During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before income tax and anti-trust legislation, entrepreneurs and financiers throughout the country were building vast fortunes. James Dooley shared in the unusually advantageous economic climate of this time, often referred to as the Gilded Age. Dooley not only participated in the larger national arena, but also in the complex economic and political environment of the post-Reconstruction South. He was an active contributor to the recovery and growth of the South’s economy, through expansion of the railways, land development and other business ventures. James and his wife Sallie were central figures in the social, intellectual and philanthropic life of their city. Their interests and activities extended beyond Virginia, and they developed a cosmopolitan perspective reflected in their home, Maymont. Maymont is also an expression of their great wealth, as well as the affluence and the high-style taste of America’s Gilded Age. Their gift of Maymont to the City of Richmond and their other generous benefactions exemplify how they, like many of their peers, used their wealth for the benefit of the public.
James Henry Dooley, Business Leader of the New South
Born in Richmond, January 17, 1841, James Henry Dooley was the son of John and Sarah Dooley, who came to America from Ireland. They settled in Richmond, where they made a comfortable home for their nine children. John Dooley, Sr. became a prosperous hat manufacturer. He was a founder and commander of the Montgomery Guard, a volunteer militia company comprised largely of Richmonders of Irish origin. The Dooley family was prominent in the community and the parish of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church.
In 1856, James Dooley enrolled at Georgetown College (now Georgetown University), where he distinguished himself as the first student to rank at the head of his class during each of his four years as an undergraduate. He graduated in 1860. Soon after, James and his brother John enlisted in the Confederate Army, joining their father’s unit, Company C of the First Virginia Infantry, also known as the Montgomery Guard. James, a private, was wounded at the Battle of Williamsburg, captured and confined until August 1862. Incapacitated for further service in battle, he worked in the Ordnance Department. In later life he was referred to by the honorific “Major.” Immediately following the end of the war, he completed a Master of Arts degree at Georgetown.
Dooley began his career as an attorney during the immediate postwar years when Richmond was beginning to rebuild its business district, which had been destroyed by fire in the last days of the Confederacy. Well-known for a brilliant legal mind, a keen business sense and superior oratorical skills, James Dooley soon rose to prominence in the community and was elected to the Virginia Legislature serving from 1871 to 1877.
In business affairs, James Dooley and his Richmond associates were equally intent on building their own wealth, and stabilizing and developing the economy of their war-torn region. In 1880, as new board members of the Richmond and Danville, this group set about rebuilding and linking small, scattered rail lines. Eventually the Richmond and Danville reached into the deep South. Dooley also made major investments in the great Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel Company, and other ventures in the Birmingham area. He became a director of the Chesapeake and Ohio, and a leader in the founding of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad. Among his many diverse business ventures were the Richmond and West Point, Land, Navigation and Improvement Company; the West End Home Building Fund; the Richmond and St. Paul Land and Improvement Company; and Merchants National Bank.
Major Dooley’s leadership of various civic endeavors runs as a continuous thread through the history of Richmond, from the early 1870s through the early 1920s. Like his father before him, he was a faithful board member of St. Joseph’s Orphanage for over 50 years. He served on the board of the Medical College of Virginia and, in 1919, gave the funds for the construction of the Dooley Hospital. He became an officer of the Virginia Cooperative Education Association, which advocated universal public education. A gifted orator, Major Dooley rallied the community around many causes, including support for Irish famine victims. He was president of the Richmond Art Club for more than a decade and donated a building for exhibitions, art lessons and lectures. His letters to family members, his library and the contents of his home, all bespeak his love of art and his lifelong love of learning. He was a member of the Deep Run Hunt, the Westmoreland and the Commonwealth Clubs in Richmond. Frequently in New York City on business, he was a member of the Manhattan and University Clubs.
Major Dooley died on November 16, 1922 at Grace Hospital at the age of 81. He first was buried with his former Confederate comrades in Hollywood Cemetery, and later reinterred upon completion of the mausoleum at Maymont. Through the many bequests of his will, he became one of Richmond’s greatest benefactors. To St. Joseph’s Orphanage, he left three million dollars, the largest bequest ever received by a Roman Catholic charity in the U.S. up to that time. Upon his death, Richmonders learned that Maymont would be left to the City of Richmond as a park and museum subsequent to Mrs. Dooley’s death. Mrs. Dooley gave a half million dollars to build the Richmond Public Library as a memorial to her husband.
Sallie May Dooley, Daughter of the Old South
A descendant of several old Virginia families, Sarah (“Sallie”) O. May, the eighth of nine children, was born on July 23, 1846, in Lunenburg County at Locust Grove, the plantation of her mother’s parents, Peter and Sally Bacon Jones. Her father, Dr. Henry May, was born in Petersburg and was a descendant of Nathaniel Harrison of Brandon Plantation and Sir Edward Digges, one of the early royal governors of the colony (1655-58). Her mother, Julia Jones, died when she was no more than seven years old. Thereafter, she spent lengthy visits with her older, married sisters who resided in Staunton, Virginia. She married the promising young attorney James Dooley in 1869, and they began their life together in Richmond.
In 1886, the Dooleys acquired a tract of farmland along the James River. The childless couple, both in their forties, set about the transformation of the property. Soon it was recognized as a showplace that rivaled any of the new estates that were springing up throughout the country. Mrs. Dooley was an avid student of horticulture, and took an active role in planning Maymont’s gardens and overseeing their maintenance.
Sallie Dooley was also a writer, and her poetry and stories express both her passion for gardens and her love of the rural, antebellum world of her childhood. Her book, “Dem Good Ole Times,” published by Doubleday, Page and Co. in 1906 (second printing, 1916), is a collection of reflections and stories told from the perspective a former slave. In the local color tradition of 19th century fiction, the book is written in the black dialect of Southside Virginia that Mrs. Dooley knew from her childhood in Lunenburg County. Her book is an example of the romanticized literature of the Lost Cause.
In 1892, Mrs. Dooley became the founding regent of Virginia’s first chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Old Dominion Chapter. She was also a charter member of the Society of the Colonial Dames in the State of Virginia, a member of the Order of the Crown (Americans of royal descent), and a supporter of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and the Virginia Historical Society. Mrs. Dooley and her husband hosted lavish parties, several attended by hundreds of guests and catered by a New York firm. As prominent members of the community, the Dooleys took part in the important social gatherings of the city.
Sallie Dooley died at her summer home, Swannanoa, on September 5, 1925 at the age of 79. Her will included several sizable bequests: $500,000 to the Crippled Children’s Hospital, $500,000 to the Richmond Public Library and $250,000 to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. She designated that her jewels be sold to benefit Episcopal missions. As recommended by her husband, she left Maymont to the City of Richmond to be used as a public park and museum. It opened to the public in March 1926.