Arts & Culture

Getting to know Gleason

Kate Gleason Memorial Park offers breathtaking views of the Beaufort River. A new book provides equally inspiring insights about the life of the park's namesake -- a female industrialist, banker and philanthropist from Rochester, N.Y.

When Gleason arrived in Beaufort in 1927, times were hard, said Janis Gleason, Kate's great-niece, who wrote "Life & Letters of Kate Gleason." Born in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, Kate Gleason lived through the early years of the Great Depression. She eventually became one of the country's most powerful women in business and engineering during the Industrial Revolution.

Kate was the first female member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1914, was a bank president before she had the right to vote and fought for women's rights. Writer Eugene O'Neill, who had lived on Hilton Head Island, was so taken with Kate, that he tried to write a series of plays about her.

Gleason was known for redeveloping communities across the country. She spent part of the last five years of her life in Beaufort working to bring low-cost housing to the area. She also purchased Dataw Island and started a colony for artists and writers. Kate's private secretary, Libby Sanders Rowland of Beaufort, brought her to the Lowcountry.

"She had some odd plans to start a turkey farm out there," Janis said. "She ordered a train carload of turkeys that were sent by mistake to Beaufort, N.C., where they sat on a railroad siding over Fourth of July weekend and perished."

In an effort to bring tourism to Beaufort, Kate developed a beach property, with a golf course and a saltwater swimming pool on Lady's Island. She lived in Beaufort part time and spent her days here in the house side of what became the Gold Eagle Tavern.

Janis, 76, got the idea to write the book after she married into the Gleason family. As a mother of three, a homemaker and the wife of the chief executive officer of the Gleason Corp., Janis spent 20 years investigating Gleason's life. She discovered about 100 letters inside a locked file cabinet in the attic of Gleason's family company. Kate had written them to her brother while he was at Cornell.

"(The letters) were so revealing of her personality, I was intrigued," Janis said. She also found a diary and a black leather-bound book in which Kate had jotted down a jumble of things. It had a recipe for pickles alongside notes about donations she and her father had made toward women's suffrage, including to Susan B. Anthony, a family friend.

"This was a book I felt I had to write because her life was inspirational mainly for women and anyone who had a fire in their belly and wanted to do something seriously and had the courage to try," she said.