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The Remarkable Accomplishments of Lydia Moss Bradley

Bradley University Special Collections
Lydia Moss Bradley

Lydia Moss Bradley wore many hats during her 91-year life. She was a wife and mother. She was also business savvy, a philanthropist, and a pioneer - serving as the first woman director of First National Bank of Peoria before fulfilling her quest to create the higher education institution now known as Bradley University. 

As part of Women’s History Month, Kristin McHugh spoke with Barbra Kerns – a Lydia Moss Bradley scholar and Bradley University’s executive director of Learning Design and Technology – about the school’s founding and Mrs. Bradley’s life and legacy.

Barbra Kerns: It's quite remarkable if you think about it. Mrs. Bradley herself had gone and researched institutions to begin with. She traveled to Terre Haute, Ind., to Rose Polytechnic Institute to talk to Chauncey Rose back when he first created his institution that she found very appealing. When she was very interested in really pursuing that, she asked her business manager, William Hammond, to go do some additional investigative research. 

Credit Bradley University Special Collections
Lydia Moss Bradley with business manager William Hammond

He went up to Chicago and talk to William Rainey Harper, who was at that time president of the University of Chicago, and Harper actually came down to Peoria within a few days to talk to Mrs. Bradley at her home. And within a couple weeks, they had the university charter all sketched out. Within a few months, they had parceled out [and] identified the campus what it would look like. They had sought out a director to start leading the school. All of these meetings were happening in Mrs. Bradley's home.

Kristin McHugh: Obviously, Bradley University is her namesake in Peoria, but her footprint is much wider in Peoria and in central Illinois.

BK: Yes, and one of the things that I really can appreciate in Peoria is Laura Bradley Park. Mrs. Bradley was really kind of at the forefront in the donation of land, and she donated 100 acres to the city of Peoria and wanted it named Laura Bradley Park after her daughter. However, she also was concerned about the upkeep and sustainability and she sweetened the deal to the city of Peoria saying, “I will give you an extra 30 acres if you establish a park board.”

And that actually was the creation then that led to the creation of the Peoria Park District, which was [the] first park district in the state of Illinois. So that was one aspect in which her footprint was larger. Other things in which she had a hand were the start of St. Francis hospital. She offered property to get that started. The Children's Home. Also, churches. She gave money for the Universalist Church. She also was one to help the home for aged women. And then the Grand Opera House was another one. She invested $15,000 for the successful fundraiser to help keep the Grand Opera House going. Those were a few of the things that she was involved in.

KM: I went and looked at her Wikipedia page just out of curiosity and it describes her as a wealthy bank director and philanthropist – and I feel like that doesn't really describe her.

Credit Bradley University Special Collections
Lydia Moss Bradley sits on the porch of her Peoria home.

BK: Oh, not in the slightest. There's so much depth to her. I mean, you think about starting a university. In addition, she was one who was very active – she planted gardens, she canned food, she turned butter. Actually, there are stories that she turned butter during some of the meetings in her home. So yes, she's rather dichotomous as an individual.

KM: And yet some people describe her as being a bit of a recluse.

BK: She did have a reputation of being a recluse. I believe it was she was [a] very private person. And she didn't speak a lot. There are notes from biographers that really describe her as someone who was extremely concise. She got to the point, said exactly what she meant and then stopped talking. And sometimes that was even considered a little, little blunt.

KM: In today's standards, her accomplishments would be impressive. But in an era when women didn't even have the right to vote, it seems that her accomplishments are extraordinary.

Credit Bradley University Special Collections
Lydia Moss Bradley at the 1906 commencement convocation.

BK: Oh, yes, her accomplishments at the time were certainly extraordinary. She did not take lightly to just being the woman in the kitchen. She did not take lightly to women not having a say and involvement in the affairs of the day.

KM: Do we know how she would react to things like suffrage, the women's liberation movement and even the current #MeToo era?

BK: That's an interesting question. I would love to ask her that. To me and how she's portrayed, it seems as if she didn't let societal norms restrict what she felt she could do.

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