Extraordinary women of Meadow Brook for Womens History Month.

Extraordinary Women of Meadow Brook

In honor of Women’s History Month, Meadow Brook Hall is showcasing several of the fascinating women who once lived here. This year, we are exploring Meadow Brook’s matriarch, Matilda Dodge Wilson, along with her youngest daughter Barbara (Wilson) Eccles and her beautician and confidant Mary Mathews.

For more stories of Meadow Brook, visit the History at the Hall series.

Matilda Dodge Wilson

Matilda Dodge Wilson created Meadow Brook Hall and founded Oakland University.Matilda Dodge Wilson was a woman with determination and ambition through her life that would see tragedy and triumph. As a self-made businesswoman, a mother, and natural leader, Matilda found many avenues to use her skills and time to empower women in her communities.

Born from first-generation German immigrants, Matilda was determined to make a respectable life for herself. She graduated from Gorsline Business College with skills in typing and shorthand, as well as business and financial management. In a time where about 30% of women could find suitable paying jobs, Matilda got a job working for John and Horace Dodge who were impressed by her savvy skills and precise organization Matilda brought to the office.

Matilda Dodge Wilson created Meadow Brook Hall and founded Oakland University.In 1920, Matilda was left a widow with three kids of her own, Frances, Daniel, and Anna Margaret Dodge. She later married Alfred Wilson and began life anew, adding to the family with their adopted children Richard and Barabra Wilson. Together they built the legacy of Meadow Brook Estate and founded Oakland University through their mission of furthering education and community outreach.

Matilda took charge of many roles on the Meadow Brook Estate as well as in the local and international community. At home, she was a leader of Meadow Brook Farms, a prized breeder of Belgian horses, and managed her house like one of the many businesses she worked with in Detroit.

Matilda Dodge Wilson created Meadow Brook Hall and founded Oakland University.In her local community Matilda was President of the Women’s Auxiliary to the Salvation Army for 24 years, helping to expand community outreach and tackle issues concerning women and children in the Detroit Metropolitan Area. Her efforts contributed to build and expand the Evangeline Residence in 1933, a subsidized apartment building for working young women, and the Denby Children’s Home in 1931, a home for unwed mothers and orphans.

Matilda Dodge Wilson created Meadow Brook Hall and founded Oakland University.
Matilda, surrounded by her grandchildren, at her 80th birthday party at Meadow Brook Hall.

In 1930, Matilda served as the treasurer of the National Council of Women, an organization that worked for women’s rights founded by Susan B. Anthony. In this position Matilda served as a delegate from the U.S at the Council of Women International Conference in Vienna where about 800 women from 40 different countries met to plan and advise ways of helping women and children all over the world.

Whether canning fruits and vegetables from her farm or sitting as Chairman of the Board, Matilda was an active and determined civil servant to her community. She led by example and there was no one more motivated and hard working to her mission of charity and philanthropy than herself. Matilda Dodge Wilson is a woman with an inspiring legacy to be honored at Meadow Brook Hall and Oakland University.

Barbara (Wilson) Eccles

Barbara WilsonOne of the starring women of Meadow Brook Hall is Barbara (Wilson) Eccles. Although Barbara is often remembered as a sweet debutant, her life tells an inspiring story of independence and resilience.

Barbara (Wilson) Eccles was the youngest child to grow up at the Meadow Brook Estate. Adopted into the family in 1931, Barbara was a beloved daughter, sister, and mother of five.

On the grounds of Meadow Brook Estate, Barbara was a curious girl who enjoyed good company.

Barbara WilsonHer active childhood featured the many recreational activities the Estate had to offer, including swimming, sledding and riding horses and competing in horse shows.

For most of her days at home, Barbara found a love for reading. “Thank God for the radio and a book,” she said once in a 2011 interview reminiscing about her childhood.

Barbara WilsonBarbara married Thomas S. Eccles at Meadow Brook Hall in a beautiful and stylish society wedding on June 27, 1953. Together, they had five children, but the marriage did not last.

Barbara settled in Scottsdale Arizona. She was now a single mother of five in a world where women did not have the same rights as men. Since her father Alfred had passed and her former husband was no longer in the picture, Barbara struggled to open her own bank account–even though thirty years prior her mother, Matilda Dodge Wilson, was named the Barbara WilsonMost Influential Woman in U.S Banking.

Barbara’s ability to persevere was evident as she opened and operated a prominent country western nightclub in Scottsdale, Arizona. She named it “The Lumber Mill,” in honor of her father, Alfred Wilson, who was a prominent lumber broker in his life. The two shared a close and loving relationship. The Lumber Mill saw a variety of talented musicians and was the spot where Barbara met and helped a young John Denver launch his career.

In a time where the rights of women made an independent life difficult, Barbara was determined to support herself and her family. She was a woman of great strength and persistence, forever remembered as the curious and charming daughter of Meadow Brook Hall.

Mary Mathews

Out of many inspiring Meadow Brook Hall women to honor during Women’s History Month, Mary Mathews was a hard-working woman who’s efforts maintained Meadow Brook estate, the family, and her community.

Mary MathewsMeadow Brook ran as a matriarchal system with Matilda Dodge Wilson as head of the home and farm–an operation that ran smoothly with the help of her “right hand lady” and closest confidant, Mary Mathews. Mary was more than just an employee, Mary was considered part of the family. She was even given the exclusive permission to be in charge when Matilda was away.

Born to a white mother and black father, Mary faced many challenges but created a strong, independent life for herself.

Mary Mathews (upper right) pictured with her siblings (left to right) Samantha Jane, Elnora Marcella and Oliver William Rodney.Although most employees of Meadow Brook lived on site or in homes provided by the Wilson family, Mary had a house in Detroit that she devotedly commuted from each day. Because of systemic racial injustice at the time, Mary wasn’t legally allowed to purchase a home for herself. Matilda bought the home and offered it to Mary as a gift, but Mary was persistent that she pay back every cent to earn and own her Detroit house.

Mary Mathews with her family.Active in social causes, Mary Mathews was a member of the In-As-Much Circle of King’s Daughters and Sons, an organization that supported women of color. Mary held leadership positions and was frequently in charge of planning fundraisers and events. Mary also started the Yitrahc Club (charity spelled backwards) to support a home for aged women of color. In 1948, Mary received a volunteer award at City Hall for her devoted work towards the betterment of her community.

Mary Mathew’s story is one of perseverance when faced with the many challenges of being a biracial woman in the time period. She was a beloved member of the home, an inspiration for social change and a determined, hard working woman.

For more stories of Meadow Brook, visit the History at the Hall series.