On January 21, 1869, seven young women, students at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, founded P.E.O. In the early years, they called it a Society and then, later, a Sisterhood. I’ve written about this before, but it is my contention that the founding of P.E.O. is one of the ripples that came from the founding of the Beta Theta Pi chapter at Iowa Wesleyan.
In December 1865, the Alpha Alpha chapter of Beta Theta Pi was chartered on the campus of Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois, about 60 miles southeast of Mount Pleasant across the Mississippi River. On June 8, 1868, the Alpha Epsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi was founded at Iowa Wesleyan University. It was the first national fraternity on the Iowa Wesleyan campus.
Between the chartering of the two Beta Theta Pi chapters, I.C. Sorosis, an organization for women, was founded by 12 female students on the Monmouth College campus. The organization’s Greek motto was Pi Beta Phi and today that is the name of the organization. The women patterned the organization on the men’s fraternity model and, from the beginning, they were intent on expanding to other institutions.
Libbie Brook, one of the I.C. founders, left Monmouth College for the 1868-69 school year. Perhaps encouraged by the Beta Theta Pi men she knew at Monmouth, she enrolled at Iowa Wesleyan University. There on December 21, 1868, the second chapter of I.C. Sorosis was chartered. The women wore their arrow pins to a New Year’s party at Hallowell’s Restaurant given by the Beta Theta Pi men.
In 1869, there were about 75 collegiate level students at Iowa Wesleyan. Legend has it that some, but not all seven, of a group of friends had been asked by Libbie Brook to join the new chapter of I.C. Sorosis. Franc Roads and Hattie Briggs were sitting on the steps of a wooden stile at the southeast entrance to the campus and made the decision to start a society of their own. They gathered five others, Mary Allen, Ella Stewart, Alice Bird, Alice Coffin, and Suela Pearson and P.E.O. came into being 149 years ago today.
P.E.O. Founders from a 1920s Record
Among the charter members of the Beta Theta Pi chapter were Will Pearson, Suela’s brother, and Dillon Hollingsworth Payne, who would go on to graduate as valedictorian. The future husbands of Alice Bird and Mary Allen, Washington Irving Babb and Charles L. Stafford, respectively, also became members of the Beta chapter.
Payne was Ella Stewart’s guest at P.E.O.’s first social event, the Sidereal Soiree, held at the Brazelton Hotel on December 26, 1870. As a member of the Class of 1869, he had already graduated. Payne read the law and spent most of his life as a successful lawyer, and he also served as a Trustee of IWU. His first wife, Susan “Suda” Weaver Pearson, was initiated as a P.E.O. in 1870. They married on October 17, 1877 in Atchison, Kansas. She died in 1891, apparently in childbirth, along with the child she was carrying. He died in 1928.
Payne also played a role in the extension of P.E.O. when, through his connections in Bloomfield, Iowa, made the introductions to establish Chapter G, then in Troy, Iowa.
In the 1920s, Payne’s recollections of the seven Founders of P.E.O. were published in issues of the P.E.O. Record. Here is a smattering of how he remembered each woman:
Mary (Allen) had good taste in dress and made smart clothes look better, was graceful, cheerful and popular with the boys. She entertained nicely in her home and stood well in her classes.
Alice Bird: She was a town girl…medium height, black hair thrown back, dark piercing eyes, tailor-made clothes, taking long and bold strides as she passed through the college campus….When any bold or daring adventure was incubating, Allie was there in the midst. She was not a man worshipper, met the boys like brothers and generous in her attention to all.
Hattie Briggs: The best hearted girl that ever lived. None knew her but to love her. She was modest and retiring.
Alice Coffin: She combined all the qualities of a stunning personality. In the drawing room she would be a queen; in the ball room, the first lady. Her name was always on the list of our Beta banquets. Perhaps the most striking couple in our public festivities was Alice Coffin, and Will Pearson, brother of Sue. They were tall, courtly, handsome and up-to-date dressers. Will had black hair and blue eyes;…Alice was a typical blonde, with elegant grace and costume in the latest style. The law of mutual attraction or human gravitation drew them together and the boys expected Will to select her as his partner….She could lay aside her dignity and become a hilarious romp, which she often did.
Franc Roads: There was dignity and poise in her manner, stocky form, neatly dressed, broad forehead, kindly eyes and shocky head of hair. She took her place in our class as a substantial member…She was rather quiet, not a tomboy. Her face was serious and thoughtful but pleasant and engaging. She took life seriously and not as joyously as might be expected of one with such artistic temperament and talent as she later demonstrated. However we were all too young to be looking for the budding of genius.
Suela Pearson: This star was the planet with a ring (of boys) around it, but not so far off….At sometime she was the sweetheart of each of us, we all looked alike to her….She had talent, could sing, and was a rival of Allie Bird as a reader….She was an attraction, a magnet. She had…more beaus in the list at the same time than all of the other founders….Can you imagine the girls leaving her out of the Original Seven? If they had the Betas would have initiated her…Another thing in her praise was that none of the other girls was ever jealous of her. Her light shown on all, and no one wanted it put under a bushel.
Ella Stewart: She had auburn pompadour hair, florid complexion, dressed neatly and in good style, was bright and lively, could play and sing. She always graced our social affairs and took an active part in all of our amusements….She wore the gold star and sometimes a Beta pin. I have the pin still.