Mary Fulford at the age of 73 sits on a towel in the sand at East Hampton’s Main Beach while smiling at the camera in this 1957 photograph from the Springs Historical Society collection.
Fulford (1884-1975), a Black woman born in North Carolina, moved here as a teenager to work as a live-in servant for William L. Talmage (1849-1939) and Louise McCue Talmage (1854-1903) and their three children. The 1900 census lists the 16-year-old as a member of that family’s household in Springs.
In 1903, shortly after Mary began working at the Talmages’ house, Willow Hill, Louise died, leaving Mary to raise her school-age offspring. Though the two oldest children, James Lionel (1889-1938) and Edith (1890-1983), were nearly grown at the time of their mother’s death, their younger brother, Ferris (1897-1968), credited Mary Fulford with his upbringing.
The residents of Willow Hill changed a great deal over the next four decades, with deaths, births, marriages, and moves causing the number of those living there to rise and fall. First Edith then Ferris left, and finally James, who moved to East Hampton Village with his wife, Lois (1899-1952), and their growing family.
In the 1930 census, William and Mary are the last two residents at Willow Hill. Upon William’s death in 1939, the children Mary raised allowed her to continue to live in the home she had taken care of for 40 years, maintaining the lovely house with little change. It was in this well-preserved place that she remained until her death in 1975.
Mary never married and, in many ways, it was as if the Talmages were her family. She was actively involved in the community and belonged to the Springs Presbyterian Church. Ferris dedicated his manuscript “The Springs Yesterday” to the woman who “brought me up from a small boy,” and Phyllis Reed is quoted as calling Fulford “a lady of propriety and grace.”
Moriah Moore is a librarian and archivist in the Long Island Collection at the East Hampton Library.