By Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public AffairsSeptember 18, 2019
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Sept. 18, 2019) -- Marjorie Nelson Smart had been to LeRay Mansion once before, but she only got to see inside the front entrance during her brief visit almost 35 years ago.
As a distant relative of former owners of LeRay Mansion, Smart hadn't considered another trip to Fort Drum for the longest time, but then a photograph she saw online caught her attention. It was from last year's Haunted LeRay Mansion Tour, and Dr. Laurie Rush, Cultural Resources manager, was dressed as one of Smart's ancestors.
That piqued her curiosity.
"She was impersonating my great aunt, and then the more I researched I found out there was a cultural resources center there," she said.
Smart had a trunkful of garments dating from 1773 to 1879 that her grandmother had labeled with dates, the person who wore the outfit and the occasion for wearing it. Since she was preparing to move out of her home to smaller quarters, and she wouldn't have the closet space for this collection, Smart thought she found the perfect place for it.
"I thought that the mansion was where this needed to go," she said. "They deserve to be loved and treated with respect. I just feel as though my great-grandmother, grandmother and mother would have wanted them to come back here. And so here they are, where they belong."
Smart contacted Fort Drum Cultural Resources and arranged a visit on Sept. 16. This time it would be a much longer one - complete with a full tour of LeRay Mansion, where she shared stories about her family members and marveled at some of the historic items on display.
"This is wonderful just being able to see all of this," Smart said.
Rush said that the collection is currently on loan to Cultural Resources, but it is Smart's wish to make them part of the historical archive at the mansion. She said the collection includes doll clothing and she will work with Smart to see if there is a different historical collection more appropriate for those items.
Some of the garments will be on display at the mansion during the Fall History Tour on Sept. 28.
"We will use the collection as part of our efforts to educate the Fort Drum and wider community about the history of LeRay Mansion and its occupants," she said. "Objects like the dresses, combs and purses really help to bring Mabel Phelps Anderson and her ancestors to life."
Smart is the great-granddaughter of Demtria Waful Mosher Converse, mother of Camellia Mosher Phelps. She said that she grew up hearing stories about the mansion where her grandmother, who lived in a farmhouse in LeRaysville, was tutored with her half niece Mabel Phelps Anderson.
Rush said that the Phelps family was prominent in LeRaysville, and ownership of LeRay Mansion was passed down to several members until they lost the property during the Great Depression and it was sold at auction to Harold Remington.
During her visit, Smart also brought a collection of family photos, and the ones that showed portions of LeRay Mansion fascinated the Cultural Resources staff. Meg Schulz and Karen Koekenberg were able to scan many of them for their photo archive. One photo shows what a furnished room had looked like, decorated with paintings.
"With the pictures that showed the inside of the mansion, we were walking around trying to find where that could have been taken," Koekenberg said. "We really don't have many historic photos of the inside of the mansion, and these are better quality."
Rush said that some of the people in the photos were well-known to her before but only by name. After years of collecting oral histories and information about the LeRay Mansion Historic District, the Cultural Resources staff now can see the faces of people they talk about at events.
"We share stories about the mansion and its occupants with all of our guests and visitors," Rush said. "We have talked about the Phelps family so many times, and today is the very first time that we ever had the opportunity to see what they look like."
Rush said that it was an honor to host Smart and her guests, and she couldn't believe that it all came about because of a Halloween photo.
"I was very surprised," she said. "And I am grateful that they were such good sports about meeting a person who they discovered was impersonating a family member for a Halloween event. I never imagined in a million years that I would meet descendants, relatives or family friends when I dressed up as my version of Mrs. Phelps (Mabel's mother). How lucky could we be?"