Voices From the Past: Mary Yearsley-Memories of a Philanthropist
By Rachel Mulick, CCHM Intern
(This week we continue our series “Voices From the Past” which highlights individual recordings from important historical figures in Champaign County. Direct quotations from the recording are in bolded text. This interview was recorded on November 11th, 1977.To listen to the original audio recording of Mary Yearsley and view our complete oral history collection at https://www.champaigncountyhistory.org/oralhistory)
Mary Yearsley was born August 7th, 1898 on Main St. in Urbana. Like many Champaign residents, Yearsley’s family owned and farmed on a small tract of land. She recalled the dirt pavement on Main Street, and how her father would pasture his cow along the road. Main Street is not the only part of Urbana that has changed since those days. Yearsley noted that Crystal Lake used to be much wider, and that the park housed a log cabin. The bridges at Homer Park and Lake of the Woods during her youth are no longer standing.
Before Brownfield Woods was enclosed, Yearsley enjoyed walking there, and she would look for her “favorite spots where we knew certain flowers grew like Violets and Johnny Jumpups”. Illinois Theater, where her eighth-grade graduation was held, had been converted into an apartment building. The home that Yearsley’s parents built, however, is still standing and was listed as a historic site by the Champaign County Bicentennial Commission.
“Yearsley-Brookens house” by Charles Webster, Champaign County History Museum
Rather than the single school-room we often envision, Yearsley attended Lincoln School which had a room for each of the 8 grades. Yearsley regularly attended Lincoln School, but traveled to Thornburn School for home economics courses. Until high school, this was one of the only times she interacted with students from different schools. Yearsley graduated from Urbana High School in 1917. Some classes offered there were Latin, German, botany, and zoology. Outside of class, “we [teenagers] would get together… for Halloween parties and other entertainment in connection with some High School and some Church.” For fun Yearsley would also go for ice cream at Sol Ryman’s confectionery or go downtown to see a band on Saturday nights. Sometimes there was even rooftop dancing at Robeson’s grocery store. On Sundays Yearsley might go for a drive with her father or uncle.
An exciting event every year was the County Fair. Families from around Urbana would convene to see the attractions, which according to Yearsley consisted of “ mostly exhibits of farm produce… and all kinds of animals… [There would also] be Italian people who would sing and Spanish entertainers, and Mexican [musicians], and then they would have classes for children to learn to swing dumbbells and do all kinds of crafts.” The Chautauqua, a group that traveled America with performances and lectures, also came to the county fair. They would set up in Crystal Lake Park for a few days before moving on.
Charitable works were an important part of Yearsley’s every-day life. She remembered Mrs. Sale, mother of her close friend Virginia Sale, as particularly proactive. She would collect clothing and food for children in need; many of these children lived on what was known as ‘Criminal Hill’ in North Urbana. Yearsley’s mother was active in a program called ‘Home Missionary’; “they would pack barrels of clothing to send away to people who were in need”. Locally, many women would sew for the children of Cunningham Home, an orphanage in the area. The group came to be known as the Busy 15.
When it came to shopping, most of Yearsley’s groceries were delivered: “The meat was delivered as I remember by a boy who had a two wheeled cart and he could stand on the back of it and the dogs would bark at this little cart.” Milk was delivered by the milkman, and the family would telephone in for other goods. Yearsley remembers, however, being taken to the meat market with her father, which had “this great big round table where they chopped meat and they had some sections of meat hanging, and then they [had] a barrel of pickles and a barrel of oysters.” Yearsley’s family had live-in maids and a visiting housekeeper that would help with tasks like cooking, cleaning, and ordering the groceries.
Yearsley settled in Urbana, but left a few times as a young woman. She occasionally took the car for camping trips, and would ride the train with her mother to visit relatives. When she was 18 Yearsley traveled with a few other students to Portland, Maine, where she stayed for many months. Despite her many travels, Yearsley chose to return to Champaign County. “I had traveled around; I’d been in Michigan and the East and out in California, and finally I came back because my roots are here.”
Mary Yearsley's Photo in the 1925 Illio Yearbook
Yearsley carried on supporting charities and philanthropic organizations for the rest of her life, building up a multifaceted resume. According to the News-Gazette, Mary was the assistant field director of the American Red Cross at Scottsfield. She was on the board of trustees for Cunningham Children's Home and also played a crucial role in the planning commission for the Clark Lindsay Village.
Mary went on to be active in the Champaign County Historical Society, and its successor organization the Champaign County Historical Museum. She served on the board of directors for the museum from 1974-1978. Yearsley passed away on August 2nd, 1979. After her death a charitable trust was established in her name.
(If you found this recording interesting, and would like to see what other oral histories the Champaign County History Museum has to offer, then please check out our oral history page on our website:https://www.champaigncountyhistory.org/oralhistory )