Frances W. Mason, school founder, dies

She helped start Glenelg Country School and was interested in historic preservation in Howard County and in Baltimore's arabber community

  • Frances W. Mason
Frances W. Mason
August 25, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Frances W. Mason, a founder of Glenelg Country School and a historic preservationist who later in life worked with Baltimore's arabber community, died Aug. 16 of heart failure at Squirrel Hill, her Ellicott City farm.

She was 91.

The daughter of a lawyer and a homemaker, the former Frances Wellford was born and raised in Richmond, Va., where she graduated from St. Catherine School in 1938 and made her debut.

She was married in 1943 to John Teney "Jack" Mason Jr., and in 1950 they settled on an overgrown 46-acre farm that they named Squirrel Hill.

"She was originally a city girl and although she had virtually no hands-on experience as a farmer, and Jack was an engineer by trade with a full-time day job, it was not long before they had turned the neglected plot off Old Annapolis Road into a thriving sheep farm," said a son, John Teney Mason III of Sykesville.

While her husband performed the "grunt work," her son said, Mrs. Mason carved out her role as farm manager.

"She did the finances, hired and fired the help, and often found herself out in the barnyard delivering lambs in the middle of a cold winter night, all while raising five children," he said.

It wasn't uncommon for the couple's flock to include 80 sheep while they also grew crops and raised other barnyard animals.

"It was the kind of place where an orphaned lamb got raised on a bottle in the kitchen and ended up as a family pet," her son said.

In 1954, the couple joined with Kingdon Gould Jr. and his wife, Mary, along with several other Howard County parents with young children, to found the Glenelg Country School. It eventually became Howard County's first private high school.

Located on 80 acres on Folly Quarter Road in Glenelg, the school was housed in a white-columned pre-Revolutionary War manor house. The home of Henry Howard, it had originally been called "Howard's Resolution" and was surrounded by ancient formal boxwood gardens.

Originally offering only grades one to seven, the school opened in the fall of 1954 with 35 students. Today, the school, which added high school grades in the early 1980s, boasts some 750 students in grades pre-K through 12.

"She was a highly intellectual lady and well-educated," said Mr. Gould, former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and a trustee of the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs.

"What I'll be forever grateful for is the intellectual level, high standards and programs that she instilled at Glenelg. It was traditional and classic and a blending of literature that we had in our own education," said Mr. Gould, a friend of more than 50 years who lives in Laurel.

"Frances succeeded in bringing the quality of St. Catherine's curriculum to Glenelg. And she personally labored when we started the school," said Mr. Gould, who served on the school's board for 50 years and is now a trustee emeritus.

"She painted and plastered walls and made other repairs in getting the school ready for its occupants," he said. "She also supported the school financially."

"Throughout her life, she was a persistent champion of causes, and was constantly creating organizations to promote and carry out their objectives," her son said.

Mrs. Mason was an active member and supporter of Historic Ellicott City Inc. and the Howard County Historical Society.

She spearheaded the drive to preserve the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, which had been built in 1837 and operated until 1891.

S. Donovan Swann Jr., a Baltimore theatrical impresario who died in 1998, established the Hilltop Theater there in 1938, and today, the ruins are an integral part of the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, where plays are still performed.

Mrs. Mason and other members of the Howard County Historical Society established the Bell & Quill lunchroom for county employees and the Old Line Shop in Ellicott City that raised funds for the restoration of Main Street and other historic projects.

She was also a longtime board member of the Animal Welfare Society of Howard County, a member and chairwoman three times for the Howard County Garden Club's Annual House and Garden Pilgrimage, and a member of the Children's Aid Society, chairing their annual fundraiser.

Later in life, Mrs. Mason became fascinated by Baltimore's street peddlers, or arabbers, and helped found the Arabber Preservation Society in 1994.

"She helped create the Arabber Preservation Society, an organization that has prompted the welfare of this fiercely independent, but beleaguered band of characters by lobbying city agencies to adopt a tolerant approach to an often misunderstood tradition from another era," her son said.

"She was a very generous woman when it came to the society and she didn't even live in the city. It was really her baby and she made the society possible and for us to do the things we do," said Dan Van Allen, president of the Arabber Preservation Society.

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