Mary Leas Washington Sheppard was a woman who made a significant impact on Middleton Place in the twentieth century. She was born in Charleston on October 15, 1906, and at age seventeen went to work as a cook for Judge Henry Augustus Middleton Smith and his wife Emma Rutledge (both Middleton descendants) in their house at 26 Meeting Street.
The household also included the Smith’s son J.J. Pringle Smith, his wife Heningham, and their young daughter Josephine. A few years later, Pringle Smith inherited Middleton Place from his cousin Elizabeth (Lillie) Middleton Heyward, but the family only occupied it part of the year. Following Judge Smith’s death, Pringle and his family began to spend more time at Middleton Place in 1925, and took Mary with them to the country.
Mary was supposed to assist and understudy Annette Mays, the elderly cook who was born enslaved and had been at Middleton Place since antebellum days, but, according to Mary, Annette considered her a “young upstart and intruder.” Despite Annette, Mary established herself as an accomplished cook. She was interested in trying new methods and new recipes and worked with “Miss Henny” to improve or invent special dishes, several of which were later featured in magazines and cookbooks. However, a menu of typical Low Country dishes was always popular, especially with the many guests who came to Middleton Place from other parts of the country.
One of the most illustrious visitors to tour the Gardens and join Mrs. Smith for tea was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Not only did Mary prepare the light repast but she also served the ladies. The First Lady complimented her on the benne cookies and asked how she made them. “I tried to tell her,” Mary later remembered, “but you just can’t tell a person exactly how you make something…because I never measured things… and it’s kind of hard to judge heat when you’re cooking on a wood stove.”
Soon after she came to Middleton Place, Mary met and married fellow employee Thomas Sheppard. They resided in a house Mr. Smith built for them near the stableyards. Thomas died in 1946, and Mary’s only son, St. Julian Brown, died in 1989. Mary, however, cared for five generations of her own family and equally as many of Judge Smith’s family.
A vital link to the plantation’s early twentieth-century history, Mary Sheppard died on May 11, 1994, in the place she lived for sixty-eight years, her house in the Stableyards at Middleton Place.