Mary Leitch at 101

Mary Leitch

Natalia Zukerman

Mary Leitch at 101

ANCRAM — “I love fishing, but this is the first year I said, ‘I guess it’s time to stop hunting,’” said town resident Mary Leitch, which wouldn’t necessarily be a noteworthy statement in and of itself, but Leitch is 101 years old.

Leitch was born Mary Mechare on Oct. 8, 1922. Her father was a mason and contractor who worked at the Borden’s milk factory in Wallkill, and her mother “took care of us kids.”

Leitch had two brothers, and a twin sister, Florence, and the four of them walked to and from the Irondale Schoolhouse on Route 22 every day. One of 14 single-room schoolhouses in the Town of North East from 1858 to 1930, the Irondale Schoolhouse was restored and relocated in 2013 by the Friends of the Irondale Schoolhouse to its new site at the Millerton entrance of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail.

Up and down Winchell Mountain Road and across Route 22, the Mechare children made the trip back and forth to school — “rain or shine or snow,” said Leitch — often stopping at Mrs. Finkel’s Candy Store on the way home. Their teacher was Mrs. Gladys Cook Woodnut, or substitute teacher Mrs. Boucher when Mrs. Woodnut was sick, and Leitch recalled that at 9 a.m., eighth grader Billy Hoig would ring the school bell. He also got to light the potbelly stove that was located in the middle of the room surrounded by student desks.

Leitch shared, “They closed the schoolhouse, so all classes transferred to Millerton High.” Leitch continued: “I don’t think there’s anybody living that I went to school with, even high school. I didn’t know too many in Millerton. They were different. They didn’t like the idea, I guess, that a small school like that would transfer to their school. They were above us,” she laughed. Leitch was shy and said that older children would bully her but, she said, she learned to fight back: “I’m a country girl!” she cried.

In the summertime, most of the young people “got jobs at the laundromat or cleaning houses,” said Leitch. “We didn’t get too far from home.” She described her one and only trip to New York City, traveling by train from Millerton. “I went to New York for vacation with my twin sister and some friends, but I only stayed overnight,” she shared. “I came home. I didn’t like New York City. I think we were supposed to go for two weeks, but one day was enough for me.”

Leitch met her late husband, William Leitch, through a hunting friend. “I didn’t get married until I was 38. I was the last in the family to marry. So everybody gave up hope,” she laughed. The couple didn’t have children. William Leitch was “a horseman,” and Mary Leitch became a nurse in the 1950s.

She worked for a few years at Sharon Hospital before moving on to Wassaic State School, where she worked for 19 years. At its peak in the 1950s, Wassaic State School housed 5,000 patients. Established to alleviate overcrowding at other facilities in New York City and Long Island, it opened Jan. 7, 1931, as one of five new statewide facilities established to house and work with individuals with developmental disabilities. It operated on a complex in the Town of Amenia hamlet. Prior to the New York Department of Mental Hygiene’s acquisition of the property in 1926, it consisted of three separate farms.

“In ’61, I retired and then I stayed home,” said Leitch. “I started taking care of people, private duties and stuff like that, and then I finally gave it up for sure.” After her retirement, Leitch and her husband spent 11 winters in North Carolina, returning to Millerton in the summers. “We used to go to the racetracks,” she recalled. “We kept busy. We had good times.”

Leitch was raised Catholic, but said her parents let their children decide what they wanted to do in terms of church attendance. Leitch’s parents were members of the Methodist church in Millerton but when Leitch’s father passed away, he was visited by Bishop Gerardo Colacicco of St. Joseph’s, a Catholic church in Millbrook.

Leitch then decided she wanted to return to the Catholic church, and after taking some classes from the bishop, began regularly attending Sunday services at St. Joseph’s. The Rev. Hartley Bancroft, who took over for Colacicco in 2020, shared: “When you come to a place, she’s one of the great people that provide a living memory for everyone else. She is just a really sweet, very, very loving lady. She has a care for the health and goodness of everyone else around her. Her love for those who are around her, and her care for them, is very strong.”

When asked what she prays for, Leitch shared, “I pray for good health and to take care of my friends and all good stuff.” And Leitch certainly has a lot of friends. With incredible speed, she is still able to rattle off the names of her many friends and the folks who regularly visit her, including a nephew who lives in Millerton.

She also remembers stores and establishments with a startling clarity: “I remember going to the A&P with my mother, God rest her. Mr. Whalen was the man who ran the A&P. And I remember the drugstore. Mr. Strong owned the drugstore. He had a daughter, Betty. There were two drugstores in Millerton. Strong was up by the Moviehouse, and down the street next to the diner was the other and then there was the paper store. Mrs. Percy had the paper store. Of course, Dutchess Auto has always been there, and the railroad station. And next to the diner was the other drugstore.

“And where the big restaurant is across main street, that was Dr. Hoag’s house. He was our doctor, too. He made house calls on a horse and wagon. He used to come to the house if we were sick, and I used to go out and sit in the carriage with him and he’d let me hold the horse’s reins. Then they bought a car and he said, ‘What should we name it?’ He always gave us kids candy, so we called the car ‘the candy car’ when he came up.”

Leitch still cooks, sews and even drives her own car. She shared: “My father passed away, God rest him, when he was 78. My mother was 108 when she died.” Asked how she would feel about living that long, Leitch said, “I feel good. I move around. I keep going, God bless.”

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