It wasn’t so long ago, in the long run of things, that to get a look inside Fonthill, all you had to do was knock.

You’d be taking your chances, of course. My mother, as a teenager, repeatedly made the pilgrimage up from the city, fingers crossed, hoping that this time Laura Long Swain would let her in.

From the early 1900s until 1974, Henry Mercer employed Mrs. Swain as a combination housekeeper, secretary and associate at the fairytale castle he had built for himself. Like a maiden from a story, Laura was just a “raven-haired teenager” when she began her employ.

Mercer arranged her marriage to Frank King Swain, the manager of Mercer’s Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, out of convenience. When Mercer died in 1930, he willed the couple lifetime residency, and Laura and Frank stayed on at Fonthill.

Laura continued to live there alone after Frank’s death in 1954, giving (or denying) tours as she wished. In October of 1974, at age 86 and after a lifetime spent on Mercer’s property, Laura entered Doylestown Manor Convalescent Home.

In a January, 1975 interview, just months before her death, Mrs. Swain unapologetically defended her seemingly random method for permitting tourists to traipse through her home. “They don’t allow anyone to go through unless I say.” she said, “And how many people know what to see? You have to be someone who can tell them what it’s about, and I have to prepare you before you go through … you’re so young … you have lots of time.”