MONMOUTH, Ill. —In 2017, Kappa Kappa Gamma, the pioneering fraternity for women that was founded by Monmouth College students in 1870, dedicated its new home at 915 East Broadway.
It is fitting that the grand Colonial Revival mansion that the Alpha chapter now occupies was built by a young woman of the same progressive, independent spirit possessed by Kappa’s founders.
Born in Monmouth two years after the founding of Kappa, Nancy Martin was the daughter of Joseph Martin, a native of Ireland, and his second wife. Although she would reside there but a few years, Nancy’s home reflects the taste and culture of a young woman of privilege. But Nancy was no ordinary socialite. She was a woman of strength and courage who appreciated her station in life and the opportunities it provided for her to serve others.
As a young man, Nancy’s father had emigrated from Balabay, Ireland — first to Pennsylvania, and in 1846 to the Galena area, before locating near Monmouth in 1860. Through industriousness he eventually became a wealthy farmer. One of the founders of Monmouth’s First National Bank, he was its president at the time of its failure in 1884, caused by the alleged misappropriation of funds by the cashier. He was also an elder in the United Presbyterian Church and was one of the men largely responsible for the construction of Second U.P. Church, just south of Monmouth College.
Martin had four grown sons by his first wife, Jane, who died in 1870. The following year he married Jennie Lee, and one year later, Nancy, whom they called “Nannie,” was born to the couple. When she was 14, the family traded its farm east of Monmouth for a house at 519 East First Ave. Within two months, however, her father would die at the age of 72.
At the beginning of July 1889, Nancy and her mother, accompanied by a niece, traveled to Colorado Springs to spend the summer. Just four days later, her mother, who had not been in the best of health, died suddenly from a hemorrhage in a lung.
Nancy was sent to Houghton Seminary, a boarding school in Clinton, N.Y., and then spent a year at Wellesley College, where she was inspired to pursue a career in medicine and was inducted into the medical fraternity Alpha Epsilon Iota.
Returning to Monmouth with a substantial inheritance, Nancy decided to construct a residence on East Broadway, on a lot her mother had purchased shortly after the death of her father, presumably with the intent of building her own house there — a plan cut short by her untimely death. In May 1896, Nancy employed Monmouth’s master builder, George B. Davis, to construct a 3,500-square-foot house at an estimated cost of $6,000.
In early 1897, Nancy made preparations to move into her new house, hiring Miss Louise Anderson, who had been running a boarding house for college students on East Second Avenue, as her live-in housekeeper. Also joining the family was a pet bulldog. For the next year, the home, which she dubbed “The Pines,” was a center for social life in Monmouth, with Nancy hosting many teas and club meetings. One party included 80 guests and featured a “picture play,” projected on a canvas by a stereoscope, which was accompanied by narration and vocal music.
The following social season would be less festive. On the night of Feb. 3, 1898, Nancy and Miss Anderson went to a closet on the third floor to retrieve a trunk for a trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Using a candle for illumination, they removed the trunk from a closet where she kept her light silk and woolen party gowns, then shut the door, forgetting about the flame. Minutes later, the gowns burst into flame and the unplastered room also caught fire, followed shortly thereafter by the roof.
Fortunately, the home was equipped with a telephone and the fire department was immediately summoned. Two streams of water and a chemical hose were turned on the roof. But just as it appeared the fire had been doused, it sprang up again, forcing the firemen to enter the attic with a hose. The roof was destroyed, as was a piano and several valuable dresses. Even worse, the water damaged much of the plaster work throughout the house, requiring Nancy to vacate for a major restoration project that took months. Everything, however, was insured, and she was able to keep her Mardi Gras trip.
Nancy enjoyed her wealth and also enjoyed traveling, sailing over the next several months to such exotic locales as Hong Kong and Egypt. But by the late 1890s, her dream of becoming a doctor resurfaced and she enrolled as a medical student at the University of Illinois’ College of Physicians and Surgeons in Chicago. She put her furniture into storage and The Pines became a popular short-term rental property for some of Monmouth’s elite during construction of their own fine new homes.
In the spring of 1902, friends in Monmouth were surprised to learn in a letter from Nancy in Chicago that the previous Christmas she had quietly wed a fellow medical student, Charles O. Bechtol of Indiana, who had graduated from the college the previous year. Nancy received her M.D. degree in 1903 and the couple moved to Madison, Wis., where Charles practiced for two years, prior to becoming a surgeon in Marion, Ind., for 12 years. Although Nancy held an M.D., she never practiced, but did assist her husband on a regular basis.
In 1918, Charles died suddenly of meningitis, brought on by exposure to the Spanish Influenza virus. Nancy and her young son, Charles Jr., moved to Long Beach, Calif., where she lived with a male cousin. Nancy never remarried and died in California in 1950. Charles Jr., following in his parents’ footsteps, entered medical school and became chair of the Yale Medical School Department of Surgery, and later head of orthopedic surgery at UCLA Medical Center. Internationally known for his research in biomechanics and orthopedic surgery, he made major improvements in artificial limbs, designing the Bechtol total hip system, the Bechtol fluted bone screw and the Bechtol continuous strength bone plate.
Meanwhile, the former Martin home on Broadway saw a colorful procession of tenants in the early 20th century, including two intervals that foreshadowed the current Monmouth College connection. Around 1904, a widow named Mrs. Allen ran an eating club in the house for Monmouth College students. Then, between 1921 and 1926, the property served as a fraternity house for Phi Sigma Alpha, the local organization that later became Tau Kappa Epsilon.
The house’s longest family ownership began in 1931, when it was purchased by Clyde Woods, a local grocer who later became a successful grain dealer. It was eventually passed down to his son, Clyde “Sonny” Woods, a mobile home dealer, who designed and built a family room addition in the 1960s. In 1975, the property was purchased by Monmouth dentist Stuart Walker and his wife, Jane, who lovingly restored many of the original details. In 2012, Tim Keefauver, a vice president for Monmouth College, and his wife, Susan, bought the house, making major improvements, including a new kitchen.
Now the Martin house has begun the next chapter in its life. Set atop a hill facing campus, it fittingly overlooks the site of an early trestle bridge, which legend says is where the Kappa founders secretly met to begin planning their fraternity.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.