Who Were the Rickers?

B. J. (1868-1950) and Mabel Ricker (1874-1955) gained at least some of their renown from having commissioned Walter Burley Griffin to design their Grinnell home, which they occupied from its completion in 1912 until they left Grinnell for California in 1925.  But reporting only this much misrepresents the Rickers, who led an interesting and often challenging life together.  This post will only introduce the patrons of Ricker House; subsequent posts will fill in some of the story that tied the Rickers to Australia, where Griffin moved soon after finishing their Grinnell house;  to Chicago and the 1918 flu epidemic through which the Rickers found their children; and to the 1922 Philadelphia murder of their children’s biological father.

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Benjamin J. Ricker, 1891.  Photo courtesy of Grinnell College Archives.

Benjamin J. Ricker, 1891. Photo courtesy of Grinnell College Archives.

Benjamin Jewett Ricker was born in Grinnell in 1868, the 9th child of Edward  and Clara Swartout Ricker.  Listed in an 1892 document as standing 5 feet, 4.5 inches tall, Ricker was good looking and, as he himself later often said, enthusiastic. Even late in life he seems never to have weighed more than 150 pounds, his bright eyes shining out from what one correspondent called “pink” skin. Posed photographs from his college years show a serious-looking young man, and perhaps he was. By his own account, he often worked hard and long.

B. J. attended school in Grinnell, and then entered Grinnell College, graduating in 1891.  But apparently young Ben felt little commitment to his Iowa birthplace; almost immediately after graduating, he moved to California, perhaps at the prodding of older brother George, who at the time was living in Fresno.  B. J. seems to have caught California fever, reporting in one of his college class letters that he could hardly imagine ever returning to Iowa. Working first for a fruit packing company in Selma, he soon took a job as an assistant manager for a lumber concern. The work appealed to him, although he noted that life in California was hectic, because everyone there was rushing to get rich. As later events confirmed, B. J. managed to accumulate some money in California himself, perhaps by acquiring real estate in the rapidly developing irrigation districts being subdivided up and down the San Joaquin Valley.

When his sister Susan married in Cedar Rapids in May, 1894, B. J. returned to Iowa for the wedding, perhaps intending to stay only briefly. But he must  have impressed his brothers-in-law, David Morrison (married to Fannie Ricker) and Andrew McIntosh (married to Addie Ricker), co-owners of a Grinnell glove factory, and in turn been impressed with them, because in 1895 B. J. bought a share of the company, and settled into business life in Grinnell. His work often put him on the road, including visits to Chicago where on one of these visits, perhaps, he met a young school teacher by the name of Mabel Ella Tompkins.

Mabel Tompkins Ricker, 1898.  Photo courtesy of Grinnell College Archives.

Mabel Tompkins Ricker, 1898. Photo courtesy of Grinnell College Archives.

Mabel, born in 1874 in Kewanee, IL, was the child of the Rev. James Tompkins and the former Ella Kelly.  Tompkins was a graduate of Knox College and the Chicago Theological Seminary, and had pastored Congregational churches  in Lombard, IL, St. Cloud, MN and Minneapolis before moving to Kewanee in 1872 to accept a pastorate there. In 1878, however, James was appointed superintendent of the Illinois Home Missionary Society in Chicago, and the family moved to Oak Park. Mabel attended school there, and, after graduating from high school, in 1892 enrolled in the Oberlin Academy, a kind of college preparatory institution. After two years, she left Oberlin, although where she went and what she did for the next two years remains unclear. By 1896, however, she was teaching kindergarten in Chicago, working at the Froebel Association Kindergarten in Hyde Park, one of the pioneering kindergartens then much in vogue. The following summer she was appointed to teach kindergarten at Seward elementary, a south-side Chicago public school that served the immigrant community living around the Chicago stock yards and the nearby meat-processing industry. Her December, 1897 marriage to B. J. interrupted that service, as she and B. J. moved to Grinnell. Apparently Mabel never taught school again, although at one point she is listed as a student in the Grinnell College Music School. Grinnell directories list the Rickers as residing in 1900 at 931 High Street and next door at 933 High in 1905, giving them the chance to live in both halves of this fine duplex. Five years later they moved one block north and across the street, occupying the four-square frame house at 1030 High; it was here that B. J. and Mabel planned the house that Griffin designed for them and which was erected on north Broad Street.

931-933 High Street, Grinnell, IA

931-933 High Street, Grinnell, IA

1030 High Street, Grinnell, IA

1030 High Street, Grinnell, IA

In contrast to most of the Ricker siblings, B. J. and Mabel had no children, which, for a kindergarten advocate like Mabel, must have been difficult.  Soon after arriving in Grinnell, however, Mabel wove herself into the town’s social fabric. In addition to her involvement at the local Congregational church, Mabel joined clubs, at one point serving as president of the Sunset Club and later as treasurer of the Tuesday Club. She was also active in DAR, but in 1908 fell seriously ill, and, according to newspaper reports, received treatment in Chicago for “some months” before B. J. collected her there for a vacation in Pennsylvania. What the illness was is unclear, but perhaps was connected with the absence of children which, they later admitted, the couple very much regretted.

It is in this context that B. J. and Mabel decided to adopt—the subject of our next post.

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