Folks, you’re in for a treat! Former Ossining Village Historian (and current Village Trustee) Dana White is our guest today on the blog. Please enjoy her post on Fanny Brandreth Kane, Ossining’s first lady of civic affairs.

Guest post by Dana White

Fanny Brandreth Kane 1858 – 1938

On the evening of April 13, 1936, more than 150 local residents paid $2.25 apiece to attend a testimonial dinner at the Briar Hills Country Club (now Trump International). While such soirees were not uncommon, usually they were held for someone who’d recently died. That evening’s honoree, Fanny Kane, was very much alive, the first person with a pulse–and a woman to boot–to be honored “for her unselfish service” to Ossining. 

Frances (Fanny) Kane was a tiny ball of energy in a size-one shoe, a Mayflower descendant and DAR member who made it her mission to help the less fortunate, the sick, the lonely.

After the diners had finished the fresh fruit cocktail with mint, cream of tomato soup, filet mignon with pan roasted potatoes, new peas, and ice cream in “fancy moulds,” the speeches began. One after another, Mrs. Kane’s friends and admirers stood to toast her achievements as a Neighbor and Friend, an Organizer, a Citizen and a Humanitarian. Clara Fuller, co-founder with Kane of the Civic League and the Ossining Woman’s Club, attested to her friend’s astonishing can-do spirit: “She can’t help it, she was born that way. What she wills to be done, will be done.”

Fanny entered the world on October 31, 1858, one of four girls born to George and Virginia Brandreth. George, a lawyer and village president, was the oldest of thirteen children born to Benjamin Brandreth, the wealthy Englishman who manufactured his patent medicines and porous plasters on the Sing Sing waterfront. George ran the company after his father’s death in 1880. 

Brandreth Pills for your vitiated bile . . .

Fanny’s mother Virginia was a daughter of another leading citizen, General Aaron Ward, who lived in Careswell, a grand Greek Revival mansion built in the 1830 sof convict-quarried Sing Sing marble. (It stood where the high school gym is today.)  Fanny and her family lived at No. 10 Ellis Place, a large house they called Vine Cottage, only steps from Trinity Episcopal, the church the Brandreths were instrumental in building. Fanny showed an early propensity for order and neatness; as one admirer testified that night, Fanny “began her activities in public welfare at the early age of six, when she made her father remove a blot on the beauty of the neighborhood in the form of a little black pig and his sty.”

Fanny’s high-society upbringing was full of trips to New York City for Christmas presents, charity balls and dances at West Point, yet tragedy blotted this idyllic life. There was a childhood accident that stole the sight in her left eye, a handicap she did her best to ignore. When Fanny was 12 her mother passed away, and Mary, the oldest daughter, assumed the maternal role. When Fanny was 20, her fiance, Alexander Gibson, son of the principal of St. John’s School (where St. Ann’s School now stands), died suddenly, and a heartbroken Fanny took a year-long trip to Europe and Egypt with Mary and her husband. 

In 1884, at the ripe old age of 25, Fanny finally married, the last daughter to do so. Like her, John Innes Kane II was a Sing Sing native whose wealthy father, John Kane Sr., hailed from Albany. In the early 1840s, the Kane family had bought 46 acres on the river side of Albany Post Road–saving it from being cut up into home lots–and built the fine granite mansion called Woodlawn. It had 20 rooms and numerous outbuildings and was stuffed with fine antiques. But John Sr. had tuberculosis, and by the time their son was one year of age, both he and his wife had passed away. The little orphan inherited Woodlawn but was raised by relatives. He did not live there again until he married Fanny, having returned to Ossining after a career in the Army Calvary on the Texas frontier. According to a New York Times account of the wedding, Fanny’s father George “presented her with a share in the Brandreth company, valued at $50,000, a silver tea set, a check for $500, an elegant piano, and a handsome victoria.” 

Woodlawn today, the clubhouse for Avalon/The Terrace apartment complex

The first half of Fanny’s adult life was occupied with raising three children and caring for her husband, who, like his father, battled tuberculosis. John held positions at the Sing Sing Gas Co. and as Ossining postmaster, but his ill health forced him to warmer climes. Woodlawn was often vacant, the furniture sheeted, as Fanny accompanied John to Texas, California, and Arizona. In 1898, John volunteered to serve in the Spanish American war, and after the invasion of Cuba returned home with ruined health. He passed away at Lake George in 1904, leaving Fanny, at 46, a wealthy widow with three children and a philanthropic heart.

Over the next thirty years, Fanny made her mark on the village of Ossining. Again, tragedy was the motivation: Her younger sister Helen, called Nellie, was dying. Nellie, a kind soul who was married to Frederick Potter, scion of a wealthy local family, had the best medical care money could provide, yet she worried about those less fortunate. One day, she wondered aloud, “What do poor people do when they are sick?” Her dying wish was that Fanny and Frederick help the poor receive medical care.

After Nellie’s death in 1905, Fanny and Frederick embarked on a partnership that would change the face of Ossining’s health care. Frederick hired a nurse to care for the village poor, and Fanny directed her duties, jotting down reports with a pad and pencil she kept by her bed, at all hours of the day and night. (In 1914, this service became the District Nursing Association; Fanny served as its president until her death.) In 1906, the Potter family funded the construction of a new hospital on Spring Street, with Fanny a charter member. She also started clinics for women on Pre-Natal care, Maternal Health and Social Hygiene.

Community service filled a void in Fanny’s life. Deciding the village was untidy, she and her childhood friend Clara Fuller, principal of the Ossining School for Girls, decided to do something about it. They started the Civic League, comprised of women dedicated to improving quality of life in the village. Whereas Ossining politics had been purely a man’s game, Fanny insisted female voices be heard. In addition to cleaning up the streets, Fanny and her volunteer force tackled the clean up of the Kill Brook, fought to preserve trees from developers, and took on the illegal saloons that distracted so many husbands from their domestic obligations. The story goes that one Sunday, motivated by one wife’s tears, Fanny marched into a saloon and led the drunken husband out by the hand. When her efforts to regulate the saloons came up short, she opened a coffee shop and reading room on North Malcolm Street where “idlers” could spend time. She even hired the village’s first policewoman to patrol the local “disorderly houses” at night and report any problems. 

She felt the state prison was another blot on the landscape, especially after the electric chair arrived in 1891.  She called for the prison to be closed, or at the very least given its own train stop, so that newly arrived inmates were not marched through the streets to the prison gates. In both these goals, she proved  unsuccessful. 

During World War I, Fanny characteristically turned hardship into opportunity. Her youngest child, Edward Winslow (named for relative Winslow Homer), went off to Europe and became an aviator on the front lines. Fanny and the rest of the country’s women stayed behind and did their part, knitting socks and making bandages for the troops. After Winslow returned unscathed, much to her delight, she transformed this community spirit into the Ossining Woman’s Club. She raised the $10,000 needed to buy the large house on South Highland Avenue. It was not only a gathering place and hub of activity, but also a home for single women of modest means, who could rent rooms at a low price.

In 1931, convinced Ossining needed to preserve its past, Fanny hosted the first meeting of the Ossining Historical Society at Woodlawn. The society’s first president, she presided over the collection of artifacts and documents that were stored in the Washington School on Croton Ave. before landing in their current home at 196 Croton Ave. While Fanny’s other organizations have waned over the time, the Ossining Historical Society Museum remains her most visible and active legacy.

Elsewhere, Fanny’s legacy is in transition. The Woman’s Club closed and the South Highland house sold. An oil portrait of Fanny that hung above the fireplace in the main room was relocated to the historical society. The Woodlawn estate, which was sold after her death in 1938 and served as a corporate headquarters for decades, is now home to luxury apartments (Avalon Bay and now The Terraces).  The majestic mansion was restored to its former glory for a resident’s clubhouse, a stellar example of adaptive reuse.

The interior of Woodlawn today, in its current use as the Clubhouse for Avalon/the Terrace apartments

Fanny was the last of her sisters to pass away. Her generous heart gave out on June 1, 1938, at the age of 79. Her funeral was held at Trinity Episcopal Church and she was buried in Dale Cemetery. Flags on all the public buildings were lowered to half-mast. Her tiny coffin and legions of mourners brought to mind the words of one doctor at the testimonial dinner: “Fanny, you are a little bit of a woman, but you have a big heart and a big capacity for work that is worth while.” 

Addendum by Caroline: Here’s Fanny Kane’s New York Times obituary. She truly was a powerhouse!

3 thoughts on “Citizen Kane – The Life and Times of Fanny Brandreth Kane

  1. Wow, Caroline! Brandreth, Ward & Potter all in one post? Nicely done. I love the history & humanity you are putting into your stories.


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