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John D. Rockefeller and the girl from Madera

Madera County Historical Society

Martha Baird, Madera native and wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr., began her education in Madera’s Westside School, shown here, and went on to become a world-famous concert pianist and well-known philanthropist.


Seventy-seven year-old multi-millionaire John D. Rockefeller Jr., stood facing his friends who had assembled in the parlor of the Allen home in Providence, Rhode Island. On one side of him was the Reverend Arthur H. Bradford, minister of the local Congregational Church. On the other side stood his sons, John D. Rockefeller III, Nelson, and David. Winthrop was unable to join his brothers in attending their father’s marriage ceremony — a wedding that would link Madera with New York’s high society.

The bride was Martha Baird, widow of Arthur M. Allen, a Providence lawyer who had graduated with Rockefeller from Brown University in 1897. She was an established concert pianist, having performed throughout the United States and Europe. It was this claim to fame, which had placed her in the same social circles as Allen and Rockefeller.

The new Mrs. Rockefeller was also a native of Madera, California, and had it not been for a twist of fate here, she would not even have met Rockefeller, much less married him.

Martha Baird was born in Madera on March 15, 1895. Her father, William F. Baird, and her mother had moved here from Southern California in the late 1880s at the behest of John Brown who was at the time a merchant from Buchanan. Brown had a scheme whereby, with some financial backing, he could purchase huge tracts of land on the West Side of Madera, subdivide the property, and then advertise it for sale in newspapers back East.

W.F. Baird came to Madera to open the Commercial Bank of Madera. As such, he was the town’s first banker. He built a home at 519 East Central Avenue and set out to make some money. Having been convinced by Brown that his land scheme had promise, Baird took him in as a partner. Together they laid out the infamous John Brown Colony.

For awhile everything came up roses. Newcomers flocked to Madera to purchase land in the colony, and the Commercial Bank flourished. In the meantime, the Bairds started their family.

After the birth of Martha, Mrs. Baird, the former Almina Smith, gave piano lessons in her Madera home. Her daughter was one of her pupils, and she learned quickly. At the same time, Martha began her formal education at Madera’s Westside School, on the present day site of Madera High School.

Then disaster hit! The land operation scheme came apart at the seams when the colony’s settlers could not obtain clear property to their land. In turn, they stopped their payments to the bank, and soon both the colony and the bank failed. It was a major, statewide scandal, so much so that Baird left town. The First National Bank of Madera replaced the Commercial Bank as the town’s financial institution, and Baird went south. All the while, Martha continued those piano lessons that she had begun in Madera.

In 1908, William Baird opened a department store in Los Angeles while his wife became a piano and pipe organ instructor at the University of California. In the next year, Baird sold a store he had opened in Madera to two Maderans, C.M. Petty and W.S. Connor, and moved once again — this time to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Shortly after this move, Baird met an ignominious end in an elevator accident.

Martha Baird was attending the Blairsville, Pennsylvania, School for Girls at the time of her father’s death. When it came time for higher education, she was sent back to California’s Occidental College.

Martha never forgot those early days in Madera — the days in which the children of the fledgling town came to her home to learn the piano from her mother. Somehow the seed was planted in that house on Central Avenue, and regardless of the financial turmoil which swirled and twisted outside her home, on the inside enough tranquility reigned that she absorbed her mother’s love for music.

Martha began playing publicly at the age of 18, and within six years, she was performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1926, she made her debut in London at Royal Albert Hall. By 1940, she could add the Republican Party’s campaign song, “We Want Wilkie,” to her long list of credits.

After her marriage to Rockefeller, Madera’s Martha Baird threw herself into philanthropic endeavors. She gave time and money to the New England Conservatory of Music, Occidental College, Brown University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Colonial Williamsburg, and Harvard Divinity School.

Nine years after her marriage to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Martha once again became a widow. Her husband left half of his fortune to her and the other half to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, of which she became a trustee.

On March 24, 1971, Martha Baird Rockefeller, died in her Park Avenue home in New York City and was laid to rest in the Rockefeller family cemetery there. The Madera County Historical Society sent its condolences, which were acknowledged by the family.

It had been a long climb from Madera to Manhattan Plaza, but Martha Baird had completed the journey in style. One is forced to wonder how her story would have ended if her father’s Madera bank had not failed and if her mother had never instilled in her that love for the piano in their Central Avenue home in Madera.

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