Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Mary Church Emsley Adams. 1840-1931

by Pat Schultz, Nora Springs, Iowa, retired educator, author of Amazing Women of Early Mason City

On November 19, 1900, the Mason City, Iowa, Globe Gazette published a "Prosperity" edition. Mary Emsley was featured: "During her long residence here and her active business career, Mrs. Emsley has steadily maintained the highest respect of all who have been associated with her in any way, a clever and brainly woman of strong characteristics and mentality. . ."

Mary Church, born in 1840 in Pennsylvania, was fifth of the eight children of Rev. Jessie and Julia Church. The family lived in Pennsylvania until moving to Michigan, with the exception of her and her brother Jarvis.

Mary wrote in her memoir, "My oldest brother, on a visit to our old home, saw what a pale, weak girl I was, and he persuaded our father to let him take me home with him, and see what a change of climate might do for me." She arrived in 1864, improved quickly and began to teach.

She told her brother that when she looked around, all she could see was land. He told her it was the best investment possible and she should buy some. When she had enough money for the down payment, she bought 160 acres.

At the end of the Civil War, Thomas Emsley returned to Mason City after his service. He and Mary were married in October of 1865. They began their life together with her farm, $400, and his new job as county treasurer, living in a two-room rented house.

The two continued to invest in property in the city and area farms. They started the City Bank, he as president, she as cashier, in 1878. However, in 1886, tragedy struck. Thomas, about whose mental ability the family worried, went to Nevada to invest in silver mining. He committed suicide there. Mary assumed control of their property and the presidency of the bank, heading it when the board brought Frank Lloyd Wright to Mason City to design its new building.

Mary's years in Mason City did not just include her business ventures. She became a member of the Women's Civic League when it was organized in 1870. Its early work focused on improvements to the city. However, when Carrie Lane came to Mason City in 1880 to teach, take the job of superintendent of schools, and marry Leo Chapman, she joined the League. She served as its president for one year. Mary and the other members began to take seriously the women's suffrage movement. Although Carrie left in 1886, Mart was present in 1887 when Carrie returned and spoke. Carrie convinced the women of the club to conduct a canvass getting the signatures of every woman in town to urge the legislature to support the suffrage work. They gained the signed names of all but 12 women. From then on, one of Mary's passions was working to gain the vote for women. The Mason City group changed its name to the Mason City Equal Suffrage Club and over the years, she held nearly every office in it.

Mary also was active in the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association. The 1887 record of the group lists Mary as an auditor. It is very likely she participated in the suffrage parade in Boone in 1908 when it was one of the earliest parades in the country. She was elected treasurer in 1909 and reported as such at a convention in 1910 in Des Moines. At that meeting, according the its report, she gave a response to the greeting offered the group at the church where they met. She also delivered a tribute in memory of Julia Ward Howe. 1909 was the year Julia Clark Hallam gave a rousing speech for a more militant approach and was elected president. At that time, the membership proposed a group of 500 women be organized to attend legislative sessions, and when the time came to vote on a municipal suffrage bill, to storm the legislature until that bill was given hearing and a vote. Was Mary part of that group? It seems very likely.

In October of 1915, a newspaper reported "Suffragists in Stormy Session." The argument at the state convention centered on who should preside. After intense exchanges, Mary offered to preside herself. She was unanimously elected.

Mary was in attendance in 1916 when Carrie returned to Mason City to speak to a full house and urge the women to push for suffrage. Mary had also been among the organizers of the memorial held to celebrate the life of Susan B. Anthony when Mrs. Anthony died in 1906. That event, too, draw a large crowd.

Mary did much more. In 1931 when the National League of Women Voters revealed a bronze tablet at their national headquarters, Mary's name was on it, among 24 Iowa women honored as leaders in the suffrage movement.

Mary married a second time to Charles Adams. Both were extensive property owners. Mary was active in the Unitarian Church, an officer in its state organization and an attendee at national meetings. She joined the Monday Club, took part in activities supporting the local Humane Society, and served on the library board. She also joined the women's auxiliary of the G.A.R.

When planning was done in Mason City to build Memorial University in memory of veterans, she stood and announced a $2,000 donation. She also gave the library a plaque bearing the names of local men who had served during the Civil War. She founded the local chapter of the Eastern Star and became a 50-year member of the organization. She was also a proud member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Active politically, Mary belonged to the Democratic Party, attending many meetings. In April of 1896, she spoke at the state session honoring Thomas Jefferson on the topic of "Jefferson and the West."

While Mary was wealthy, talented and busy, her life was not without setbacks. In addition to her first husband's death, she grieved when one daughter died of tuberculosis in 1904. She then assumed much of the care of her blind grandson, Cecil. Son-in-law Absalom died in 1923 and Charles in 1927. Twice, property she owned was destroyed by fire, and the City National Bank, in which she held majority stock, went bankrupt during the farm crisis of 1919-1920.

In her memorial, Mary wrote, "I have never regretted that I came to Iowa and I have remained." She died in Mason City in 1931 and is buried in the Emsley-Gale mausoleum along with her family members.


1. "50 Year Member." Mason City Globe Gazette, 12 May 1937, p. 10.

2. "80 Present for Chapter Observance." Mason City Globe Gazette, 7 Feb. 1940, p. 6.

3. Adams, Mary Church Emsley. Daughters of the American Revolution Lineage Book.

4. Buehner, Kristi, "Build thee more stately mansions." Mason City Globe Gazette, 6 Oct. 2008, pp. 1-2.

5. "EARLIER DAYS: April 9, 1903." Mason City Globe Gazette, 9 June 1933, p 3.

6. "EARLIER DAYS: Oct. 29, 1909." Mason City Globe Gazette, 29 Oct. 1929, p. 3.

7. "Funeral Services Held for Mrs. Emsley Adams: Dibble Conducts Rites for Pioneer Leader of State and City." Mason City Globe Gazette, 24 Mar. 1931, p. 2.

8. "Mrs. Adams, Pioneer, Dies at Her Home Here." Mason City Globe Gazette, 21 Mar. 1931, pp. 1-2.

9. "Mrs. Adams was Pioneer Banker Here." Mason City Globe Gazette. Anniversary Edition, 16 May 1928, p. 5.

10. "North Iowans to be Placed on Suffrage Role of Honor." Mason City Globe Gazette, 24 Feb. 1931, p. 7.

11. "Old City Bank Building Leased." Mason City Globe Gazette, 9 May 1930, p. 9.

12. Programs and records of the 1887, 1910, and 1915 Iowa Equal Suffrage Association.

12. "Suffragists in Stormy Session." The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, 15 Oct. 1915, p. 12.

13. The Unitarian Advance. Vols 7-8, p. 85.

14. Wheeler, J.H. History of Cerro Gordo County, Iowa. Vol. II. Chicago-New York: Lewis Publishing Company, 1910.

back to top