Illinois P.E.O. History Workshop,  written and presented by Fran Becque, at the Convention of Illinois State Chapter, June 1, 2013

In order to talk about the history of the Illinois State Chapter of P.E.O., it’s necessary to reflect on what happened at Iowa Wesleyan College in the fall of 1868. A little more than a year earlier, in April 1867, Libbie Brook, then a student at Monmouth College about 50 miles from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, across the Mississippi in Warren County, Illinois, helped create I.C. Sorosis, later known by its Greek motto, Pi Beta Phi. She convinced her parents that, due to an eye problem, she needed to attend a college where she didn’t know anyone so she could work unhindered by friends and activities. She settled on Iowa Wesleyan College, where it was her intention to found another chapter of her fraternity. In December 1868, her efforts paid off and the Iowa Alpha chapter of Pi Beta Phi was founded. Out of this saga came the founding of P.E.O., for not all of the seven P.E.O. founders were asked to join Libbie Brook’s new group, so they created an organization of their own. On January 21, 1869, P.E.O. came into existence.

Lulu Corkhill was not one of the seven founders of P.E.O., but she may as well have been. She grew up in Mount Pleasant, the daughter of a Methodist minister. She was initiated in March 1869, just a few weeks after the P.E.O. Society, as the Sisterhood was then called, was founded at Iowa Wesleyan College by seven young students. She was 14 at the time.

She later wrote, “You will see by the picture taken the year following my initiation, how childish and immature I was when I became a P.E.O. You would need no other proof of my youth than is shown in the picture, in the rubber comb I wore about my head and the P.E.O. star pinned to it. Today I am wearing that same star on the back of which is engraved Corkhill ’69.”

lulu corkhill williams photo

She also said of those first meetings in Mount Pleasant, “Everything was of such vast importance, everything was so secret. When and where we held our meetings were of as much secrecy as was our oath. And for revealing an officer’s name – that would have been an offense worthy of expulsion. As I look back I can but smile as I recall how careful we were to go down side streets and double on our tracks, and separate ourselves into groups of one as we neared the place of meeting, lest any idle onlooker should detect more than one girl going into a house on the same afternoon and should guess that the P.E.O.s were having a meeting.”

In 1882, a convention, the second of that year, was held in the Methodist parsonage of Dr. Thomas E. Corkhill, in Bloomfield, Iowa. His daughter, Lulu, was convention hostess.

She later reflected on that meeting, “As I have tried to recall early days, I have come to realize as never before, how really important our every day life is, and how much it means to those who come after us. We who were early P.E.O.s lived those days and did not think them of enough importance to write them down, and did not try to remember events, and how eagerly those records are sought today. Thus the small events of today may be the great things of tomorrow.”

The first P.E.O. chapter in Illinois was at the Jacksonville Female Academy. On January 21, 1871, two years after the organization was founded, the chapter at Jacksonville was installed as chapter C (in the old lettering scheme as it is called). Although the chapter did not exist for very long, it was know during the early years as “the Star in the East” and was the first chapter organized east of the Mississippi. One of the chapter’s most active members was Kittie Dietrich.

There were two other short-lived chapters in Illinois – K or L in Jacksonville, we’re not really sure which it was but K seems more likely. Chapter AH, in Jerseyville was organized in August 1888 and lasted only a year or two.

In 1883, the Grand Chapter was formed from all the chapters then in existence. At the Grand Chapter meeting of October 1892, the name of Grand Chapter was changed to Supreme Grand Chapter. This was done, in part, to avoid confusion, because State Grand Chapters were established, too, at this meeting. Additionally, permission was given to three members living in Chicago, Kittie Dietrich (who, as a student, had been in the Jacksonville “Star in the East” chapter), Dr. Emily H. Hackett and Minnie Osgood to establish three chapters in Chicago, one on the north side, one on the south side and one on the west side of the city.

Although it sounds as if these chapters would have been installed one after the other, that’s not what happened.

This quote from the History of P.E.O in Illinois sums up our state chapter’s early history, “We who are members of P.E.O. in 1953 are hardly able to realize the difficulties and complexities faced by members of the earliest Illinois chapters, organized, and carrying on their chapter life before there was any state organization to unify and standardize their procedure. It seems very worthwhile, therefore, to preserve for ourselves and for future members some record of those beginnings. Some of the problems almost appall us; some of the procedures are vastly amusing; but in all of the records of those days prior to our state chapter organization in 1903, we find cause for great admiration of the wisdom and persistence and vision of our sturdy pioneers.”

The organization of the first chapter took place in the home of Kittie Dietrich, at 5027 Champlain Ave on the South Side. According to Minnie Osgood, one of Chapter A’s charter members (who would later serve for eight years as Treasurer of the Supreme Grand Chapter),  “There was an awful snow storm off the lake. It was impossible for my sister and me, living in Edgewater (far north side) to brave the storm, which meant suburban steam train south to the city; horse car over Adams Street east to Wabash Avenue, and thence south by cable car on Cottage Grove Avenue to within walking distance of the meeting. We had no telephone in Edgewater in those days.” I think what Minnie is trying to tell us is that she committed one of those P.E.O. sins, not being able to attend a meeting and not having been able to contact her hostess.

Transportation was chapter A’s greatest problem and it may have been why the next two chapters were not the ones that were approved at the 1892 meeting. Chapter A’s members lived all over the city and traveling to and from a meeting, as well as the time spent at the meeting, could take the better part of a day. Instead of meeting in homes, the decision was made to meet at a central place, at first that place was the Columbus School of Oratory, but the room rental was $1.75 per meeting. The site was changed to the Columbus Safety Vaults, where the only cost for the use of the room was the yearly $5 safe deposit box rental. The room could seat 40 comfortably and it wasn’t until after the turn of the century that Chapter A outgrew this room. The chapter then began meeting at the Auditorium Hotel.

In May 1893, a few months after Chapter A was formed, the Columbian Exposition better known as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, opened. Supreme Chapter President Jessie M. Thayer O’Neil was on the Board of Lady Managers and P.E.O. was represented by a booth in the Organization Room of the Women’s Building. A register was kept, so that visiting P.E.O.s could identify themselves. Minnie Osgood was the official hostess and the information she gave out helped P.E.O. grow in Illinois and across the country.

Emma Runyan Pratt, President of Illinois Chapter A, went to the Supreme Grand Convention in 1897 and she invited the organization to hold its next convention in Chicago. The 1899 Supreme Grand Convention was held in the old Palmer House Hotel; 68 delegates and many guests attended. It was the first convention east of the Mississippi River and the first in a state where there was no state chapter. It was also the first time convention took place in a hotel. Expense for the entire convention was $482.55.

Chapter B, Clinton was formed three years after chapter A. The chapter was responsible for starting the first lending library in Clinton. Chapter B also has the distinction of having one of its members, Nellie Rundle Danks, serve as the first president of Illinois State Chapter.

On July 14, 1897, Chapter C, Vermont was organized. A student at the Columbia School of Expression in Chicago saw the gold star which one of her teachers wore. The student, Mary Louise Cassidy Weolber, sought to start a chapter in her hometown. She later said, “Here were young girls with the flaming enthusiasm of youth, and older women with their better judgment and steadying hand.” Mary Louise also wrote the first candle lighting ceremony in honor of the seven founders.

Chapter D was organized about a year and a half later. Several members of Chapter A lived on the south side of Chicago and they felt that it would be better to have a chapter of their own. They asked for and were granted a dispensation at Supreme Grand Chapter in October 1899. There was a delay in the chapter’s organization, as the Supreme Organizer could not leave her newborn baby at home to come to Chicago. It had to wait until the organizer’s delegate Katherine Boemler of Iowa, came to Chicago to do her Christmas shopping. There were nine chapter members, all dimits, when the chapter was organized on December 15, 1899.  By the first annual meeting, there were 13 members in the chapter. Among them was Lulu Corkhill Williams who had dimitted from Chapter A, Illinois. She was the woman I told you about earlier, the one who had grown up in Mount Pleasant and had been initiated into original chapter A when she was 14, about two months after P.E.O.’s founding.

The first president of Chicago’s Chapter D, Laura Rice, helped spread P.E.O. to many communities in several states. She was originally initiated while visiting friends in Osceola, Iowa. When she returned home to Thorntown, Indiana, she started a chapter there. She was also a member of Chapter A, Illinois and dimitted to Chapter D. She is also on the charter lists of Chapter FJ in Davenport, Iowa, EW in Los Angeles and KD in Glendale, CA.

Four Monmouth residents who knew of P.E.O. talked about organizing a chapter. They enlisted seven other friends and formed Chapter E in 1900. When Monmouth built its first hospital in 1901, Chapter E assumed responsibility for furnishing and providing upkeep of one room. In its early years, the chapter also supported a kindergarten.

Chapter F was organized on January 4, 1902 in Quincy. There were 11 charter members. Chapter G in Alexis followed almost a year later on December 30, 1902 and it had a connection to founder Hattie Briggs When Hattie’s friend, Ollie Ungles Tubbs, who is considered the founder of Chapter G, moved to Alexis her friends encouraged her to start a chapter. Chapter H in Aledo was organized a day later, on New Year’s Eve 1902. Chapter I, Chicago (now Oak Park) followed two and a half weeks later on January 16, 1903. With nine chapters installed, a state chapter could now be formed.

A day later, on January 17, 1903, a special meeting was called by chapter A to form a state chapter with the nine chapters then in existence. The Illinois Grand Chapter, as it was then called, met for the first time in Monmouth on April 3 and 4, 1903, 110 years ago.

The meeting took place at the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Hall in Monmouth with Chapter E as hostess. Dora Hallock, organizer and representative from the Supreme Grand Chapter presided; 15 delegates represented nine chapters. Every delegate was assigned a committee task. Three delegates were elected to attend the Supreme Grand Chapter meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska that coming October. State by-laws needed to be created and adopted. At some point near the end of the meeting, it was noted in the minutes that “many of the delegates were obliged to leave at this point to take the east bound trains,” I am certain the stalwart P.E.O.s did what needed to be done to make it to the Supreme Grand Chapter meeting. Nellie R. Danks was elected President of Illinois Grand Chapter. Six months later, she became Treasurer of Supreme Grand Chapter.

A second convention was held the following year in Chicago with Chapter A as hostess. 17 delegates from 10 chapters attended. A formal memorial service was held for the first time with a member from the bereaved chapter speaking about her departed chapter sister.

The early Illinois chapters had P.E.O. founders and relatives in their midst. Now would be a good time to talk about the Founders who spent some of their lives in Illinois.

For several years, the Illinois chapters hosted convention in chapter order – At the fifth convention in April 1907 at the Lexington Hotel in Chicago, founders Alice Bird Babb and Franc Roads Elliott attended. It was the first time that Franc attended the Illinois State Convention. She and Alice sat together and talked and whispered like the schoolgirls they had been almost 40 years before. Alice spoke to the convention body on the early years at Mount Pleasant. Franc gave an evening address. Another friend from those very early years of P.E.O. at Iowa Wesleyan College, Lulu Corkhill Williams, one of the first initiates, was there, too. We can only imagine how rich with history that convention was.

Alice Bird Babb was the only P.E.O. founder to be continuously involved in P.E.O. (She was also the first founder to take the oath of initiation and was P.E.O.’s first president.) Alice lived most of her life in Iowa. During her last years, she and her husband moved to Aurora, Illinois where her daughter Alice Babb Ewing, also a P.E.O, lived. Alice Bird Babb’s husband died in 1925 and she followed a year later.

Founder Franc Roads Elliot was an art supervisor in Aurora, Illinois and a founder of the Chicago Public Art School. She lived the last 30 years of her life in Chicago where her son Charles resided (He was a doctor and head of his department at Northwestern University).

Founder Mary Allen Stafford’s daughter-in-law was a charter member and first president of Chapter BI in Oak Park. Among the members who vouched for her were P.E.O. founders Alice Bird Babb and Franc Roads Elliot.

In 1908, Chapter E, Monmouth, again hosted convention. Again it was in the Elks’ building. This time it was three days long. Lulu Corkhill Williams, President of Illinois State Chapter, ran the meeting. Founder Franc Roads Elliot addressed the convention with a talk about Greek Art. The Organizer of the Supreme Grand Chapter Sophie McLean spoke about the new Educational Loan Fund.

A year later, in 1909, this time in Quincy, Lulu Corkhill Williams again presided. “In her president’s address, Mrs. Williams urged that every individual member be encouraged to commit to memory every word of the ritual, which officers were required to learn.”

Chapter M of Sherrard relinquished its charter in 1910, giving it the distinction of being the first Illinois chapter to do so.

In 1920 at Maywood, Franc Roads Elliot gave an inspirational address on the progress of women since the founding of P.E.O. The 1921 Illinois State Chapter meeting would be the last convention Franc attended.

In 1925, Illinois State Convention set aside $500 as a memorial “to our beloved Mrs. Franc Roads Elliot when, as, and if, the library at Mount Pleasant is an established fact.” In 1926, the 2331 members in Illinois decided that the memorial be a fireplace in the Memorial Library at Iowa Wesleyan College to be determined by the building committee.

When, in 1927, Chapter Z in Harrisburg hosted the convention at the Masonic Temple, a contribution of $500 was voted for as memorial for Alice Bird Babb whose death had occurred the previous November. It was Lulu Corkhill Williams who wrote and read a tribute to her good friend, Alice.

In 1927, the last of the founders, Mary Allen Stafford, died, just two months before the dedication of the Memorial Library at Iowa Wesleyan College. There were 47 members from the Illinois State Chapter in attendance at the dedication of the library.

At the 1929 convention of Illinois State Chapter in Carlinville, Virginia Cottey Stockard spoke about Cottey College.

During the 1933 Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition, otherwise known as the World’s Fair, the Palmer House Hotel served as P.E.O. headquarters. Illinois State Chapter appropriated $500 for this expense. At the end of the World’s Fair, $138.53 was returned to the state treasury. At the 1934 Illinois State Convention, the amount was set aside and it became a nucleus for the Illinois State P.E.O. Welfare and Trust Fund. Lulu Corkhill Williams made the motion to establish the fund.

At the 1935 State Convention at the Lincoln Hotel in Springfield another $1,500 was added to it. The funds were the surplus from the 1929 Supreme Grand Chapter meeting that was held in Chicago.

Lulu Corkhill Williams died on February 21, 1935 at the age of 81. At the 1936 State Convention at the Palmer House Hotel, the name of the Welfare and Trust Fund was officially adopted as the Lulu Corkhill Williams Welfare and Trust Fund of Illinois in her honor.

For 50 years, Hemmerle B. Williams, Lulu’s husband, was considered the original and the greatest BIL of all time. He took exceptional interest in his Pansy’s (as he called his wife) Sisterhood Organization. He was a generous giver and among his gifts was a piano to Iowa Wesleyan and $1,000 to Cottey College.

The amount of the Lulu Corkhill Wiliams Fund was to be increased each year by setting aside 5 cents of state dues specifically for the fund. This method to increase the fund was used from 1935-59. In 1964, profits from the Three Star cookbook were turned over to the fund. In 1968, the word Trust was deleted and the Lulu Corkhill Williams Welfare Fund was opened to non-P.E.O.s both men and women.  In 1977, the word Welfare was deleted and replaced with Friendship, making it the Lulu Corkhill Williams Friendship Fund.

The fund offers temporary assistance in a variety of ways: medical bills, difficulties due to lifestyle change, etc. It cannot be used for educational purposes.

In 1992, the assets were transferred to the P.E.O. Foundation, which allows donations to be tax-deductible. The Lulu Corkhill Williams Friendship Fund turned 50 in 1994. Two years later, in 1996, a $36,050 bequest was given to the fund and added to the principle. In 2010, a $30,000 memorial was given to the fund and it, too, was added to the principle.

Lulu Corkhill William’s role in Illinois P.E.O. was an important one. By the time of her death in 1935, she had been a member in five Illinois chapters, A, D, I, P, and AZ. She was instrumental in the formation of the Illinois State Chapter, was its first Corresponding Secretary from 1903-05, and she presided over two Illinois State Chapter meetings.

At the centennial meeting of the Illinois State Chapter in 2003, the chairman of the Lulu Corkhill Williams Friendship Fund, current Illinois State President Mary Schmitendorf, said this of our own Lulu Corkhill Williams, “She was an outstanding P.E.O. who unselfishly gave of herself to our sisterhood. She quietly commanded respect and was loved and admired by all her sisters.”

P.E.O. members, please note that there are several other posts relating to P.E.O. There’s a P.E.O. category on the right hand side and you can get a link to the other posts by clicking on it.

(c) Fran Becque,, 2013. All rights reserved.