Countless civic-minded and philanthropic residents have contributed to the development of Rye, helping it to grow from a small colonial settlement in 1660 to an incorporated village in 1904 and then to a chartered city in 1942.
By Paul Hicks
Countless civic-minded and philanthropic residents have contributed to the development of Rye, helping it to grow from a small colonial settlement in 1660 to an incorporated village in 1904 and then to a chartered city in 1942. Of the many benefactors, however, none have done more for Rye over the years than members of the Parsons and related families.
Their connection to the local area began when Ebenezer Clark and his wife Ann (Marselis) moved from New York to Rye in 1821 with five daughters and an invalid son for whom they wanted a healthier country life. According to family tradition, Rye was selected because it was as far as a pair of horses and coach could drive from the old City Hall in New York.
In 1827, the Clark’s third daughter, Matilda, married Edward Lamb (E.L.) Parsons, a prosperous New York City merchant, who had emigrated from England in his teens and was then residing in New York. Parsons purchased land on the Boston Post Road in 1831 and built a Greek Revival home there in 1838 for use as his family’s country residence.
That home, called “Lounsberry” (or “Lounsbury”) is still owned and occupied by a descendant of J.E. Parsons. It is an important part of the Boston Post Road Historic District together with the Jay Heritage Center and Whitby Castle (Rye Golf Club).
In 1839, shortly after the family moved into their new home, E.L. Parsons drowned in the wreck of a packet ship carrying him home from Europe. For a number of years after his death, his widow and five surviving children (ranging in age from eleven to one when he died) used Lounsberry as their primary residence until it was sold in 1850.
The parents of Matilda Parsons lived nearby on an estate, which was across the street from the Presbyterian Church, where Ebenezer Clark was a long-time ruling elder and major benefactor. Following the death of E.L. Parsons, his two oldest sons, John E. (J.E.) and William H. (W.H.) Parsons, received their early education in Rye at a school run by Samuel Berrian, an uncle by marriage.
During their formative adolescent years they also benefitted greatly from the moral and intellectual guidance provided by their maternal grandfather. His influence helped to instill in both J.E. and W.H. Parsons a strong work ethic and a long-lasting commitment to the welfare of the Rye community.
J. E. Parsons graduated from New York University in 1848 with an excellent academic record. Despite his family’s background in business, he decided to become a lawyer and, as was then common, was admitted to the bar after clerking in a law office rather than attending law school.
In a career that spanned more than sixty years, J.E. Parsons was recognized as one of the most distinguished lawyers of his era and was greatly admired for his role as a founder as well as president of the New York City Bar Association. In 1871, he was selected to represent the Bar Association in the prosecution of three corrupt judges that led to the downfall of the infamous “Boss” Tweed and his cohorts who controlled Tammany Hall.
Joseph H. Choate, one of the pillars of the law profession, described J. E. Parsons as “the ablest and most accomplished all-round lawyer that I ever encountered.” Yet Parsons was best known at the time and in histories of the period as the general counsel and principal legal architect of the “Sugar Trust,” the popular name given to the American Sugar Refining Company.
With J.E. Parsons as counsel, American Sugar won a landmark case in the U.S. Supreme court in 1895, which ruled that the trust had not violated the Sherman anti-trust laws in creating a manufacturing monopoly. Despite his many professional and civic achievements, J.E. Parsons was indicted in 1909 by the U.S. government for a criminal violation of the anti-trust laws, along with other directors of the Sugar Trust.
When the trial was finally held in 1912, the jury acquitted all the defendants, and, shortly thereafter, J. E. Parsons retired from the practice of law when he was over 80. He was then able to spend more of his time at Lounsberry, which he had purchased in 1893 from his aunt, the widow of his father’s brother, James H. Parsons. To house his extensive collection of law books he had the library remodeled by the well-known architectural firm of Delano and Aldrich.
In retirement, he continued to be actively involved in a number of charitable organizations in New York. He was a founder of what is now Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, president of New York Women’s Hospital and of Cooper Hewitt as well as a board member of the Metropolitan Museum and the American Museum of Natural History.
He took a great interest in the poor children of New York through the Fresh Air Fund and each summer invited more than one hundred to stay at a farm he owned in the Berkshires. In his will, he asked his heirs to continue that tradition.
In 1897, he donated $30,000 (worth about $750,000 today) to the Joint Rye-Harrison School District to build a new public elementary school house in memory of three of his children who had died in infancy. The Parsons Memorial School, located on Halstead Avenue in Harrison, is still educating children in grades K-5.
In 1903, he joined with his brother, W. H. Parsons, and their cousin, John Howard Whittemore, to buy the Square House on Purchase Street in Rye, which was then a private residence but had been famous when it was operated as a tavern by the Widow Haviland. After spending several thousand dollars on the purchase and renovation of the building, they donated it to the Village of Rye for use as Village Hall in memory of their grandfather, Ebenezer Clark.
When J.E. Parsons died in 1915, his obituary in The New York Times noted that a paper found with his will stated: “I make no charitable bequests. While I have lived I have given what I thought to be suitable. I dislike posthumous generosity. And I do not wish to debar my children of the pleasure of using in charity such part as they may see fit of what may come to them from me.”
Lounsberry was left to Herbert Parsons, the only son of J. E. Parsons, who represented a New York City District as a Republican member of Congress from 1905 to 1911. Elsie Clews Parsons, his wife, was a noted anthropologist and early feminist, as well as the mother of four children.
When Herbert died in 1925, his brother, John (J.E. II) and his wife, Fanny, became the principal occupants and, subsequently, owners of Lounsberry. After the death of J.E. II, Fanny gave 17 acres of the property on Milton Harbor to Westchester County as an addition to the Marshlands Conservancy. That was followed by her gift in 1980 of the remaining 13.5 acres and the Lounsberry residence to the City of Rye, subject to her right to live their during her lifetime.
Following the death of Fanny Parsons in 1987, the City attempted to find non-profit organizations to lease Lounsberry, but no suitable tenant was found. Finally, in 1995, the entire remaining property was sold to David Parsons, a great-great grandson of E. L. Parsons. The sale not only brought Lounsberry back into the Parsons family, it generated revenue from the sale as well as from continuing property taxes.
This is the first of a two-part article. The second part will focus on achievements and contributions to the community made by the W. H. Parsons branch of the family.