On November 23, 1986, an article appeared in the Lancaster Sunday News entitled “A Feisty Feminist Turns 100.”
This told the story – at least part of it – of Bessie Hayles, born the eldest of 12 children on a farm in Honey Brook, PA. What makes her story interesting is the trail she blazed from Honey Brook to Park Ridge and back again to Pennsylvania in that space of time (and she would go on to live another four years).
As a young woman, Bessie worked as a trained nurse, seeing her patients through childbirth, typhoid fever, and flu epidemics. She joined the women’s suffrage movement, worked with Susan B. Anthony, and never missed an election after women won the right to vote in 1920. She prided herself on picking a large percentage of winners – her first choice for President being Warren G. Harding and her last George H.W. Bush.
Loving children but unable to have any of her own, she helped found and lead organizations like the Camp Fire Girls. She also worked with countless others during times of war and peace, including the Welfare Board, the American Legion, the Red Cross, and the League of Women Voters.
Along the way, she picked up a bemused but devoted husband, Frank Spensely Hayles, an English immigrant who became a naturalized citizen.
Bessie and Frank eventually moved to Park Ridge, and, not surprisingly, one stumbles across evidence of her involvement in almost every conceivable aspect of town life. She was one of the founding members of the Friends of the Park Ridge Public Library and served on the Library Board. She also served on the Park Ridge Improvement Club and the Community Church Circle. She directed pageants, organized mail sales, and helped plant flowers all around the city. During the war, she was the Chairman of the Committee on War Relief Activity and Morale, which sponsored activities such as “home nursing, knitting, quilting, sewing, scrapbooks, speakers, and law observation.”
Scrapbooks were apparently one of Bessie’s favorite projects. She kept several during WWII, many of them now in the Library’s Heritage Room archives. They include correspondence related to Red Cross and other efforts, advertisements, memorabilia, and news articles. We’ve pulled several of these items out for the July display occupying the Library’s 2nd floor cases.
In June, 1982, Bessie composed – in careful but shaky handwriting – a letter to Loraine Murray, who was working then on a history of Park Ridge. Bessie was 96 at the time, and joked about trying to remember the details of her life in Park Ridge, although she added, “Park Ridge memories give me many happy thoughts.”
“Park Ridge is home to me,” Bessie wrote, “where Mr. Hayles and I lived 28 years, on 501 Vine Ave., with only 2500 people and farms all around us.”
Later, when she was interviewed for the article on her centennial, Bessie was naturally asked the secret of her longevity. She did not mince words.
“It’s not that my health is so good. I’ve had intestinal cancer and kidney problems, and about a half dozen operations. It’s more that I fight things that could get me down.
“Some people come to a home and do nothing but eat and sleep. But I stay active. I make my own bed every morning. I walk to the dining room by myself. Some people let the least little thing get them right down. But me, I do things for myself.”
Bessie died in Pennsylvania on March 13, 1991, yet her body was returned to Park Ridge and now lies in the Town of Maine Cemetery.
To see some pictures and other items from Bessie Hayles scrapbooks, check out our display on the 2nd Floor, running through July.