The “eccentric” Margaret Woodbury Strong
Rochester is most fortunate to have the newly opened and nationally famous Strong Museum that would not have been possible without the eccentricities and foresight of Margaret Woodbury Strong, long a resident of Allen's Creek Road in Pittsford.
To many she seemed penurious and had little interest in many conventional charities. But at her death in 1969, she seemed like a "Fairy Godmother". She spread her generous gifts among dozens of individuals and educational, religious, and charitable organizations. Most importantly her will established a "Museum of Fascination". She had planned that it would be housed in her palatial home called the Strong Mansion, but it soon became evident that would not be possible and so the building in downtown Rochester was begun. It has since doubled in size and is known nationally as the Museum of Play.
Margaret fought for many years to establish a happy life despite the limitations imposed by a sheltered Victorian childhood. Much of her personality and her odd way of doing things could be traced to that childhood. She was the only child of parents who were in their late 30's at the time of her birth.
Her father, John Woodbury, was in the buggy business and in partnership with Henry Alvah Strong. Mr. Strong boarded with a lady named Maria Eastman, and became interested in the photographic business begun by her son, George. Of course, this business became Eastman Kodak Company, and Strong was, for many years, its president. Strong interested his buggy business partner to invest in this new company.
Margaret grew up in a large home on Lake Avenue. It was dour and gloomy and probably pretty lonely for a child. Her parents traveled extensively and Margaret went along. It has been told that she was given money to spend in whatever way she wished during these trips and in order to buy as much as she could with the money allotted to her, she bought small things and miniatures. Thus began her early collecting.
For part of her childhood, the family traveled almost continuously, a circumstance that must have proven lonely for Margaret. There is something pathetic about a small girl traveling constantly with doting but severe parents, cut off from companionship of other children. During one of those trips, this to the Far East, she became interested in seashells that she said was her first collection.
In 1920, Margaret married Homer Strong, a native of Schenectady who had studied law at Cornell. He was much older than she and he ran a small machine tool business in Rochester. Homer was not a strong or memorable character and had few close friendships. Early in life, he quit doing any business and devoted himself to his wife and her interests.
In 1922, a daughter, Barbara was born. She was to be an only child and doted on by her parents, but her life was not all that happy. She died in her 20's after two unhappy marriages and some estrangements from her parents. Margaret never seemed to fully recover from her daughter's untimely death.
In 1932, the Homer Strongs moved to the mansion on Allen's Creek Road that had been built by another family named Strong - Alvah Griffiths Strong the grandson of the builder, who had been Kodak's first president. Thus the home, which was perhaps the most lavish home ever built in Monroe County except for the Eastman House, was sold to the granddaughter of Strong's onetime partner in the buggy business.
Margaret must have made several hundred different types of collections and the individual items must have numbered into the hundreds of thousands. Virtually every nook and cranny of her home was filled. Even bathrooms, bathtubs, and the walls of every room, and her living room looked like a used furniture store.
The Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum of Fascination posed many problems for those who were to organize, index and present the collections to the public. But the institution will bear the imprint of one of the wealthiest and most unusual women of the century who in many ways remained a little girl who was determined to create for many, the special joys of childhood.