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Prescott Park Created by Millionaire Sisters


Trask meets Prescott  

Every nickel of it came from their older brother Charles E. Prescott. As a young man, Charles became the business protégé of William B. Trask, a very successful retailer. How Trask hooked up with Prescott is still not clear. Trask came from Massachusetts to work as a clerk in a dry goods store in Portsmouth before the Civil War. He quickly took over the company. He married Miss Susie Walker, the only daughter of a Portsmouth mayor. Like Portsmouth ale tycoon Frank Jones, Trask bought his way out of military service and grew his business rapidly during the profitable war years. 

By the time of his marriage to Susie in 1865, Trask was partner in a successful dry goods company in Boston. Charles Prescott, growing up with his two sisters just off the infamous Water Street (now Marcy) was just a high school freshman at the time. Portsmouth historian Raymond Brighton, author of The Prescott Story, was unable to pinpoint exactly how Trask met Prescott. Yet by 1877 the two were partners in a very successful retail business in Erie, Pennsylvania. Charles Prescott, like his two sisters, never married. He dedicated himself to business and lived for much of his life with the Trasks in their sprawling mansion in Erie. Both men worked hard, invested wisely and grew wealthy. When Trask died in 1916, Charles and Mrs. Susie Trask, the two Portsmouth natives, lived on together in the Erie mansion. 

In 1927 the Trask & Prescott retail chain celebrated its 50th anniversary. In November 1932 Charles Prescott, then 79-years old and dying, entered an Erie hospital.  His assets totaled nearly $3 million and here the story takes a twist that changed the face of Portsmouth


Contesting the Will  

Although he survived only a few days at Hamot Hospital, Charles Prescott abruptly decided to leave the bulk of his fortune to the Hamot and its sister hospital. His deathbed will was scrawled on a sheet of notepaper – in someone else’s handwriting -- and witnessed by Charles’ doctor and nurse. In a faint childlike scrawl at the bottom of the page are the letters "C-h-a-r-l" followed by a large "X". Did the dying Mr. Prescott change his will, or was he coerced? Was he mentally competent or even alive at the signing?

Charles_DaleNext to the signature on the document someone wrote "his mark."  Despite the strange conditions surrounding this will -- that also gave two of Prescott's partners $100,000 each -- it was accepted for probate in Erie. An earlier will from 1927, granting the bulk of his estate to his sisters in Portsmouth, was thrown out by the local Pennsylvania court. 

Enter Charles Milby Dale.  Exactly how the Prescott sisters selected Dale as their attorney is not known. Dale had come to Portsmouth during World War I, married a local woman and set up a law practice. He had served as the city's mayor. Josie and Mary Prescott, historian Ray Brighton makes clear in his book-length account, were never entirely cut out of their brother's will. Even the deathbed note allowed them the interest income from millions of dollars in the middle of the Depression. But good was not good enough for the sisters and their attorney. 

The Prescott sisters sent Dale to Erie with orders to break their brother's alleged deathbed will. In a bitter encounter Erie lawyers argued that Charles had been inspired during his dying days to support the hospital's charitable work with the poor. Dale argued that Pennsylvania law strictly prohibited dying bequests made to charitable institutions. Dale was correct. The probate judge, clearly annoyed, was forced to honor the earlier 1927 will. 

The Erie judge appended a plea that the Prescott sisters might show charity to the city where their elder brother had earned his fortune and lived for half a century. They didn't. Attorney Dale returned home triumphant with a court decision worth $2,752,693. His personal fee, historian Brighton speculates, was probably a million dollars. He went on to become a two-term governor of New Hampshire

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Friday, February 23, 2018 
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