When she died in 1894 at age 69, the Utica Observer wrote: “She should be remembered and revered always in the community.”
Today many will agree that no citizen of Utica — in its 220-year history as a village and a city — is more deserving of a statue on the Memorial Parkway than Helen Munson Williams.
She was one of the wealthiest persons in the region and was generous with her fortune. It directly touched her many favorite charities, including Grace Episcopal Church, the Utica Orphan Asylum, St. Luke’s Hospital, the House of the Good Shepherd and the Women’s Christian Association.
Her daughters inherited her fortune — Rachel (and her husband, Frederick T. Proctor) and Maria (and her husband and Frederick’s half brother, Thomas R. Proctor) — so indirectly, Helen’s fortune certainly contributed to the Proctor family’s many gifts to the city — Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute and Fountain Elms, land for the Utica Public Library and the city’s magnificent parks system with its hundreds of acres.
Her fortune touched the lives of hundreds of Uticans, too, for it was written that “nearly every charitable institution in Utica felt the result of her beneficence.”
Churches in trouble financially often were surprised to receive an anonymously substantial sum from her. She gave wisely, though, always investigating the cases before she decided whether to aid them.
Helen Elizabeth Munson was born in Utica on Aug. 28, 1824. Her father, Alfred, was one of Utica’s leading manufacturers. He made a fortune making burr millstones and also was involved in railroads and banking. Helen inherited about $250,000 when he died in 1854 and more with the deaths of her mother, Elizabeth, in 1870 and brother, Samuel, in 1881.
Francis Cunningham, once curator and archivist at the Oneida County Historical Society (today the Oneida County History Center) once wrote that Helen Munson Williams “was an astute businesswoman who not only maintained her inheritance, but increased it considerably.”
Considerably, indeed. Her inheritance grew into the many millions. In her obituary, the Observer wrote that she held the largest number of registered government bonds than anyone in the world — valued at $7 million.
She invested in railroads, textile mills, banks, coal mines and in a very young company called Western Union.
She was educated in the Utica Female Academy where she insisted on taking its most difficult courses: algebra, physics, geology, Latin and French.
In 1846, she and attorney James Watson Williams were married. In 1850, her father began to build a home for the couple at 318 Genesee St. It was completed in 1854 and named “Fountain Elms” because of the magnificent fountain on its front lawn, surrounded by tall elm trees.
In 1847, a daughter, Grace, was born. (She died seven years later.) A second child, Rachel, was born in 1850, and a third, Maria, in 1853.
Helen’s husband, James, began to operate his father-in-law’s vast business enterprises after his death. They included railroads, steamboats and cotton and woolen mills. James was a great lawyer, but a not-so-great businessman, so Helen took over. Her no-nonsense business skills enabled the family fortune to grow. She later wrote about her father and husband: “No two men were more unlike in their tastes and habits.”
James died in 1877 and it did not take long for Helen and her daughters to shed his conservative lifestyle. They began to travel to the best shops and art galleries in New York City and Europe. They purchased expensive furniture, paintings, silver, china, clothing and jewelry. Much of it remains today as part of the collection at Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute.
Helen, though, never forgot the lessons her parents had taught her about helping others. Her daughters, Rachel and Maria, were told as youngsters to put aside each week part of their allowance for those in need, especially those experiencing misfortune through no fault of their own.
When Helen Munson Williams died in 1894, the Utica Observer wrote: “A woman with a wealth of noble attributes has passed away and the city will not cease to mourn her loss for her monuments which she left are lasting and ineffaceable.”
Mohawk Valley Milestones is a history series written by O-D historian Frank Tomaino. It publishes Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays until June 15. Missed a chapter? Catch up at uticaod.com/topics/mvmilestones.