Garden party: Mrs. Perkins gets her day in the sun

Publication Date

Shortly after arriving at Union in 1865, where her husband, Maurice, was hired to teach chemistry, Annie Dunbar Potts Perkins planted a flower garden behind the faculty residence that is now Hale House.

For more than 50 years, Perkins meticulously tended to her garden and its array of flowers, trees and shrubs near the center of campus. A cousin to the grander and more opulent Jackson’s Garden, “Mrs. Perkins Garden” became a fixture that remains in modified form in an area near Old Chapel.

Yet the garden was only a small plot in the remarkable life of a successful professional writer and translator deeply involved in the College. Perkins gave lectures, translated manuals and other documents from French, German and Italian, and opened her home to students and faculty wives for book readings, all at a time when the campus had an all-male student body and faculty.

To help celebrate the historic role of “Mrs. Perkins” at Union and beyond, and the long-overdue arrival of spring, a campus-wide garden tea party will be held Monday, April 7, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. in Old Chapel.

Sponsored by Schaffer Library’s new Research Fellowship Program, the event will share details of Perkins’s life uncovered by the first fellow, Olga Borodulina ’11. Since last fall, Borodulina has dissected more than 700 letters Perkins wrote to various family members between 1895 and 1904. A Perkins family descendant donated the letters to the library’s Special Collections in 2009.

“She was a fascinating woman and is an important connection to our past,” said Borodulina, whose fellowship is funded by the Robert J. Mielke Library Endowment. “She gives us the women’s perspective when women had no role on campus.”

A sizeable woman with a personality to match (she was known affectionately on campus as “The Dutchess,” and graduating seniors asked her to sign their diplomas), Perkins often dressed in a lace bonnet and flowing skirts that kissed the ground. She composed her letters on a typewriter she nicknamed “The Demon.” The lively and entertaining missives provide a front-row glimpse into life not only at Union, but the city of Schenectady and the greater world. Perkins wrote passionately about international affairs, arts, politics, and intellectual and social life on campus.

“I begin to believe there is a sort of boycott on Schenectady; days pass without a single load of coal, and you know Schenectady in proportion to her population, sent more money to the strikers than any other town,” reads one of the letters.

Through the letters, we learn Perkins published short stories in collections with writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe. She raised three children, including two daughters active in the women’s rights movement, and she was devoted to the Presbyterian Church.

The letters also provide valuable insight into Union’s leadership and growth under President Andrew Van Vranken Raymond, and connect readers to some of the College’s better-known figures, including Moses Viney, a runaway slave from Maryland and longtime president Eliphalet Nott’s constant companion.

“She mentions riding in Moses' carriage often,” said Borodulina. “He would give her grandson rides all the time. And sometimes her dog would hide in the carriage.”

Annette LeClair, head of technical services at Schaffer, oversaw Borodulina’s project. She said her work uncovered a great deal of information about Perkins that was previously unknown. That may help elevate Perkins’s legacy on campus to more than a gardener.

“She’s a great, great Union figure and resource,” said LeClair.

“If people read some of these letters, they are going to be as excited about her as other Union figures. Her story is our story, too.”