild climate, rural character and the informal social life of the community, a contrast with the more formal social scene in Newport. However, the property was overgrown and in poor repair. A larger house (shown at top of page) was needed to accommodate their extended family and guests, as well as updates to the grounds and a deep-water mooring that could accommodate the new yacht. Within a few years, they had transformed the property from a rustic summer home into a sophisticated estate with the latest conveniences. They named their new estate Blithewold (meaning “happy woodland,” a direct translation of the Old English) after a house that they had rented in Sea Bright, New Jersey, in 1887.