Chatham History Owes Mary Ann Gray A Huge Debt: Atwood House And Museum Archivist Retires

By: Russ Allen

Topics: Historic preservation

Mary Ann Gray, retiring archivist at the Atwood House and Museum. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM — In the lower level of the Atwood House and Museum on Stage Harbor Road in Chatham is arguably the best collection of documents, artifacts, and other treasured elements of the town’s history. Official records, including some rescued from the town hall fire of 1919, as well as family papers, maps, rare books and historic clothing are preserved for their protection and access by historians and other interested persons. The archive’s catalog is accessible online.

The Atwood House and Museum is a program of the Chatham Historical Society which in 1926 purchased the property of Captain Joseph Atwood to protect it and to display and preserve articles and documents related to Chatham’s history. However, some 40 years ago when Mary Ann Gray, a newly relocated resident with experience and training in library science and archival development, spoke to Edmond S. Meany, then the executive director, about the museum’s existing archival collection, Gray says, “He went into another room and came back carrying two brown paper bags full of documents. ‘This is it.’ he said.”

That the current state-of-the-art archival collection exists owes much to the diligent volunteer efforts of Gray who, at age 83, is stepping down from her volunteer responsibilities.

After completing a five-year bachelor of science in nursing program at the University of Connecticut, Gray, a native of New Britain, Conn., spent much of her professional life in Michigan and New Jersey. She earned a master of science in nursing from Wayne State University in Detroit and became a member of its medical-surgical program’s faculty. While there she met and married her husband Ralph, then a law student at Wayne State, and in time the couple had six children, including a set of triplets.

Ralph Gray’s practice as a lawyer, focused on insurance and financial planning, resulted in the family living in several states before moving to New Canaan, Conn., from which Ralph commuted daily to New York City, and then to New Jersey. In the meantime, Mary Ann Gray raised their children and eventually resumed her teaching career, her longest tenure being at Morristown Nursing School where she served on the faculty of an experimental nursing program. She was there from 1966 to 1977, when she retired.

Or, more accurately, shifted her attention to an interest that lead to her involvement with the Atwood House and Museum after relocating to Chatham, where the family had vacationed for years. Gray had volunteered at the library at Rutgers University, which led to a traineeship, a degree in library science and a position as “bibliographic instructor” to students using its library. This was in the early age of computers, so many students received their first introduction to the internet in Gray’s classes.

In the fall of 1975 the Grays purchased a mid-1700s house on Main Street, which became known for its large family Fourth of July picnics. Since it had no heat, in 1977 they purchased another home on Stage Harbor Road, which they then fixed up as their year-round residence. Later they would buy a property with three cottages on Bridge Street to which Gray moved after selling the house on Stage Harbor Road following Ralph’s death in 1986.

When she spoke with the Atwood director, Gray already had experience with archival volunteering, having received training at the Ocean County Hospital Archives in New Jersey. Since she become involved with the Atwood House and Museum, and with “a lot of help,” the archives have been catalogued according to the Dewey Decimal System and computerized. Expansions to the building provided more office and storage space, including an area that is climate-controlled to protect items of clothing, rare books and some fragile documents. Due to their condition, papers rescued from the town hall fire have been copied so that researchers can access their content without further damage.

According to the Atwood website, the archives are divided into two classifications: Papers such as journals, wills, deeds, letters, newspaper clippings relating to over 600 Chatham family names, and documents relating to the town of Chatham in general, such as local architecture, community events, businesses, clubs and organizations, maritime history, schools and government archives. Also included in the collection are over 6,000 photographs dating from the late 19th century to the present, including portraits, buildings, landscapes, objects, or anything else that illustrates our history.

Gray has six grown children and eight grandchildren. After retiring from her volunteer position, she will spend the winter with a daughter in Florida before returning to her Bridge Street cottage in April. Thanks to her work the archives of the Atwood House and Museum are a valuable resource for the people of Chatham, professional and amateur historians, town government and anyone interested in learning more about the history of Chatham.