She was "Mother" to them All
Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke was born in Knox County, near Mount
Vernon, Ohio, on July 19, 1817, to Hiram and Annie Cassady Ball. Her
father was a farmer. Her mother died when she was just seventeen months
old. Hiram, now a widower, was overwhelmed and grieving. He sent
Bickerdyke to live with her elderly grandparents who farmed in Richland
County. Upon their deaths, she went to live with her uncle, Henry Rodgers,
on his farm in Hamilton County, Ohio. She had a very limited, basic
education and her childhood was difficult as she was being shifted from
relative to relative.
At the age of sixteen, Mary Ann moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where some
accounts say she worked in the home of a professor as a domestic. She
attended Oberlin College, one of the few institutions of higher education
open to a woman at that time in the United States, but did not graduate.
She received training as a nurse in Cincinnati where she worked assisting
doctors during the cholera epidemics of 1837 and 1849, which took thousands of lives. The 1849 epidemic took Harriet Beecher Stowe’s infant son. Mary Ann was also an early abolition activist who transported escaping slaves in a wagon.
In April of 1847, she married Robert Bickerdyke, a sign painter and
musician. He was a widower with three children. In 1849 she gave birth
to their first child, John, who lived for only a few minutes. Later, they
had two sons, James and Hiram and a daughter, Martha, who died when
she was two.
After only 12 years of marriage, Robert died suddenly in 1860, the same
year she lost little Martha, leaving Mary Ann to support the remaining
family. Shortly after Robert’s death, she moved to Galesburg, Illinois,
where she was a member of the Congregational Church. She opened a