In honor of #WomensHistoryMonth, we’d like to share a story about Helen Clay Frick, the founder of the Wenham property known today as the Iron Rail. She left a legacy of volunteerism, generosity, and civic leadership on the North Shore.
The Iron Rail received its name from a house built by Richard Dodge on the site in 1703, which had iron railings in front. Henry Frick, the industrial titan, purchased the property for his 20-year-old daughter, Helen Clay Frick, in 1909 in support of her work “of making life more enjoyable, for the working girls in the mills of Lawrence, Lowell, and other New England cities, providing a place where they may spend a few weeks’ vacation, during the summer.” The Frick family was well known on the North Shore at this time, as their 104-room Gilded Age summer estate, Eagle Rock, stood in Prides Crossing until its demolition in 1969.
With the purchase of the “Iron Rail,” Helen founded the “Iron Rail Vacation Home for Girls” in accordance with the best progressive thinking of the day. Each summer, young women between the approximate ages of 15 and 25 would receive rest and respite from long days working in the area’s textile mills. These young women enjoyed fresh air, friendship, and leisure time while doing such activities as swimming, gardening, having tea, and taking excursions to polo matches at the nearby Myopia Hunt Club.
The Iron Rail girls became known as the “True Blues” due to the white dresses with blue pantaloons, blue stockings, and blue sashes they were issued upon their arrival. The True Blues, whose motto was “For the Other Girl,” held reunions until the 1970s.
Over time, the program outgrew the 18th century house that stood on the property, and ten small cabins were added to accommodate guests. The brick building that stands on the Iron Rail location today was built in 1941 as a gymnasium, dormitory, and library. In the 1970s, the original historic “Iron Rail” house was moved onto private property in Hamilton.
Helen continued to operate the vacation home during WWII, and she donated the iron rails that gave their name to the property to the war effort.
After WWII, interest in the vacation home began to decline. Eventually, in 1954, Helen transferred ownership of the Iron Rail to the Girls Clubs of America, Inc. The Town of Wenham purchased the property from that entity in 1977, and over time, the property as we know it today was created.
Helen Clay Frick never married, and she dedicated much of her life and wealth to philanthropy. She died in 1984 in Pittsburgh, PA. According to her biographer, Martha Frick Symington Sanger in “Helen Clay Frick: Bittersweet Heiress,” Helen’s greatest interest throughout her life was the Iron Rail.
To learn more about Helen Clay Frick’s life and her founding of the Iron Rail, we recommend the chapter in “Treasures of Wenham History” by local author Jack Hauck, available courtesy of the HW Library here. For additional information about the Frick family, visit the Frick Collection. For a fictional take on early 20th summer vacation homes for working girls on Cape Ann, try “The Boston Girl” by Anita Diamant.