Annie Burr Jennings: Philanthropist 1855-1939
Annie B. Jennings used the wealth she had inherited to benefit the town of Fairfield. Jennings spent her early years in San Francisco, where her father had gone to make his fortune during the gold rush. The family returned to Fairfield in the 1860s, and soon became extraordinarily wealthy through an investment in the Rockfellers’ Standard Oil Company. They were able to live a life of leisure, divided between elaborate townhouses on New York’s Upper East Side and estates in Fairfield.
Jennings was instrumental in establishing and supporting a number of important community institutions, including the Fairfield Historical Society (now the Fairfield Museum) and the Fairfield Public Library. She donated land for the town’s first high school, as well as for the Birdcraft Sanctuary and the American Legion. She opened up the extensive gardens at her Fairfield estate (known as Sunnieholme) to the public, and she left the land now known as Jennings Beach to the town. She was organizing the town’s 300th anniversary celebration when she died. Her philanthropy as well as her social influence in town earned her the title “First Lady of Fairfield.”
Jennings was dedicated to preserving colonial and Revolutionary-era history, and was involved in the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, as well as in the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. In addition to her contributions to the Fairfield Historical Society, she collected items related to her distant ancestor Aaron Burr.
Although she had been opposed to woman suffrage, she was accustomed to having a voice in town affairs and politics, and exerted influence within the Republican Party. She was active in efforts to repeal Prohibition during the 1930s, and served as a delegate to the convention ratifying its repeal.
She did not attend college herself, but had a deep loyalty to Yale University. When she organized special parties to attend Yale football games and boat races, Sunnieholme would be decorated with Yale banners and goalposts. Before departing on a private railroad car to watch the race, lunch guests were entertained by a parrot trained to say “boola boola!” and offered ice cream shaped in a bulldog mold.