Legacy of Mystic’s Mary Jobe Akeley has global reach

Your GPS won’t find this little byway, but its presence off River Road in Mystic is marked by a sign: “Peace Sanctuary Mary L. Jobe Akeley Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center.” Hike in and you’ll discover a lovely nature preserve founded by a woman who led an extraordinary life.

Mary Jobe wanted to do something for young girls. She wanted to encourage them to lead lives of accomplishment. In 1916 she was just 30 years old, but she’d already completed graduate work at Columbia University, held a teaching position at Hunter College, studied the customs of indigenous Canadians, mapped the headwaters of a river and dodged avalanches while climbing uncharted mountains in the Rockies. She didn’t think there was much a woman couldn’t do.

Organizations like the Girl Scouts and the Camp Fire Girls had just started up, and Mary decided the time was right to open a summer camp for girls. The property she selected had once been the site of peace movement meetings but had become available because anti-war sentiments that arose following the Civil War had now ebbed. Mary advertised in ladies’ magazines, contacted some of her affluent New York friends, and, with an enrollment of 80 girls, Camp Mystic was underway.

The program included horseback riding, tennis, archery, swimming, crafts and hiking. The girls’ uniforms were bloomers and middy blouses. There was plenty of fresh, locally grown food and occasional clambakes on Ram Island (which Mary owned). Saturday evenings often featured guest speakers, including the explorers Osa and Martin Johnson, who entertained the girls with movies of their African adventures.

By 1926 Mary was taking African photographs of her own because she was traveling in the Belgian Congo (Zaire) with her new husband, Carl Akeley. They were studying gorillas and collecting specimens for the American Museum of Natural History back in New York.

Carl was a nature photographer, conservationist and taxidermist, who had made several earlier expeditions to Africa. On one of these safaris he’d become convinced that African mammals were endangered, so now in addition to collecting samples for educational purpose he and Mary were looking for a suitable location for a gorilla sanctuary.

In the middle of the trip the unthinkable happened when Carl, whose health had been flagging, contracted a fever and died. Mary buried him in a spot he’d called the most beautiful place in the world, summoned her courage, and led the expedition to its completion.

Four years after her husband’s death, the Great Depression forced Camp Mystic’s closure, but widowhood and hard times didn’t slow Mary down. She wrote several books and was a popular lecturer. She advocated passionately for the establishment of wildlife sanctuaries, noting that, “The great problem of the student of wildlife traveling in Africa today is not to defend himself against wild animals, but to actually see them.”

She consulted with the American Museum of Natural History on the development of the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, designed to showcase Carl’s work. It’s still one of the museum’s permanent exhibitions, featuring lions, gorillas, giraffes and rhinos in dioramas that realistically depict the animals’ habitats.

Mary received many honors including a citation by the King of Belgium for her dedication to the preservation of African wildlife. She’s in the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, and, perhaps most dramatically, one of the Canadian Rockies was named Mount Jobe in recognition of her pioneering work.

When Mary died in Mystic in 1966, a provision in her will specified that the Camp Mystic property should remain a private nature preserve; it’s now under the stewardship of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center.

Mary’s death coincided with the early days of the women’s liberation movement, but if the timing had been different I think Mary would have participated, demonstrating through her own life how much women can accomplish.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.

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