She donated her mansion to the church but then sued to get it back

Posted by | May 11, 2016

Alice Jane Meek (1877-1961) could trace her roots to members of pioneer families in Eastern Kentucky. Her resourcefulness emerged early when, amid serious competition, she wooed and wed a teacher from a one-room schoolhouse in Van Lear who had been her instructor.

She bore John C.C. Mayo —“Calhoun” to her— two children, John C.C. 2nd and Mary Margaret. A highly focused woman, Alice contributed greatly to the rise and success of the man who became the wealthiest man in Kentucky by the time of his death. He was a pioneer in the development of the coal industry in the Big Sandy Valley.

Mrs. Mayo traveled with her husband as he met with local landowners to acquire their coal interests. She would often speak with the wives and work out deals for the interests behind the scenes. Her nicknames of “Alkie Jane” and “Alka” were well known, and Mr. Mayo named a steamboat after her that was misspelled as “Thealka” rather than “The Alka.” When the steamer was built in 1899, Alka Mayo became president of the Paintsville and Catlettsburg Packet Co., which operated the boats.

Steamboat ThealkaThe Thealka, classified as a batwing boat due to the position of her paddle wheels. Instead of a single stern paddle wheel, she was equipped with two smaller side wheels, set well towards the stern of the boat. Photo undated.

In 1906 the North East Coal Company had created Muddy Branch, an unincorporated community in Johnson County, but in 1911, renamed it “Thealka” after the steamboat.

Alka worked hard to develop the public relations of Calhoun’s enterprises and helped to get railroads to Pike County to move the coal to market. From 1905 to 1912 she spent a great deal of time directing construction of the couple’s new three-story mansion in Paintsville, KY.

By 1913 the Mayos were comfortable enough to take a lengthy tour of Europe. They’d already traveled together to New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago and Minneapolis. Soon after their return from Europe, however, Mr. Mayo learned that he had Bright’s Disease, which in 1914 was incurable. He consulted physicians in Cincinnati, where he was briefly hospitalized. He was eventually moved to New York City in search of the most eminent doctors, but to no avail, and he died in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on May 11, 1914.

After her first husband’s death in 1914, a distraught Alice moved to Florida. In 1916 she met Dr. Samuel P Fetter of Portsmouth, OH when he was recuperating from an illness in Palm Beach, where she frequently visited. He was a bachelor several years her junior, whose “mother presides over his household.” The couple married at his friend Cyrus Preston’s home, and moved to Ashland, KY in 1917. They purchased a Victorian home there, but due to war rations, were not allowed to build a new house.

Mayo residence and S.V. Seminary, Paintsville, KY. Undated photo, courtesy New Country 98.9 WSIP

Mayo residence and S.V. Seminary, Paintsville, KY. Undated photo, courtesy New Country 98.9 WSIP


Alice received permission to “remodel” and henceforth rebuild almost the entire house. During this period she became a director of the Mayo Companies. Before the marriage, she had formed the Mrs. John C.C. Mayo Company, transferred all the property of the estate to this corporation, and divided the stock between her children. She donated the Mayo home and land to Sandy Valley Seminary. In 1918 the grounds and buildings of Sandy Valley Seminary were acquired by the Methodist Episcopal Church/South, and its name changed to John C. C. Mayo College.

The marriage to Dr. Fetter only lasted 4 years. He was 37 when he died. Like his predecessor, he had gone to New York just months before his death in hopes of finding a cure for his illness, but was similarly diagnosed as incurable. Alice, “for business reasons related to the administration of the properties and enterprises inherited from the late John C. C. Mayo,” changed her last name legally back to Mayo, reported the Paintsville Herald in 1927.

After years of financial struggle the Methodist Church Conference reluctantly closed Sandy Valley Seminary in 1928. A bitter legal battle promptly erupted between the Conference and Mrs. Mayo over ownership of the properties; she claimed that “the purposes having failed, title to the lands had reverted to and was vested in her as the surviving donor;” the Conference disagreed. Mrs. Mayo eventually won ‘Board of Missions of Methodist Episcopal Church v. Mayo’ and received undisputed title to the school property in 1936.

She then sold the house and property to E. J. Evans, a friend and employee of John Mayo. Mr. Evans leased the mansion and other buildings. In 1938, Paintsville bought the Mayo College property and the Kentucky General Assembly created and opened the Mayo Vocational School.

In 1945, Mr. Evans sold the mansion and grounds to the Most Reverend William T. Mulloy, Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Covington, KY, and his successors in office. Under the guidance of the Sisters of Divine Providence from Melbourne, KY, Our Lady of the Mountains was opened in October, 1945. It is currently under the auspices of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, KY. Alice Meek Mayo died in Ashland on Sept 5, 1961 and was buried behind the Mayo mansion in Paintsville.

sources: The Kentucky Encyclopedia, by John E. Kleber

Ashland Daily Independent, Front Page September 5, 1961
Board of Missions of Methodist Episcopal Church v. Mayo
A standard history of the Hanging Rock iron region of Ohio: an …, Volume 2 edited by Eugene B. Willard et al.
New York Times, March 19, 1921, page 11, “Samuel P Fetter Dead”

7 Responses

  • Jesse says:

    This is my husbands great grandmother! Really interesting stuff! There’s a lot of information out there about John CC Mayo, but this is the first I’ve ever seen about his wife. Very cool.

  • Leigh Ann says:

    Very cool indeed. Alice Mayo is my Great grandmother Thelma Meek’s sister. Their father was Warren Maitland Meek. My father was named after him.

  • Brian Daley says:

    Great article! John CC was my great great uncle! Fun tracking down this history!

  • michael says:

    Mr. Mayo invented the concept of a land owner selling the mineral rights to his property. Thus, poor folk in eastern Kentucky could keep their land, but Mayo owned the rights to the underground coal. The results were ruined farms and families who were paid pennies for their coal, and a very wealthy Mr. Mayo.

  • freda says:

    Just because Mr. Mayo invented the concept. The land owners sold their rights. Everyone needs to be held accountable for their own actions. And no I’m not related to him!

  • David meek says:

    Alice J Meek (Mayo) was a daughter to Greenville Meek. You should get your facts straight.

  • Dave Tabler says:

    Thanks for the correction, David.

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