Keeping Local History Afloat
Mystic Seaport, in Mystic, Connecticut, had been an active commercial harbor since the 1600s. Over parts of three centuries during the era of sailing ships, its yards built more than 600 vessels. Others turned in and out on merchant business. Yet by the 1920s, the port was fading fast.
In 1929, three Mystic residents took it upon themselves to preserve their town’s vibrant past. Lawyer Carl Cutter, industrialist Edward Bradley, and doctor Charles Stillman formed the Marine Historical Association (known today as Mystic Seaport), and rapidly filled a one-building museum with donated photos, books, and maritime artifacts. Then in 1941 the men managed to purchase the Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining U.S. wooden whaling ship. Buildings followed, and the recreated Mystic Seaport began.
In the 1970s the du Pont family made additional donations, and the entire shipyard was recreated. By the 1990s, Mystic had become the nation’s leading maritime museum. In 1998, local craftsmen built an eighteenth-century schooner from scratch, with an educational program surrounding the construction process. Each year 300,000 visitors come to see the 500 boats, one million photographs, and two million artifacts now arrayed across 40 acres of salt-water frontage. —Karl Zinsmeister and Brian Brown
A Shrine to Religious Liberty
As the oldest Jewish house of worship in America, dating from 1763, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, would be famous under any circumstances. But the modest Palladian-inspired building has played an outsized role in American history largely because our first President chose to write an eloquent statement of his views on religious tolerance to the elders of Touro. Responding to a written welcome from the warden of the synagogue on the occasion of the President’s visit to the city to drum up support for passage of the Bill of Rights, the newly ensconced head of state penned a 340-word letter of thanks to the congregation. He unveiled a glimmering vision of the nation, achieved when citizens of all faiths abide together under a government that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Closing with imagery straight from the Old Testament, Washington expressed his wish that “the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” The father of his country was well aware that Americans would not overlook his gesture towards this small, frequently persecuted minority, and the letter has been a seminal document in the history of American religious freedom, cited by judges, politicians, and philosophers ever since.
The Touro Synagogue has been sustained by believers and donors throughout its long history. Judah Touro, second son of one of the congregation’s first rabbis, gave many gifts in the first half of the nineteenth century to preserve the facility. In 2009, another descendant of the Touro family, financier John Loeb, created an exhibit-filled visitor’s center on the campus of the synagogue, as well as a new George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, that jointly shine a bright light on our nation’s history of religious liberty and attempt to foster tolerance and respect for faith among the next generation of Americans. —Justin Torres
The Grandaddy of Charity Marathons
In the early years of the 20th century, Italians were one of the largest immigrant groups in America. So when a tremendous earthquake rocked southern Italy and Sicily in 1908 and killed 100,000 people, Americans leapt to mobilize relief. One of the most significant charitable efforts was centered in Boston, where would-be helpers launched what is now one of the grand philanthropic traditions in our country.
Marathon road races were all the rage in America a century ago, partly due to Johnny Hayes’s gold medal for the U.S. in the 1908 Olympic Games. So when the Boston American went looking for a vehicle to raise money for earthquake relief, the decision was quickly made to organize a charity event around a marathon. The newspaper publicized a January 9, 1909 race managed by the local amateur athletic association, and Boston businesses covered the costs. It was announced that all proceeds from admission to the grounds where the finish could be viewed would be devoted to the victims in Italy.
Despite freezing temperatures, 108 runners participated, and thousands of spectators turned out. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised (the exact figure is not known). In 1909 currency that was an eye-popping result. The Boston Marathon thus became the first in a long history of charity marathons held all across the United States, which collectively raise $1.7 billion annually.
Even as the phenomenon spread to other cities, interest has never waned in the cradle of the concept. In 1989 (the year the charity mechanism for the Boston race was formalized into its current structure), 5,000 runners participated in the Boston Marathon; by 2013 that was up to nearly 27,000. The event now raises about $11 million every year, with the funds going to three dozen local charities ranging from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts. —Karl Zinsmeister
Rick Davis, a 58-year-old businessman who has been very active both personally and as a donor in programs in Vermont that support early-childhood development and the mentoring of elementary-age children, was named Philanthropist of the Year in his home state a few years ago. In an interview with Vermont Public Radio, he explained that when giving is personal, it can provide satisfactions to the giver that are hard to achieve in any other way:
“What we’ve discovered is that mentors get as much out of this as the children that they’re mentoring. So it’s a win for the child, and for the adult who’s volunteering. Philanthropy is a very personal thing, and I don’t think we do this because we feel we’re obligated to. I really think the main motivator is the great joy you get from knowing you’ve made a difference.
“I’ll give you an example. Six or seven years ago I had a chance to donate a kidney to my sister Maggie. And folks would hear I was doing this and would say ‘Gosh, what a nice guy you are Rick.’ And somehow that didn’t resonate with me.
“And then one day I told a friend of mine who was a doctor...and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘Lucky you, Rick. What an opportunity.’
“Bingo. He really got it. Because imagine the joy I get now when I see Maggie skiing down through deep powder, or being a great mother to her kids. It just doesn’t get any better than that. Nothing beats it.
“And the same is true of philanthropy. You’ll notice that Bill Gates’s smile has gone from size two to size twelve since he got involved. When you invest in children and, against all odds, see them staying in school, and against all odds they’re not getting involved in drugs, and against all odds they’re graduating and succeeding.... I think that’s the great motivator for most philanthropy.” —Karl Zinsmeister
Tucked into the woods surrounding the quiet town of Peterborough, New Hampshire, there is a powerhouse of explosive creativity. The MacDowell Colony, founded in 1907 by the composer Edward MacDowell and his wife Marian to foster “enduring works of the imagination,” attracts and supports 250 promising American artists every year, both the famous and the unknown, in fields from architecture to theater to music composition. A MacDowell residency, which may last from two weeks to two months, allows the artist to focus on a project without distraction, while drawing inspiration from the beautiful New England environs.
Edward MacDowell, an inaugural member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, realized toward the end of his life that the tranquility of his New Hampshire summer home had enabled him to compose many of his best pieces. As he was dying, Marian hoped to extend his legacy by offering the same opportunity to other artists. With the support of Andrew Carnegie, J. Pierpont Morgan, Grover Cleveland, and others, she converted the property into a retreat, with (ultimately) 32 individual studios scattered through the 450-acre forest, and a common dining area and library. Among the signature features of the colony are the lunches delivered silently to artists’ doorsteps in picnic baskets every day, and the tablets inside the studios inscribed by everyone who has worked there before. The Colony was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962.
In the century since its founding, MacDowell Colony has not only supported more than 6,000 artists, but inspired similar colonies across the nation and the world. Dozens of the works created at MacDowell have gone on to win a Pulitzer Prize or similar award, including Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (which was modeled on nearby Peterborough—setting “the village against the largest dimensions of time and space” in an attempt, Wilder wrote, “to find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life”). —Caitrin Nicol
From Bees to Trees
Roxanne Quimby moved to Maine because she had $3,000 in savings and Maine land was cheap. By a couple decades later, she had decided that that same land was priceless. Now she is hiking a trail blazed by some major philanthropists before her: trying to create a national park.
In the mid-1970s, Quimby relocated to rural Maine to live close to the earth, without electricity or running water. A decade later, she partnered with beekeeper Burt Shavitz and began making beeswax candles, polishes, and eventually the lip balm that turned Burt’s Bees into a multimillion-dollar personal-care company. In 2000, Quimby started buying up land in Maine’s north woods, surrounding Mount Katahdin, with some of her profits. She accelerated the process after she sold Burt’s Bees for hundreds of millions of dollars (she had previously bought out Burt). Quimby now controls 120,000 acres of woodland wilderness, and is seeking to donate most of it to become the germ of America’s newest national park.
Many of America’s iconic national parklands were the products of philanthropy. The Acadia, Muir Woods, and Guadalupe Mountains parks were all donated. Members of Pittsburgh’s Mellon family gave several Civil War battlefields, barrier islands as national seashores, and portions of Shenandoah National Park. (Herbert Hoover donated his personal camp to become part of Shenandoah, too.) The Rockefeller family is the preeminent patron of national parks—in particular John Jr. and his son Laurance. Their giving provided or enlarged Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Virgin Islands, Yosemite, Big Bend, Rocky Mountain, Acadia, Olympic, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and other park units.
Quimby’s desire to catalyze a park has proved controversial. A liberal environmentalist, she has closed access to land she has purchased, banned hunting and fishing, torn up roads and bridges, and stopped snowmobiling. Many residents of the Maine woods fear losing forestry jobs, development opportunities, and recreational use. (The paper companies that had previously been the proprietors allowed easy access for personal enjoyment.) To soften resistance, Quimby has more recently offered to set aside parts of her land as a state park where some things like snowmobiling and hunting could be allowed. This has been well received, but “Ban Roxanne” bumper stickers can still be spotted across the state. How well she balances interests may determine whether Congress will designate a park that Quimby can give her land to by the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, as she hopes. —Evan Sparks and Brian Brown
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