Seventh Regent (1943-1948)

Mary Esther Vilas was born in October 1873 in Madison, Wisconsin. Her father, William Freeman Vilas, was Postmaster General and Secretary of the Interior under President Grover Cleveland and later was elected U.S. Senator. In 1898 she married Lucien M. Hanks, who became president of the First National Bank of Madison.

In 1914 Mrs. Hanks was elected Vice Regent for Wisconsin. She served 18 years on the Finance Committee and was its chair for 12 years. Her business acumen and sound judgment proved especially valuable during the volatile Depression-era economy. She became Regent in 1943, following the death the previous November of Mrs. Towner.

Regent

Mrs. Hanks with Edvard Benes, who served as the President of Czechoslovakia. MVLA.

Mrs. Hanks with Edvard Benes, who served as the President of Czechoslovakia. MVLA.

World War II affected Mount Vernon in several ways. There was a precipitous drop in visitors and a resulting 75 percent loss of income. These were years of gasoline rationing, a shortage of tire rubber, and government-mandated travel restrictions; by mid-1943, the number of visitors was 97 percent below the average of the preceding five years.

In addition, there were 45 percent fewer employees at the estate, as men were either drafted or sought better-paying defense-related jobs. In their place, “women attendants” worked as Mansion guards. Fruits and vegetables grown in the kitchen garden (today called the lower garden) and field crops, cultivated for the first time in many years, helped feed employees during this challenging period.

Despite these hardships, Mount Vernon welcomed the return of many important original Washington artifacts, including Samuel Vaughan’s precise 1787 map of the estate, 11 pieces from the Society of the Cincinnati dinner service, and several books the president owned. This fortunate development continued over several years, prompting Mrs. Hanks to note happily in her 1945 Council report, “Never in the history of the Association have so many valuable articles of Washingtoniana been received in a single year.”

Mrs. Hanks retired as Regent in 1948 but continued serving as Vice Regent for Wisconsin until 1956. She died on December 17, 1959.

Mount Vernon during World War II

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