Celebrating Caroline Wright Reis

Caroline Wright Reis
The Wright Reis Homestead, circa 1882
Caroline Wright Reis

SOMERS, N.Y. – As National Women’s History Month came to a close last month, we salute and introduce you to a Somers woman who was often described as a private woman but whose actions spoke louder than her words and are still speaking to us today, 50 years after her passing. That neighbor is Caroline Wright Reis.

Caroline was born to Samuel and Madeline (Dennett) Wright in 1880 and was their only child. A fourth-generation Somers resident, Caroline lived her life as an artist, philanthropist, historian, farmer/businesswoman, wife and most notably, as a devoted citizen. In a time before equality for women was considered a serious cause, Caroline was attending college, an accomplishment most women would not even consider pursuing. She majored in costume design and graduated from Pratt Institute in 1902, a full 18 years before women won the right to vote.

Her accomplishments transcended academics. From 1912, when she returned to live in Somers as a married woman, until well into her later years, Caroline operated her ancestral farm as a successful commercial venture, while her husband Walter Reis, whom she married in 1908, traveled extensively for business as a button salesman for the German American Button Company, a firm which supplied buttons to manufacturers of clothing and department stores.

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Her farm was bequest to her by her father, Samuel, when Caroline was orphaned at the age of 12 and rented to tenant farmers in the intervening years until her return. It exceeded 80 acres in size and included both apple and pear orchards, vegetable, herb and flower gardens and a small poultry and dairy operation.   

Caroline donated both time and money to many causes in Somers and Westchester County, including the Somers Lantern Association, the Somers Protective Association (a forerunner of the Somers Police Department), the Somers Library, Somers Historical Society, Lincolndale and later Somers Central school districts, the Westchester County Farm Bureau, the District Nursing Association of Northern Westchester County and the Westchester County Historical Society, among others.

Records from 1918 show she was a member of the Katonah Women’s Civic Club, a group founded in 1913 as the Katonah Suffrage Club with the purpose of helping women obtain the right to vote. (At press time, we are researching her possible membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, as well as other groups.) As a woman ahead of her time, Caroline was the only woman to serve on the leadership boards of many of these organizations.

As we see and continue to learn, throughout her life, Caroline’s actions often spoke louder than her words. Those actions were symbolic of her generosity, love of history, community and respect to her family legacy heritage as the fourth generation of the Wright family of Somers. Caroline was instrumental in organizing efforts to help raise funds for a variety of causes, including the WWI veteran’s monument in Ivandell Cemetery and the local school districts, despite not having children of her own. She preserved the historical architectural integrity of her Greek revival farmhouse, circa. 1835, by not altering its design except to upgrade for modern conveniences. It’s clear today from her collections passed down through her bequest to the town, that she applied that same sensitivity and obligation for preservation when caring for her antique collections and family heirlooms.

As her last philanthropic and symbolic gesture, Caroline bequest her farmstead and its contents to the town of Somers in 1967 for “recreational and academic purposes” in what still stands as the largest historic donation to the town she loved and served. We Somers residents can congregate for athletics, engage in academic pursuits at Somers Library and reflect upon local history in her farmhouse and grounds, fulfilling Caroline’s intentions forever. To a woman whose actions often spoke louder than her words, it might be more than coincidence her will was dated Feb. 14, 1961, six years before her passing. Perhaps it was a perpetual Valentine to us Somers residents.

To honor Caroline Wright Reis and her contribution to Somers, festivities are planned in Reis Park and the Elephant Hotel throughout the year, beginning this spring.

Join us on for the 50th birthday of Reis Park from noon to 4 p.m. April 29, in the park to honor Caroline Wright Reis and to celebrate her legacy—Reis Park.

There will plenty of activities for all: storytelling with Jonathan Kruk; music by Scott Urgola and Fred Gillen Jr.; local authors “meet and greet;” tour of Wright Reis Homestead and special exhibits; old fashioned games; a children’s story walk; face painting; arts and crafts; and more. 

This event is a collaborative program with Somers Historical Society and is being made possible with funding from Westchester Library System’s mini-grant initiative supported by Entergy and Con Edison. Additional support is being provided by the Friends of the Somers Library, Somers Library Foundation, Somers Custom Framing Shop and Somers Historical Society.

Also come to the Elephant Hotel to see “Fellow Artists,” a special art exhibition inspired by the exhibition “Caroline, Carolyn” and organized by the Somers Historical Society to showcase the works of Somers residents who were graduates of the Pratt Institute, like Wright Reis. Various Somers artists who were Pratt graduates will be featured on a rotating basis throughout the year in the Elephant Hotel and at the Wright Reis Homestead. Now on view is Simone Kurtz (Pratt, 2015) and her installation entitled “360 Degrees of Orbit.”

Erika Panzarino and Grace Zimmermann are members of the Somers Historical Society.

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