Mary (Mai) Huttleston Rogers Coe

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Mary "Mai" Rogers Coe (1875 – December 28, 1924) was born in Fairhaven, Massachusetts and was christened Mary Huttleston Rogers. She was the youngest of four daughters of Henry Huttleston Rogers (1840–1909) and Abbie Palmer (née Gifford) Rogers (1841–1894). She became the wife of William Robertson Coe, a businessman and philanthropist.


Henry Rogers and Abbie Gifford had been raised in working-class families of Mayflower lineage in the small coastal fishing town of Fairhaven, adjacent to New Bedford, in Bristol County, Massachusetts. Long a whaling port, the industry was in serious decline as they became teenagers. Childhood sweethearts, they were both among the graduates of Fairhaven's first high school class in 1857. Afterwards, Henry went to work on a local railroad and saved carefully for several years. Petroleum was replacing whaling oil for lighting, and at 21, he invested his $600 savings, and in 1861, set out with a friend for the newly discovered oil fields of Venango County, Pennsylvania.

In 1862, Henry returned to Fairhaven on vacation, and he and Abbie were married. Returning to western Pennsylvania, the young couple lived in a one-room shack near Oil City, where Henry Rogers and his a partner worked at their tiny Wamsutta Oil Refinery for several years. The first daughter, Anne, was born there in 1865. Living frugally and working hard, Rogers drew the attention of oil pioneer Charles Pratt, who hired him. Moving with Abbie and Anne to Brooklyn, he soon became Pratt's right hand. Rogers developed a process for separating naphtha from crude oil, and received a U.S. patent in 1870. A few years later, Henry Rogers helped negotiate successfully when John D. Rockefeller acquired Pratt interests to become part of Standard Oil.

By 1874, Henry Rogers had become a wealthy principal in Standard Oil, and was living in New York City and maintaining a summer home in Fairhaven. In later years, he became one of the wealthiest men in the United States. He held many investments outside of his key role at Standard Oil. Particularly noteworthy, in the early 20th century, was the 440-mile (710 km) "engineering marvel" Virginian Railway, a low gradient route from southern West Virginia coal fields to the Atlantic port of Hampton Roads, which was built almost entirely from his private fortune, an unparalleled feat. 100 years later a large portion of the former Virginian Railway, which was merged into the rival Norfolk and Western in 1959, forms a key piece of the Norfolk Southern rail network.

Childhood, siblings, education[edit]

Henry and Abbie Rogers already had four children who had survived infancy when Mai was born, and she was their last. Thus, Mai (as she was always called) was the "baby" of the family. She was educated at private seminary schools, spoke fluent French, played the piano, and was interested in art and decoration. She had an older brother, and three older sisters who survived childhood.

As children, Mai and her brother and sisters spent much time at coastal Fairhaven, where some of their grandparents were still alive. They heard tales of the days of the whaling ships. Her maternal grandfather, Peleg Gifford, was particularly well known in the community for his tales of days as ship's captain. Over the years, the Rogers family donated many public facilities to the community, including schools and a Unitarian church.

In 1890, Mai's older sister Millicent (born 1873) died at the age of only 17 years, and the family donated the Millicent Library which was dedicated to her memory. In 1894, a new Town Hall was dedicated to Mai's maternal grandmother only a few months before Mai's mother herself died suddenly on May 21, 1894 following an operation in New York City.

Mai's sisters were Anne Engle (née Rogers) Benjamin, who married publisher William Evarts Benjamin, Cara Leland (née Rogers) Broughton, who married Urban Hanlon Broughton, and later became the first Lady Fairhaven in England after her husband was posthumously elevated to the peerage.

Her brother, Henry Huttleston Rogers, Jr., was better-known as Harry. As adults, Harry and his wife were favorite traveling companions of Mai's father and family friends, humorist Mark Twain and educator Dr. Booker T. Washington aboard the family luxury yacht Kanawha. Harry later changed the spelling of his last name to an earlier version, Huddleston.

Marriage, children[edit]

Mai's first marriage was annulled. Her father and her close family friend Mark Twain both labeled her first husband a "scalawag".

However, her second marriage fared much better. On June 4, 1900, at her father's home in New York City, 24-year-old Mai Rogers married William Robertson Coe, a 30-year-old English-born insurance company manager from Philadelphia, whom she had met on a transatlantic crossing. It was the second marriage for each.

Mai Rogers was married in full virginal bridal regalia, "gowned in white satin, veiled with exquisitely embroidered tulle, and wore a veil of tulle embroidered to match the tulle draperies of the dress," The New York Times reported the day after the wedding. "This veil was caught to her coiffure with a diamond sunburst, and at one side of her corsage she wore a Maltese cross in diamonds, the gift of the bridegroom."

Mai and William Robertson Coe had four children: William Rogers Coe (1901–1971), Robert Douglas Coe (1902–1985), Henry Huttleston Rogers Coe (1907–1966), and Natalie Mai Coe (1910–1987).

By 1910, William Robertson Coe had become president of Johnson and Higgins Insurance Co., and was involved in insuring the hull of the RMS Titanic which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. Like many other famous families of the Gilded Age, the Coe family had been booked for the ill-fated liner's return trip to Southampton, England. By 1916, Coe had been named Chairman of the Board of Johnson and Higgins.

Coe was on the Board of Directors of The Virginian Railway Company from 1910 until his death in 1955, and headed the company for a brief period during World War II. He was also a director of Loup Creek Colliery and the Wyoming Land Company. Their oldest son, William Rogers Coe, was also a longtime official of his grandfather's railroad.

Gold Coast of Long Island: Coe Hall, horticulture[edit]

One of the old entrances to Coe Hall

Mai and her husband shared a love of horticulture. They purchased a large estate, Planting Fields, that had been established in 1904 by Helen MacGregor Byrne – wife of New York City lawyer James Byrne, and built on the Gold Coast of Long Island, New York in Oyster Bay.

After acquiring the property in 1913, Mai and William named the manor house "Coe Hall". They began planting and landscaping under the guidance of the Boston landscaping firm of Guy Lowell and A. R. Sargent. In 1915, Lowell and Sargent oversaw transport of the two beech trees from Fairhaven (Mai's childhood home). The gigantic beeches, with root balls thirty feet (nine metres) in diameter, were ferried across Long Island Sound in mid-winter. Roads were widened and utility wires temporarily removed to make way. Only one of the two trees survived the journey. The second beech tree lived until the 21st century, but was taken down in February 2006. However, the “Fairhaven Beech” will live on. Seedlings were collected from the tree from 2000-2005.

The property's first mansion burned to the ground on March 19, 1918; its replacement, the present Coe Hall, was constructed between 1918 and 1921 in the Tudor Revival style and faced in Indiana limestone. It was designed by the firm of Walker & Gillette and was completed in 1921. Images from a book of English country houses, especially those of Moyns Park, Athelhampton, and St. Catherine's Court, inspired its architecture.

William and Mai Coe's interest in rare species of trees and plant collections made the estate a botanical marvel.

Mai was chronically ill for the last decade of her life. Following an extended illness, Mai died in 1924, aged 49, and was interred nearby.

Legacy: Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park[edit]

The 353 acre (1.4 km²) estate was deeded to the State of New York in 1949 (during Mr. Coe's lifetime) to become Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park. The 355-acre (1.44 km2) estate includes Coe Hall and a large arboretum. William Robertson Coe died in 1955.

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