Lydia Moss Bradley Biography

Lydia Moss Bradley

Lydia Moss Bradley was a small but sturdy woman shaped by the pioneer spirit of the time. A woman with pluck and energy, she approached life with unfailing practicality and purpose, always seeking ways to benefit others while she accumulated a fortune through pursuits considered unconventional for a woman of her time.

W.W. Hammond, Lydia Moss Bradley’s business manager for about 25 years, described her in his “Review of Mrs. Bradley’s Life and Business:”

“The Founder of the [Bradley Polytechnic] Institute, the Mother of the Bradley Home, the donor of Bradley Park and of Bradley Memorial Church, a banker, farmer, real estate, dealer, born of very moderate circumstances, a generous giver all her life, the possessor in her old age of millions honestly acquired, a faithful wife and mother, industrious and economical yet always neighborly, kind-hearted, and sympathetic; unassuming, modest, and retiring; untouched by the vanity of riches…”

Mrs. Bradley lived frugally, but comfortably, in a tastefully decorated Peoria home at 802 W. Moss Avenue. She usually wore long black dresses with silver belt buckles and bonnets adorned with flowers. Her hair was braided and twisted into a bun on top of her head.

Lydia Moss Bradley's home

She enjoyed spending the day in her old-fashioned flower garden, where she grew lilies, lilacs, tulips, and her favorite—roses. Even as a wealthy, elderly widow, Mrs. Bradley churned butter, made lard and preserved meat. She could spin yarn, make clothing, bedding and carpets, and prepare plenty of food for anyone who stopped by. When Bradley students brought her messages from Bradley administration, she usually offered them milk and cookies.

Born July 31, 1816, in Vevay, Indiana, she was one of six children born to Zeally and Jenny Glasscock Moss. Her ancestors were among the first to come to America, and one of them was a pallbearer at George Washington’s funeral.

Her entrepreneurial ways emerged as a teenager, when she traded a horse her father had given to buy a tract of timberland. After clearing the land, she sold the logs to a local sawmill run by Tobias Bradley. Her ingenuity and beauty caught Mr. Bradley’s eye, and they were married on May 11, 1837. The groom wore a suit that the bride had woven from shredded aprons and dresses.

The couple moved to Peoria about 10 years later. By then, Mrs. Bradley had accumulated several acres of land, and Tobias was a successful businessman. Mrs. Bradley sold her land when they moved to Peoria, and the couple used the proceeds to buy land on Peoria’s west bluff, part of which she later donated for today’s Bradley campus.

While the couple thrived financially, they faced a series of tragedies with the deaths of their six children: Rebecca and Clarissa at about age four, Tobias, Jr. at seven months, Laura at age 14, Mary at 10 months, and William at two. The causes of their deaths are unknown.

First Nantional Bank of Peoria

The Bradleys considered founding an orphanage in memory of their children, but after visiting one, they decided against it. Tragedy struck again just three years after Laura’s death when Mr. Bradley was killed in a horse and buggy accident in 1867.

Suddenly, Mrs. Bradley was left with an estate valued at $500,000 at a time when women had no voting rights and were not considered equals in the business world.

After a brief marriage to Edward Clark in 1869 and a friendly divorce three years later, Mrs. Bradley faced life equipped with the finances, generosity and business acumen needed to made an indelible mark on Peoria and Bradley University.

Mrs. Bradley inherited stock in First National Bank of Peoria, which her husband had founded and was its first president. Soon she was the first woman to serve on the board of a national bank in Illinois and possibly the United States.

She also managed rentals for several properties in Peoria and began to subdivide her land in Peoria.

W.W. Hammond with Lydia Moss Bradley

Mrs. Bradley’s estate had nearly doubled by the time she employed Hammond as her business manager in 1885. From then to 1897, Mrs. Bradley added $1 million to her estate, finding innovative ways to make money and benefit others simultaneously.

She was involved with several land reclamation efforts, always leaving the land in better condition than she found it. For example, she was instrumental in promoting the drainage of the Manito Marsh, where she held land. The land was farmed with poor results, and a soil analysis revealed the land was rich but lacked potash. Mrs. Bradley learned that kainit, a potash salt from Germany, had been useful at other drained marsh sites and ordered a carload. It was spread on 100 acres of land and proved successful, helping the entire neighborhood. Soon, land that had sold for $10 an acre was selling for $140 an acre.

Just as her business acumen always included an eye for improvement, so did her philanthropies. She helped lay the groundwork by donating land and funds for today’s Children’s Home, Universalist Church, OSF Saint Francis Medical Center and Laura Bradley Park. She financed the building of the Bradley Home for Aged Women, and when there were insufficient funds to keep it open, she paid for the residents’ entry to the newly built Proctor Home.

Bradley Hall

As Mrs. Bradley helped build these important facilities in Peoria, she still remembered the conversations she and her husband had about building a fitting tribute to their children. She initially decided to leave the land and funds to build a school in her will, but Dr. William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago, convinced her to proceed with a school in her lifetime. Mrs. Bradley’s channeled her love and generosity into the founding of Bradley Polytechnic Institute (BPI) in 1897.

The Institute was more than a center for higher learning in Mrs. Bradley’s eyes. It was her foster child. She attentively nurtured BPI through its infancy, setting a firm foundation for today’s Bradley University. Her goal was to create a school where young adults could learn to lead purposeful lives. Today’s 70,000 alumni are proof that she succeeded.