As Mother’s Day approaches, we pause to honor and remember the courageous women who love, nurture, and mentor us, or who have done so in our past. There is a Claremore woman for whom I am eternally grateful, a mother who, odd as it may seem, I have never met. One hundred years separate the dates of our births, and, as far as I know, we are not related. Yet still, a century-and-a-half later, she challenges my convictions and inspires my love of Claremore’s people and its history.
This woman’s husband was highly esteemed in Claremore’s infancy, yet he never actually took up permanent residence in this place. This capable woman lived in the quiet shadows of her husband’s popularity and his many business successes. No book has been written to share this lady’s story, yet in her own quiet way, she was an unwavering force, the glue that held her large family together. She was, in-deed, grace in a wilderness of overwhelming circumstances.
A true pioneer woman, she was born in Bell County, Texas, on November 26, 1856. After surviving the heartbreak of the Civil War, at age 12, she migrated with her family to Cassville, Missouri (1868). It was in Cassville that she met and married (May 22, 1879) her former school teacher, a widower with a one-year-old daughter. In Cassville, this tireless mother raised her large family – step-daughter Francis; daughter Bland; sons Guy, Earle, Ross, Bourke, and Wayne. Perhaps by now, you recognize that my Mother’s Day hero is Mrs. Mary Melissa Bayless, wife of John Melville Bayless, and the former first lady of Claremore’s Belvidere Mansion.
During the children’s formative years, husband John traveled extensively throughout Missouri, Arkansas, Indian Territory (I.T., now Oklahoma), and Texas building railroads, establishing banks, buying and developing real estate, while supporting the financial needs of his family. Mary took on the crucial role of caring for the home and nurturing the children.
At midlife, John and Mary Bayless, who were weary of John’s wide-range travels, sold their Cassville home. That March 1907, they broke ground for their new home, Belvidere, and prepared to relocate to Claremore, I.T. [CP 3-23-2907]. But before Belvidere was finished, John Bayless died tragically of complications from a ruptured appendix.
One wonders how Mary Bayless endured the trauma. Her husband and former home were gone. Her new home in Claremore was under construction. Persevering through it all, Mary and her children were settled into Belvidere by Christmas.
Despite her grief, Mary Bayless continued her lifelong work, nurturing her children, caring for her home, reaching out into her community with beneficial acts of service, and investing in the lives of others.
Filling her widowed years with meaningful purpose, Mary continued as a stockholder and a director of the family’s Bank of Claremore. She joined: the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union becoming W.C.T.U. Vice President; the Charity Organization being elected its president; the Home Economics Club becoming its first vice president; the Quest Club; the Eastern Star; the Ladies’ Charity Association; the Red Cross, Unit 10; and the Community Welfare Board.
Mary, an active church member, assisted in the building campaign of Claremore’s First Baptist Church, “an institution she loved and worked faithfully in.” [CP 6-7-1928]. She entertained The Baptist Ladies’ Aid in her home and served as hostess to the Woman’s Baptist Missionary Society (W.B.M.S) becoming its president in 1918. A regular delegate/ attendee to the District and National Baptist Conventions, Mary traveled to Sapulpa, Dewey, and the Emanuel Baptist Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma; as well as across the United States to Atlanta, Georgia; Washington, D.C.; and Jacksonville, Florida, on church business. While in Florida, she even took a side trip to Cuba!
Mary traveled extensively to Colorado, California, Canada, and Missouri; to Commerce and later Miami, Oklahoma, to visit son Ross and family; to Norman, Oklahoma, where her younger sons attended the University of Oklahoma; to Houston, Texas, to visit Wayne and family; and to Newport, Rhode Island, to visit her son Bourke, who was stationed there during WWI, serving the U.S. Navy in the Mosquito fleet.
But life was hard; Mary Bayless suffered not only the loss of her husband, but three children preceded her in death. Too large to manage, July 1919, Mrs. Bayless left her beloved Belvidere, six months after Earle’s death, to reside in a smaller home on East Second Street [CP 7-24-1919]. Ironically, Belvidere was turned into a hospital thereafter.
Remembered as “a quiet, retiring sort of woman, but her life was filled with kind deeds,” June 7, 1928, at age 72, The Claremore Daily Progress sadly informed the community, “Another of Claremore’s Christian women has been called to the home of the Father, after a lifetime of labor and love. Mrs. Mary M. Bayless died at the home of her son, Bourke H. Bayless, on East Fourth Street, at 3:45 Thursday morning, June 7th, following an attack of the flu which resulted in pneumonia complications. The end came quietly with moments of consciousness, although she did not recognize even members of the family in the last hours.”
The Claremore Messenger added, “With the death of Mrs. Bayless, the community suffers a distinct loss. She has been a resident of Claremore for some 20 years, and during that time has been an earnest worker in the church and was interested at all times in civic enterprises and in the betterment of Claremore.”
In a Claremore Progress interview, September 13, 1992, Mary Bayless’s granddaughter recalled, “Grandma Bayless was a very small woman about five-foot-three, blond hair and the most beautiful blue eyes… She was the kindest woman that ever lived.”
So, what is the point of resurrecting Mrs. Bayless’s story? I wish there was more space to share all the details of her magnanimous goodwill toward others despite her own suffering. Mary’s name is derived from the Hebrew word “Mara” a word meaning “bitter.” It is the name an ancient Hebrew woman, Naomi, gave herself when she suffered similar overwhelming tragedies in life - the death of her husband and two grown children and the removal to a new home because of these dire circumstances. Mrs. Bayless could have given in to such bitterness; instead, she reached out in quiet strength and kindness to those in need in her community. Because of her own suffering, she had the credibility to help others who suffered.
Mary Bayless brought grace to the wilderness of early day Claremore. The Lord only knows the far-reaching effects of the good works and the random acts of kindness this pioneer mother performed in her lifetime. We would do well to follow Mrs. Bayless’s example. We would do well to go and do likewise.
Christa Rice is a Claremore history enthusiast and a columnist for Claremore Progress.