By Christine Sampson
Just days before women in New York State will have cast ballots on Election Day for the 100th time, a small crowd of Sag Harbor residents and dignitaries gathered at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum on Saturday to cut the ribbon on something that has become a familiar site on the East End: a blue-and-yellow roadside sign acknowledging that something, or someone, of historic significance was, indeed, here.
In this case, the “someone” was Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, the well-known benefactress who provided monetary gifts that built the John Jermain Memorial Library, Pierson Middle-High School and other local institutions. And the historic roadside marker had been placed at the museum — Mrs. Sage’s home from 1908 to 1918 — not just because of her contributions to Sag Harbor, but also because of her documented contributions to the women’s suffrage movement that ultimately gave New York women the right to vote in 1917, three years before the federal government passed the 19th Amendment giving all women the right to vote.
“Many people don’t realize the impact that Mrs. Sage had on the community and on the country as a whole,” Greg Therriault, the manager of the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, said in an interview. “She oftentimes had other people speaking on her behalf, but they were speaking for her when they spoke about the suffrage movement. She didn’t do as much marching as other individuals, but she really was involved.”
The William G. Pomeroy Foundation, which has been on a campaign this year to install such signs in honor of important suffragists throughout the state to celebrate the centennial of women’s voting rights, needed reassurance that Mrs. Sage had, in fact, made an impact upon this movement. So Zach Studenroth, the former manager of the Whaling Museum and currently the historic preservation consultant to the village’s Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review, did the research the Pomeroy Foundation needed. In an interview, Mr. Studenroth said he thinks the historic marker “is a very important sign for this property and the village in general.”
“There’s such an attention on the earlier history of the village, but the fact that Mrs. Sage lived here, and why she came back to this village, and that in this period when she lived here was kind of the high mark in her charitable giving — people coming to this place wouldn’t know anything about that,” he said. “This documents that for visitors in a way that would not have been known previously.”
John M. Newkirk, the Pomeroy Foundation’s Long Island ambassador, said in an interview the process to receive grant funding for a marker is extensive. Originally, in the 1930s, when the New York State Department of Education first began placing the familiar blue and yellow signs, “due to their limited resources, the information wasn’t always totally historically accurate,” Mr. Newkirk said.
“When you apply for a grant for the sign, there is so much paperwork to fill out, and there has to be some sort of proof of what you’re applying for, so that when the writing is on the sign, it’s accurate,” he said. “We pride ourselves on that. We want to try to spread the message and preserve the history of this state. New York State has a great influence on the history of this nation.”
Born September 8, 1828, in Syracuse, Margaret Olivia Slocum preferred to be called “Olivia,” according to several biographies. Although her family often struggled financially, she was able to attend the Troy Female Seminary, a prestigious private school. She proceeded to work as a teacher and governess for 20 years, and during the Civil War volunteered in a hospital for the war wounded.
At the age of 41, Ms. Slocum married Russell Sage, a former Congressman and multimillionaire who had amassed a fortune in railroad investing. But he was 12 years her senior and he died in 1906, leaving her $75 million — or what would amount to about $1.8 billion in today’s U.S. dollars.
Mrs. Sage set about spending her late husband’s fortune on a variety of causes. She is credited with advancing the field of social work, and her $10 million gift to establish the Russell Sage Foundation, which is dedicated to “the improvement of the social and living conditions in the United States of America,” still funds research today.
Some accounts of her life say Mrs. Sage maintained certain elitist attitudes, indicated by her support of the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, which tried to strip Native Americans of their heritage to absorb them into white American Christian mainstream culture.
Of course, there are also her well-known gifts to the John Jermain Memorial Library, Pierson High School, and Otter Pond and Mashashimuet Park. Mr. Studenroth also pointed out a lesser-known contribution of Mrs. Sage’s in Sag Harbor.
“Not only was she accustomed to giving out large sums of money, but she also had a passion for people who were less fortunate than she,” Mr. Studenroth said. “We know that she acquired several small houses down by the pond here, and moved them to other properties and gave them to people who didn’t have houses. And so to me that’s kind of a reflection of her true character that’s more impressive than the gift of large sums of money for civic buildings.”
In a biography of Mrs. Sage in the Auburn University Digital Libraries, Ruth Crocker writes that historians believe volunteerism and philanthrophy by Mrs. Sage and her contemporaries “helped to propel the suffrage and feminist campaigns.”
“Sage used her public voice to call for women’s economic emancipation and for female suffrage,” Crocker writes. “She rejected the identity of the ‘lady of leisure,’ and embraced the idea of work and moral earnestness. Indeed, she found a voice as an advocate of moral reform and advancement for women, causes she considered identical.”
“She did many things that really enhanced women’s sense of self and their power in their community,” Mr. Therriault said, “and she was an emblem of that herself.”
MARGARET OLIVIA SLOCUM SAGE (1928-1918): A LIFETIME’S TIMELINE
September 8, 1828: Margaret Olivia Slocum is born in Syracuse.
1847: Olivia Slocum, as she prefers to be called, graduates from a prestigious private school, the Troy Female Seminary. She supports herself as a teacher and governess for the next 20 years.
1869: Ms. Slocum accepts a marriage proposal from Russell Sage, a former Congressman and multimillionaire who had amassed a fortune in railroad investing — also named among the “robber barons” of the era. She is 41, he is 63.
1891: Mrs. Sage is among the founders of the Emma Willard Association, an organization of Troy Female Seminary alumnae, and pays for the publication and distribution of its alumna biographies.
1906: Russell Sage dies, leaving most of his fortune to his wife. The sum is $75 million, worth about $1.8 billion in modern currency.
1907: Mrs. Sage establishes the Russell Sage Foundation with an initial gift of $10 million. Its mission is to “pursue research and programs for the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States of America.”
1908: Mrs. Sage purchases Constitution Island, located off of West Point, and gives it to the United States Government. Now a summer resident of Sag Harbor, where her ancestors lived, she also donates $50,000 toward the cost of building the new Pierson High School, plus an additional $40,000 for an auditorium. She also purchases the land for what ultimately becomes Mashashimuet Park.
1910: Mrs. Sage provides a gift to build the John Jermain Memorial Library directly across the street from her summer home on Main Street. The property’s $10,000 price tag was the highest ever paid for real estate in Sag Harbor, and the building was built for $70,000. Mrs. Sage checks out the first book in October of 1910.
1916: Mrs. Sage establishes the Russell Sage College, a school of liberal arts and sciences for women, today known as one of the three Sage Colleges in New York’s Capital region.
1918: In her will, Mrs. Sage leaves about $1.6 million to each of her favorite causes, including the Emma Willard School (formerly Troy Female Seminary), the Woman’s Hospital, the Children’s Aid Society, the Charity Organization Society, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and Syracuse University.