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Bess and Elizabeth Struggle Alone

Bess and young Mary ElizabethBess and meAs an adult, Will had proved unable to find a satisfactory career. After the early death of his first wife, he found himself in a less than completely happy second marriage. He spent a great deal of time pursuing high-status recreation, such as playing billiards and golf, taking photographs, and researching his genealogy. Although Will gave his two children an education and helped to support his sister, Bess, financially, he entered the 20th century unable to stem the decline in both the family's finances and social status.

After his brief stint working in Paterson, Will returned to The Hermitage, where he fell ill and died on December 22, 1915. He left no resources to take care of his wife, his sister, or his two children. His brother George paid for his funeral. Although his widow, Bessie, remained on good terms with Bess and Mary Elizabeth, she decided to return to Virginia to live.

After Will's death, George, who was still living in Boston, and Dayton, who was working in Georgia, urged Bess and Mary Elizabeth to sell The Hermitage. Continuing to support the house and property, George wrote, was "the height of folly." When George decided to stop sending the women a monthly stipend, they applied to Dayton for assistance. He responded resentfully, calling his aunt and sister "the personification of selfishness" for hanging on to The Hermitage, which, he claimed, had "ruined" his father. Bess, 62, and Mary Elizabeth, 32, rejected the appeals to sell, which strained relations with George and resulted in a total cutting off of relations with Dayton.

Faced with dire necessity, the two women turned to working for money for the first time in their lives. An initial venture in baking and selling loaves of bread provided little income. Another venture was more successful: In May 1917, Bess and Mary Elizabeth opened a tea room in the front parlor and on the veranda of The Hermitage. It quickly became a popular spot for both local residents and day trippers now traveling through Bergen County by car. The tea room remained in business until 1930. [Tell me more about the tea room.]

Bess and Elizabeth faced very hard times during the Great Depression of the 1930s. To make ends meet, Bess sold lots of remaining property she owned on Franklin Turnpike, and George resumed sending the women money. Bess and Elizabeth tried to sell the family's books, stamps, and antiques and grew vegetables for food. They also received food assistance from the Red Cross and coal to heat the house from railroad workers. The 1940s brought great sadness and uncertainty to Mary Elizabeth's life. Bess died in January 1943, at 88, followed shortly by John's wife, Vinnie. In 1946, Bessie Tyler died in Virginia at 76.

Now alone at The Hermitage, Mary Elizabeth invited Kate Zahner to live with her. Kate had been a servant and companion to aunt Vinnie but was now destitute. The two women would live together at The Hermitage for the next twenty-five years. Although a few small inheritances came their way, and Mary Elizabeth continued to sell property, the women lived very frugally. Eventually they boarded up all but two rooms in the house and lived mainly in the parlors, heated by a coal stove on which they also cooked meals. They continually fought off trespassers and vandals.

Mary Elizabeth refused numerous offers for the house and property, even though selling The Hermitage would have enabled the two women to live out their lives very comfortably. Like her father, Will, who had become interested in the history of both the Rosencrantz family and their Ho-Ho-Kus home, Mary Elizabeth placed great value on both the Revolutionary War heritage of The Hermitage and the Rosencrantzes' contributions to the social and economic development of central Bergen County. In 1961, Mary Elizabeth wrote a will that stated: "I give & bequeath to the State of New Jersey the Historic Hermitage & all its furnishings & land upon which it stands . . . to be used as a museum & park."

The Rosencrantz women's downward mobility and shortage of money for more than half a century left the original Gothic Revival architecture of The Hermitage unaltered. Letters and other records, clothing, and artifacts from almost two centuries were not thrown away. But the lack of maintenance to The Hermitage also resulted in greatly overgrown grounds, a badly leaking roof, internal water damage, peeling wallpaper and crumbling plaster, and destruction by birds and animals in many parts of the house. Mary Elizabeth Rosencrantz died on March 10, 1970; Kate Zahner died five days later. Both women were 85 years old.

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