In the month of August 2020, we featured a series of biographies on influential women in Stonington’s history. That information has been compiled here, and will continue to grow as further research reveals more of their stories. We encourage you to check back often.
Grace Zaring Stone (1891-1991) was a novelist and short story writer who made her home in Stonington, using the pen name Ethel Vance. She was born in New York City and educated at Catholic Schools and also at the Isadora Duncan School of Dance in Paris. In 1917, she was married to Ellis Spencer Stone, a Commodore in the US Navy. Traveling around the world with her husband, Grace began to write. Three of her novels were made into films, one of which “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” starring Barbara Stanwyck was the first film to be shown in Radio City Music Hall. Grace Zaring Stone was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in Great Britain and was elected to the Council of the Authors League in 1956. Grace’s daughter, Eleanor, would later become a famous author like her mother.
Vivien Kellems (1896-1975). Vivien was an industrialist and inventor, who was a fervent supporter of voting reform and the Equal Rights Amendment. She received her BA from University of Oregon in 1918, where she was the only woman on the debate team. Later she would acquire a Masters degree in Economics and worked toward her Ph.D. at both Columbia and the University of Edinburgh. In 1927, she founded Kellems Cable Grips, Inc. in Connecticut to produce a patented cable grip invented with her brother, Edgar Eugene Kellems. In 1948, Vivien refused to collect withholding taxes from her employees on behalf of the government, stating, “If they wanted me to be their agent, they’d have to pay me, and I want a badge.” She is also famously remembered in Stonington for her refusal to leave a voting poll, in protest of party-lever voting systems. Allegedly from 1965 until her death, she mailed in a blank tax reform to the IRS in protest. Vivien ran for a senate position in Connecticut in 1952, 1956 and 1958, and even ran for Governor in 1954.
Mary Brewster (1822-1878), was the sixth of seven children born to Samuel and Polly (Mary) Burtch. She married William Brewster on March 23, 1841, just six months after her 18th birthday. Three months later, William became a whaling captain, and departed for nearly two years aboard the Philetus. By 1845, when Mary and William celebrated their five year wedding anniversary, they had only been together five months. The prospect of another long separation was too much for Mary, and she demanded to come along on the next voyage. It was unusual for a woman to accompany her husband, and up to 1845, only three other women from Stonington had ventured out on a whaler: Eliza Palmer, Mrs. Slumon Gray and Mrs. John S. Barnum. A ship with its rough crew was not considered a decent environment for a woman, and not only her neighbors and friends, but even her mother came near to disowning her for her defiance of convention. Mary made two trips aboard the Tiger with her husband, and her diaries from those journeys are in the collection of the Mystic Seaport Museum. They provide fascinating insight into a determined and brave woman in the 19th century, and the way she saw and interacted with the world around her.
Elise Owens (1898-1988) was born in New London to inventive and determined parents. She began to study the violin at an early age, and around 1916 began her study of wireless communication, to assist with the war effort. In 1925, she enrolled at the Juilliard School in New York, taking a violin class with Georges Enesco. In an interview given to Columbia University’s oral history project in 1980, Elise described how difficult it was to be a woman in the early twentieth century. Her family was pushing her to music, but Elise was drawn to radio and aviation. Still, she managed to find the time and took flying lessons at Brainard Field in Hartford and at Roosevelt Field on Long Island. She was eventually licensed as a commercial pilot and flight instructor, even being acquainted with Amelia Earhart, who occasionally would come to visit Stonington. After World War II, Owen returned to Stonington and became the chief pilot at Hank Palmer’s Aero-Marine Service Company at Foster Flying Field on Wequetequock Cove. The airport was built around 1940 on 75 acres, the hangar of which is standing today on Saltwater Farm Vineyard. In 1967 Elise donated the three acres of land and marsh on Cutler Street for the site of the new Como, as well as selling off parcels of land around her family’s summer home, Linden Hall. Elise Owen served as a major supporter of the Stonington Players, was president of the Stonington Fire District, headed the Stonington Red Cross chapter and generously supported the Chorus of Westerly.
Mary Fish Noyes Silliman (1736-1818) was born in Stonington, the daughter of Reverend Joseph Fish and Mary Pabodie. After her first husband, John Noyes, died in 1767, Mary began a correspondence with Colonel Gold Selleck Silliman. Gold Silliman was a lawyer, and a member of an influential Fairfield family. They were married in 1775 in Stonington, and went to live on his family farm. When the war began, Colonel Silliman was off leading the state militia, leaving Mary to run the farm, entertain officers, house refugees of war, manage the workers, draw accounts, and collect rent. In 1779 local Loyalists kidnapped Gold Silliman from his house and took him as prisoner to British-controlled New York, leaving behind his pregnant wife. During the months he was imprisoned, Mary continued to take on roles not customary for women: controlling the family farm and business affairs. She also had to contend with the potentially deadly experience of childbirth, as well as devise a way to secure her husband’s release. She also survived the British raid on Fairfield, in which Mary had to evacuate her home. Undeterred, she continued to write letters to well-connected men to win her husband’s freedom, but many were unwilling to help. Convinced that a trade would be the best way to get Gold Silliman back, the Patriots kidnapped Tory leader and Chief justice Thomas Jones of Long Island for an exchange. Gold Silliman was released on April 26, 1780. The wedding skirt of Mary Fish is in the collection of the Stonington Historical Society. To learn more about Mary’s fascinating life, and her warm and romantic correspondence with her second husband, be sure to check out “The Way of Duty: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America” by Richard R. Buel, Jr. and Joy Day Buel. This portrait of Mary Fish Noyes Silliman, painted by Reuben Moulthrop, is in the collection of the Fairfield Museum and Education Center.
Martha “Patty” Barker (1782-1869) was born in Norwich, and in 1802 married Captain William Potter. William served in the Battle of Stonington, and when his family fell on hard times, was chosen as the first lighthouse keeper in 1824. William, Patty and their ten children moved into the 680 square foot keeper’s cottage. The life of a lighthouse keeper in those days was hard wrought, not helped in any way by the shameful condition in which the first lighthouse and keeper’s cottage were built – pouring water and weather onto the family as the lands around it eroded into the ocean. In 1840 the current lighthouse was built, but William Potter did not get to enjoy it long, passing away in 1842 at the age of 64. At the time of his death, the family living in the cottage was comprised of his widow, Patty and six children: Eliza, William, Nancy, Fanny, Dyer Barker and Caroline. Just days after her husband’s death, Patty was appointed Lighthouse keeper, a position she held for 12 more years. Patty Potter had a rather tumultuous time as the keeper of the Stonington Lighthouse. She was paid decently, $350 a year, but was often at odds with the collectors. She asked for a new stove, but the request was denied as too expensive. She had a disagreement with the whale oil supplier, and later that year was given a poor rating on the cleanliness of her post – something which almost lost her her job. In 1849, she was not paid for three months, and had her son write to the government on her behalf. Patty retired in 1854 after the deaths of three more of her children (having lost Esther and an older Caroline before her husband’s death). She went to live out her days with her daughter Martha and her husband Stanton Sheffield at 85 Water Street, dying in 1869 at age of 86.
Finishing our celebration of important women in Stonington’s history, we would like to honor Danielle Chesebrough, the first woman to be elected to the position of First Selectman. Danielle has a B.A. in Political Science from Clemson University and a Master’s Degree in Social Work, with a focus on Policy and International Studies, from the University of Connecticut. She previously served on the Town’s Board of Finance and Economic Development Commission. Ms. Chesebrough was employed by the United Nations, where her main area of focus was on bringing together different perspectives to create more sustainable capital markets that would help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Danielle Chesebrough ran as an unaffiliated candidate in the 2019 election, which also made local history, as the first time all women had been elected to the Board of Selectmen (June Strunk and Deborah Downie).