Mother Strong

Hattie M. Strong (1864-1950)

“Hattie Strong had no idea how her life would turn out . . . but what a ride she took.” This statement from the website of the Hattie M. Strong Foundation introduces visitors to the eventful life of a philanthropist once known as “Mother Strong” at Rollins. From the early 1930s until her death in 1950, she was a great friend to the college, visiting often and donating funds for scholarships and many other purposes. Strong Hall and Corrin Hall are among her many gifts to Rollins.

The college’s commemorative booklet, “Strong Hall:  A Living Memorial,” describes Mrs. Strong’s early years, a time when she exhibited the courage and determination she would show all her life. She was thirteen years old when her father “lost his wealth in the crash of 1877,” and the family moved to the Michigan frontier. Her father found it hard to adapt to this environment, however, and after his death the family moved to Connecticut, where Hattie helped support the family by giving piano lessons.

The Strong Hall commemorative booklet, 1939

In 1888, she married Lester B. Lockwood and moved to Tacoma, Washington. However, her marriage did not last, and in 1897, Hattie was on her own with few financial resources and a five-year-old child to support. Instead of returning to her family, she decided to make a complete break with the past. The Klondike Gold Rush offered an opportunity for a fresh start, so she and her son, Corrin, headed to Alaska, where Hattie and a friend planned to establish a hospital/hotel for miners.

The women purchased lumber and other supplies for their new business, and boarded a ship for Skagway. Near there they suddenly found themselves in a life-or-death situation when a blizzard struck, and the ship was lost. The dramatic story of the shipwreck is told in the book Argonaut, a 1933 novel based on Mrs. Strong’s early life:  “The noise was indescribable! The howling of the wind, the crash of the waves! It was frightful . . . She could hear Captain Ellman issuing frantic orders, though what could there be left to do now but pray for daylight and an improbable rescue,” it reads. Rescue came the following day, when a tugboat managed to reach the ship through the winds. Its crew caught survivors (including Hattie’s little boy) as they jumped from the ship’s deck, and took them to shore.

The accounts we have of this event do not mention the name of the ship, but the details fit the story of The Canada, which was shipwrecked near Skagway in February 1898.

The remains of The Canada in Nakhu Bay, circa 1900 (Photo:  Courtesy of Alaska State Library, Curtis Shattuck Photo Collection, ASL-P511-04)

None of the ship’s cargo could be saved, so Hattie lost nearly everything she owned. Hattie’s friend warned her that Skagway was not a good place for a mother with a small child, as its housing consisted mostly of tents (while temperatures could fall to -20°) and the city was full of “dance halls, saloons, and millions of dogs.” But Hattie decided to “get up and sally forth” in this gold rush town. She stayed on with her young son in Alaska, finding work as a nurse and holding various other jobs.

Skagway, Alaska, in May 1898 (Photo:  Hegg, Eric A., 1867-1948 (Library University Washington) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As the Strong Hall booklet put it, “Hattie’s life in Alaska was anything but a bed of roses.” After three years, “somewhat broken in health,” she and her son returned to Tacoma, where Hattie found work supervising a men’s club. Either in Tacoma, or while in Southern California trying to regain her health (sources vary), she met Henry Alvah Strong, the president and co-founder of the Eastman Kodak Company. According to the booklet, “Mr. Strong was a widower, twenty-five years her senior, but what has age to do with love!” Hattie’s life once again changed dramatically after their marriage in 1905. She now had a husband she loved and a father for her son. She had also become a wealthy woman.

The highly successful Eastman Kodak company sold a variety of cameras and photographic supplies. This ad was published in The Independent on March 5, 1917.

Mr. Strong was already known for his charitable giving, and for the rest of her life, Hattie was a generous philanthropist. After her husband’s death in 1919, she found “her chief and indeed only happiness in helping others.” She not only gave to colleges and universities in the United States, but supported many international causes as well, establishing a hospital for wounded veterans in France, funding a President’s Residence at Peking University, and building a girls’ dormitory at the Suehn Industrial Mission in Liberia. The Hattie M. Strong Foundation, incorporated in the District of Columbia in 1928, has helped thousands of students obtain a college education.

Mrs. Strong had already met President Hamilton Holt when she first came to Rollins in 1930, according to an account given by the college’s treasurer, Ervin T. Brown, who noted that she stayed on campus during her visit (as she would always prefer to do), becoming the first woman to stay in Rollins Hall. Mr. Brown wrote that on this visit, two students borrowed a roadster (an open car) to take Mrs. Strong on a picnic. “A very heavy downpour” ended up soaking everyone, but true to form, it “did not dampen Mrs. Strong’s enthusiasm in the slightest. She entered into the adventure with as much spirit as the girls.” He continued, “Following this visit Mrs. Strong returned to Rollins a number of times and became so familiar with its ideals that she has often humorously remarked:  ‘If anything happens to President Holt, I could assume the lecture platform and tell the world about Rollins because I know his story from memory.'”

Mr. Brown also wrote of his surprise when he spoke to Mrs. Strong after she received the Rollins Decoration of Honor in 1939. As he remembered, she told him, “When the Trustees offered me this Decoration of Honor which I prize so highly, you know there was never any promise, implied or otherwise, that I would ever do anything significant for Rollins. . . The surest way for me NOT to give to a cause is to be asked. No one at Rollins has ever asked me for anything,–so what is your greatest need?”

Mrs. Strong, wearing the Rollins Decoration of Honor, next to President Hamilton Holt, February 1939

The college very much needed a new women’s dormitory at that time, and Strong Hall was dedicated in 1939. Mrs. Strong was unable to attend the dedication ceremony, but in a message to the students, she wrote of the symbolism of the building’s name and expressed her hope that the young women who lived there would be “STRONG for everything which makes for Happy, Healthful, and Efficient Womanhood.” She also expressed her wish for them to “go forth to face life and its problems, better prepared for lives of useful service for having lived here,” signing herself, “Mother Strong.”

An early image of Strong Hall, circa 1940

From 1950 to 1968, Strong Hall was the site of Shakespeareana, open-air performances led by Professor Nina Dean

Mrs. Strong also gave the college a second women’s residence, Corrin Hall (named for her son, L. Corrin Strong ’46H, who served as a Rollins trustee for many years). This time she was able to attend the groundbreaking, where she stated, “I decided to give Corrin Hall to Rollins because civilization rests on the shoulders of you young people, who should be educated for the great responsibilities of today.”

Mrs. Strong (wearing a white hat) at the groundbreaking for Corrin Hall, 1947. President Holt is pictured holding a shovel, and Ervin T. Brown is second from the right.

Mrs. Strong (seated) with members of the Order of the Libra, an honorary society to which she was elected in 1940. Behind her, wearing a white dress, is Rollins trustee Frances Knowles Warren ’35H, donor of the Knowles Memorial Chapel.

Mrs. Strong visited and corresponded regularly with the college until her death in 1950. The following year, Corrin Strong sent the college a scrapbook his mother had kept about Rollins. This is now held in the Olin Library’s Rollins Collection.

Pages from Mrs. Strong’s scrapbook

In 1954, LIFE magazine wrote that Henry Strong had helped George Eastman start the Eastman Kodak Company because “he admired the young man’s guts.” He may have been drawn to the same quality in Hattie–a courageous, independent, and generous woman who was aptly named “Mother Strong.”

Strong Hall in 2017. The building was renovated in 2014 and has provided a home for Rollins students for almost 80 years. (Photo by Scott Cook.)

~ by D. Moore, Archival Specialist

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