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Story courtesy of Jeff Rankin, Monmouth College Historian Author and Literacy Critic.
Monmouth College is
remarkable for its history of serving as beacon for women’s equality. While
colleges in the mid-19th century typically often did not admit women on an
equal basis with men—if at all—female students were welcomed at Monmouth from
its inception. They regularly took the same rigorous courses as male students,
in an era when society dictated that women should instead focus their learning
on the domestic arts.
Part of the credit for this
progressive spirit belongs to men associated with Monmouth College, most of
whom shared an adventurous Scotch-Irish heritage that had propelled a sturdy
people across the Atlantic and eventually the Allegheny Mountains in pursuit of
religious and academic freedom. In particular, there was Monmouth’s first
president, David Wallace, who encouraged young women to be independent, and
rather than follow the custom of having “permanent gentlemen escorts” told them
it would be better “with lantern in hand go alone.”
Another Scotch-Irish Monmouth
patriarch in the mold of David Wallace was the son of a Presbyterian minister,
who had brought his family from Kentucky to southern Illinois in 1830 and to
Macomb in 1836. That year, the minister’s son, James Henderson Stewart,
graduated from Hanover College in Indiana and began studying the law,
eventually reading in the law office of a Macomb lawyer.
James Stewart was admitted to
the Illinois bar in 1840 and opened a practice first in Lewistown and then in
Mercer County, where he remained nearly five years. He then moved his practice
to Oquawka, where he was elected state’s attorney and served a total of three
terms, before removing to Knoxville for a year.
In the spring of 1861,
Stewart moved to Monmouth, where he would remain the rest of his life and
become one of its most respected citizens. In 1863, when Monmouth College was
completing its new campus, he purchased a large lot in the new College
Addition. Two years later, he built a plain but sturdy house on the lot at 1015
East Euclid, directly across the street from the home of President David
While in Oquawka in 1852,
Stewart’s wife, Isabella, had given birth to a daughter, Mary Moore “Minnie”
Stewart—one of 10 children the couple would have. As a teen, Minnie attended
Monmouth Academy, the preparatory school that would become Monmouth College. In
1869 she enrolled in the college and became active in the literary society
Amateur Des Belles Lettres.
It has been suggested that
attending a lecture in 1869 by suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton may have
influenced Minnie to invite three of her classmates—Lou Bennett, Jennie Boyd
and Anna Willits—to organize what they believed to be the first Greek
fraternity for women, Kappa Kappa Gamma. Another influence was probably her
older brother William, who was a member of Delta Tau Delta at Monmouth College.
Minnie’s sister, Belle, who had graduated from Monmouth a year before, helped
her with details of the organization, including creation of the motto.
The first meetings of Kappa
Kappa Gamma were held in the Stewart home, where Minnie—its first
president—lived while attending college. Letters written by the founders in
later years say the fraternity’s constitution was written in the small parlor
to the east of the entrance. Founder Louisa Stevenson Miller credited Judge
Stewart for helping to formalize the organization. “Judge Stewart, Minnie’s
father, looked after the legal part,” she wrote. “He sent everything that had
to be signed and put on record to Springfield.” She noted that Anna Willits’s
father, County Judge Elias Willits, was also interested in helping Kappa Kappa
Gamma to organize. Interestingly, when Judge Willits died in 1881, Judge
Stewart was selected to fill his unexpired term, and was then elected county
judge himself twice.
Although Monmouth College
would ban fraternities in the late 1870s, President Wallace was a longtime
supporter of Greek life, having been a member of Beta Theta Pi at Miami
University. As such, he supported the decision of his daughter, Elizabeth, to
join Kappa Kappa Gamma. Although she was only 12 when Kappa was founded, it
seems plausible that growing up across the street from the Stewart home
influenced her decision to become a Kappa.
Minnie Stewart married
William Nelson in 1873 and had two children before divorcing in 1878. Both
children died in 1881. She taught in Monmouth public schools from 1882-1889,
when she married Lucius A. Field. The couple moved to Eustis, Fla., where
Minnie served as a high school principal from 1890-1893.
Judge Stewart became nestor
of the Warren County Bar association and eventually retired from the firm
Stewart & Stewart, in which he was a partner with his son, to devote his
full attention to serving as a judge. A Democrat in a Republican county, he ran
twice unsuccessfully for state legislature.
In his later years, Judge
Stewart suffered from sciatic rheumatism, and he and his wife spent the winters
in California and Florida. In the spring of 1897, after staying with Minnie and
her husband in Florida, he became too weak to make the trip back home to
Monmouth and remained in the Field home. Just after Christmas that year, he
died. Sadly, Minnie was unable to make the trip back to Monmouth with his body,
as she, too, was ill. Burial occurred on New Year’s Day 1898 in Monmouth
In May, Minnie recovered
enough to return with her mother home to Monmouth. On June 8 she delivered an
address to the alumni banquet at Monmouth College, but eventually became so
weak that her brother, William, took her to Cincinnati to see a specialist, who
recommended surgery. She did not survive the operation and died June 21.
On July 15, Minnie’s
15-year-old nephew met a tragic end. James Harvey Stewart, the namesake of
Judge Stewart and only son of Minnie’s brother, William, went to Olmstead’s
mill with two friends to retrieve a surrey. While there they went swimming and
diving off the dam. When James’s foot slipped on the logs, he struck his head
on the rocks in the water below, paralyzing him. He was brought back to the
Stewart home on East Euclid and a prominent physician was summoned from
Chicago. It was decided to open the top of his skull to relieve pressure, but
that turned out not to be the problem. James remained conscious until his death
the next day, but a postmortem exam determined that his neck was broken, two
cervical vertebrae were fractured, and the broken bones were pressing on his
A funeral was held at the
Stewart home, presided over by family pastor A.H. Dean and neighbor Russell
Graham. The two had conducted Minnie’s funeral at the home just three weeks
Stewart House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Today it is operated as a historic house museum by the Kappa Kappa Gamma Foundation.
For Maple City Memories, I’m Jeff Rankin.