BELOIT - The ever-growing family of Matilda Ann Brown-Ballard credits her love of God and people for her longevity. The beloved matriarch is celebrating her 108th birthday today.
More than 250 family members, flying and driving in from all over the country, will descend for her birthday party Saturday at noon at Higher Ground Christian Center.
Brown-Ballard was born in Isola on July 12, 1911, and spent most of her life in Mississippi before moving to Beloit 10 years ago to be closer to family. She has 13 children, 87 grandchildren and at least 70 great grandchildren. Brown-Ballard's family tree extends seven generations beyond her.
Brown-Ballard is surrounded by friends and family, as well as a younger 93-year-old second husband, Rev. John Henry Ballard, who she married when she was in her 90s. She loves singing, attending church and being with family. She's been in perfect health all her life, aside from some recent blood pressure and hearing problems.
In an interview on Thursday, son number four Willie Derreyl Brown, son number 11 Ernest Lee Brown, granddaughter Sabrina Knight-Williams, granddaughter Harriet Knight-Everette and daughter number eight Lula Brenda Anderson shared a little bit about their beloved mother figure who Knight-Everette compared to Methuselah from the Bible.
Brown-Ballard and her first husband Rev. Adam Brown, Sr. raised 13 children while sharecropping, and later renting, farmland on a plantation. Her children remember growing cotton and corn while tending horses, mules, pigs, chickens, turkeys and geese.
Although the couple never owned the farm where they toiled, the kids and grandkids have fond memories of country life.
"We had fun. They taught us to be so loving to one another," Lula Brenda Anderson said.
The kids loved their mother's tea cakes so much she always had to hide a few in a hat box before the children devoured them all. They recalled their mother staying up in the night to check that all 13 were all comfortably tucked in their beds. The best times were piling in the pickup truck to head for the store. The only trouble spots for the kids were when ghost stories were rehashed, although the family laughs about it now.
"We had relatives in the city who would love to come in the country. Now I can understand why," said Willie Derreyl Brown.
As Brown-Ballard was raising her family and farming, her oldest son Milton Lee Brown, Sr., came to Beloit to work at Fairbanks Morse in the 1950s, beginning a slow migration of many family members to the Beloit area.
The kids such as granddaughter Sabrina Knight-Williams had fond memories of visiting the farm, "slopping the hogs" and taking a bath in the "3-foot metal tub" in the living room.
"Those were the best days of my life," Knight-Williams said.
Brown-Ballard and her first husband finally moved off the farm in Mississippi when they were in their 60s. Her first husband Rev. Adam Brown, Sr. died in 1987 from a heart attack shortly after giving his last sermon.
Brown-Ballard carried on. After teaching, she spent several years taking care of senior citizens up through her 80s.
"When my mom started helping people, all of them were older than her. When she quit working they all were younger than her," Willie Derreyl Brown said. "She outlived them all.
In her recent years, Brown-Ballard and her husband are doted on by family who take turns staying over at their apartment. The family members all marvel at having a mother and grandmother who blessed them with sturdy DNA. Most of the family is healthy and enjoy youthful looks.
"Mom used to win contests because no one could guess her age," added Lula Brenda Anderson, who noted she climbed a tree in her 70s.
Knight-Everette said her grandmother's musical abilities have passed down through the generations as well as her spiritual foundation.
"They raised us under fear and reverence of God," Knight-Everette said.
Brown-Ballard seems to just keep going. She's had hardships such as seeing four of her children pass, but her faith keeps her going.
Brown-Ballard is still pursuing her dreams, her latest one being to see former President Barack Obama in person.