Mary Higgs – 2015 Illinois Country Living Mother of the Year

MOY - Mary HiggsSelf-sufficient doesn’t begin to describe Mary Higgs of rural Altamont. In fact, this Norris Electric Cooperative member prides herself on being able to live off the land – literally. Higgs seems to hail from a simpler time when you grew or hunted the food you ate.

This 75-year old grandmother of three and great-grandmother of two is most comfortable outdoors. She loves being outside hunting, mushrooming and fishing. Daily, she can be found feeding her rabbits and chickens, collecting eggs and tending to her daughter’s peacocks and pheasants.

Higgs splits her own wood to heat her home during the winter and can often be found helping out a neighbor with outdoor chores. She definitely doesn’t let the moss grow under her feet!

For more than 21 years, Higgs drove a school bus in Altamont and trained and raced Standardbred horses. After her husband Pete had a heart attack in 1999, they sold the horses.

Mary, daughter Mary Ann Spesard, and Mary's husband Pete.
Mary, daughter Mary Ann Spesard, and Mary’s husband Pete.

She and Pete bought land in 1990 after she retired and lived without electricity for four years. It wasn’t until 1994, when some of the land down her road was purchased, that electricity was run from Highway 40 back to that area.

“We are old fashioned farmers,” explains Higgs. “We go by the Zodiac sign for doing things like when we would wean calves and things like that. I still can 90 percent of the meat we eat. It doesn’t get freezer burned that way, and when we didn’t have electricity it was necessary so that it didn’t spoil. We even had goats for milk, but now that the kids are gone we have gotten rid of them because I’m the only one that drinks milk, so I just buy it.”

Daughter Mary Ann, who nominated her mother, says, “Growing up, I learned that the animals got fed first. I didn’t get my breakfast until the animals were fed and watered. They depend on us, so we have to take care of them. I learned to respect animals and the land we live on.”

Just like her mother, Mary Ann would rather be in the woods than sitting in the house.

Higgs starts her days by taking care of her house along with the animals. “Then my priority is whoever is on my calendar to help that day,” she says. “Whoever needs to go to the doctor, or needs wood split, insulation put in, or the tractor run. There is no routine other than taking care of the animals.”

Higgs also has a son Lloyd who trains Thoroughbreds. With pride in her voice, she says, “Lloyd is one of the top trainers in the nation and has raced over in Europe. In 2008, he was the assistant trainer for Eight Belles, which got second-place in the Kentucky Derby before going down and having to be euthanized.” Lloyd still works with horses and has trained to do chiropractic work on them.

She taught both of her children, from a very early age, to respect guns. She took them to classes to learn about gun safety and they each got a firearm owner’s identification card at an early age. “Children need to learn that regardless of the type of gun, you need to respect it. And, that includes BB guns. My children were taught that just like a hot stove, you didn’t touch guns.”

Mary Ann and her fiancé Joe are building a home just down the road from Higgs. Every weekend they are out working on the house and you can find Higgs hauling rock or doing whatever she can to help. “She’s such a good ­person,” says Mary Ann. “She has been such a help to me and I know one of these days I’m going to lose her and I will just be lost!”

To thank her mother, Mary Ann and Joe took her on her very first vacation last year at the age of 74. They went down to the Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky. “She has done so much for us, we decided to take her with us,” explained Mary Ann, “and she really enjoyed it. We went four-­wheeling on all but the steepest climbs and went to a homestead to see free-range buffalo and elk. She really enjoyed it.”

When asked if she ever planned to slow down, Mary shook her head and said, “No! If you do that you wither away. Hopefully with my dying breath I’ll be out there on that deer stand.”

Nomination Letter:

Thanks for giving me a chance to let you know about my mom. While raising my brother and I, she drove the Altamont School Bus for 25 years, trained harness horses and kept the house and farm going. She enjoys being outside, loves mushroom hunting, deer hunting, looking for ginseng plus spring and fall mushrooms, and you can’t forget fishing.

If she’s not in the woods, she’s probably helping out a friend, her family or myself. Mom takes my aunt to Springfield for several doctor visits or if she needs to go get her blood work done. Then if she’s not working at home, she’ll be over helping out a friend with mowing grass, cutting up trees, cleaning up the barn, helping in his garden, or help drive to Chicago when needed. She uses a log splitter to cut wood for winter, takes care of her own chickens and rabbits and collects the eggs daily, while also feeding my peacocks and pheasants.

I’ve seen my mother work thru pain while having ribs broken, and she had both knees replaced at the same time, and started walking around soon as she could. She never complains, just keeps working. This woman is the hardest working lady I’ve ever known, she taught me everything under the sun. She’s not only my mom, she’s my best friend.

She has taken me to many of my own surgeries; one was in Chicago and she was extremely sick herself. They wanted to admit her, but she refused, and shortly after that she was taken to the Effingham Hospital with her temp being 104.

Since we had asked her to babysit our own dogs and critters – which she done many times as we went out of town, she’d have to drive from Altamont to Casey, stay overnight, drive home and care for her own – we took mom with us to go camping and 4-wheeling. She’d never had a “vacation” – ever. She enjoyed everything. After one of my hip surgeries she came fishing with us just to help me in and out of the boat and she got to fish too!

We are building a house on a hill above my parents, and if we need any material moved around or unloaded off the trailers, we call MOM and she brings over the tractor and helps us out. A couple of years ago I found out I had RA (rheumatoid arthritis) and when mom takes me anywhere and on long rides, she stops to help me stretch out because I get stiff and can’t walk without an arm. Thanks MOM! I wanted to move close to help out my parents, but who is helping WHOM?

She taught me everything I know now, and then some! My parents may have been strict, but I still respect their morals and agree with the way we were brought up and taught.

I have forgotten to mention, my mom turned 75 in October. She doesn’t look or act her age. My mom is my Hero – I look up to her.

Mary Ann Spesard

Read all of the Mother of the Year nomination letters here: