Finding Wellsboro: A woman’s story

MEGAN E. BLOOM/Sun-Gazette Statue of Mary Wells Morris stands in Wellsboro in honor of the town co-founder.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Sun-Gazette offers the next installment in a weekly history series that tells the stories of those who came before us.)

WELLSBORO — In the days when towns in northcentral Pennsylvania were being founded, most of the time that was considered man’s work.

Not so here. Wellsboro was settled by Benjamin Morris and his wife, Mary Wells Morris. The couple were Quakers from Philadelphia.

“They were the first settlers to take up residence in Wellsboro in 1805,” said Scott Gitchell, Tioga County historian.

Benjamin Morris was a land agent for Pine Creek Land Co. The idea was if a land agent was living in present-day Wellsboro, more people would build homes there, Gitchell said.

There is little information about Mary Morris — probably because of her gender. She was born on Sept. 16, 1761, in Philadelphia and was 44 years old when she arrived in Wellsboro.

She had two children, Rebecca and Samuel. She most likely was a housewife from a wealthy family, Gitchell said.

The Morris family lived in a log cabin at the corner of present-day Bacon Street and Morris Lane.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the founding mothers are forgotten,” Gitchell said. “We have their names and dates but know very little about them.”

Since there is only so much historical information about Mary Morris, people have to guess what kind of woman she was and what she looked like.

In 2008, Rita Bocher and her sister, Mary Herzek, both of Philadelphia, commissioned a statue made in honor of Mary Morris. Bocher and her late husband had many memories in Wellsboro and she wanted to commemorate his life through the statue.

Becky Ault, of Lancaster, sculpted the piece even though there are no images of Mary Morris. She based the statue off a painting of her mother, Rachel Wells, and images of Quaker women in the 18th century.

“She dressed in the finest fabrics, but they were not ornamental or decorated … they were probably imported from France,” she said.

In the sculpture, Mary Morris is wearing a bonnet, with her hair tucked up inside, a shawl with tassels draped around her shoulders, an ankle-length skirt and simple shoes. There is a Bible in her hand.

Ault said she enjoys portraying her own crafted stories through her pieces of art.

“I created a story of Mary Morris walking to church and the wind was blowing,” she said.

The sculpture depicts her skirt ruffled around her legs due to the wind pressing against her.

The statue was sculpted in plastilene clay and then cast in bronze wax. It has stood next to the historical society on Main Street since 2009.

Though there is little information about who Mary Morris was, Ault and Bocher see her as a woman of fortitude.

“She must have been one strong lady,” Bocher said.

Mary Morris had to leave everything and everyone that she knew in Philadelphia to move to the middle of nowhere. She may have been completely out of her comfort zone.

She stayed in Wellsboro until her death on Nov. 6, 1819, and is buried in the Wellsboro Cemetery.

“I have a feeling Wellsboro was named for her guts and her force of character,” Bocher said.

Pam Shipe, of Wellsboro, is a descendent of Mary Morris and is proud to be related to her.

Reflecting on her distant relative’s life, she looks at her with honor for the leap of faith she took.

“I admire her pioneer spirit and being able to leave Philadelphia and go into the wilds of Pennsylvania,” Shipe said.