SYCAMORE – Whether it’s DeKalb County’s first woman sheriff nine years after women’s suffrage or a map custodian who served in two wars, area historians said it’s important to recall the contributions of DeKalb County women past.
Rob Glover, director of the Joiner History Room in Sycamore and archivist at the DeKalb County History Center, said historical archives often tend to look like their creators. That can mean stories centralizing women or other groups such as minorities who’ve been historically left out of the larger narrative often get lost.
“They’re not new stories – they’re stories that are more buried than new,” Glover said. “We’re more so unearthing them as we go and some of that work has only just started.”
Glover said collections like the one at the history center show there always existed contributions of women throughout time in DeKalb County. Such is the story of Esther Mae Nesbitt, a trained artist from Sycamore who served in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps during World War II and was among the first women other than nurses to serve within the ranks of the U.S. Army. She used her talent to create maps to aid military intelligence for two wars.
“She’s one that made a contribution worldwide,” Glover said. “That level of impact is unusual for anybody in DeKalb County.”
What follows are excerpts about notable women in DeKalb County’s past, courtesy of information provided by the DeKalb County History Center Archives and the Joiner History Room:
Helena Dolder was the first woman to serve as sheriff in DeKalb County, stepping into the role nine years after the women’s suffrage movement. She was appointed sheriff after the unexpected death of her husband, Fred, in 1928 and was elected to the office later that year.
The Dolders were originally from the Somonauk and Sheridan area and are buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Sandwich, according to the history center archives. The DeKalb County Jail was called the “Lace Curtain Jail” because of the curtains hung there by Dolder.
Dolder was a vital player in the story that inspired the 2008 film “The Changeling,” which was about a young boy who went missing in Los Angeles in 1928 and who mysteriously turned up at a DeKalb diner. She cared for the boy at the jail in Sycamore, where he stayed in a special room Dolder made up for him.
Rosa Bodeen Hanson
Rosa Bodeen Hanson, who was born in 1884, was only 26 years old when she became the first woman elected to office in DeKalb County government. She served two terms as county treasurer, according to the history center archives.
While Hanson was treasurer, DeKalb County was the first county to pay their distribution of state taxes because she personally went to Springfield to pay them. Hanson served the county for nearly two decades.
Additionally, Hanson was a 50-year member of several freemasonry organizations, past Worthy Matron of the Order of the Eastern Star in Sycamore, former Worthy High Priestess of White Shrine of Jerusalem in DeKalb, and past Novel Grand of the Sarah Rebekah Lodge. She also worked for the Selective Service Board in Sycamore in 1942. Hanson died in 1973.
Jane Wellings Dutton
Jane Wellings Dutton became president of Sycamore National Bank shortly after the death of her husband in March 1929, according to the history center.
Born Nov. 1, 1873, in Potsdam, New York, Dutton graduated from Potsdam Normal School – now State University of New York at Potsdam. She moved to Illinois in the late 1890s to teach school, first in the Kirkland-Kingston area and then the Genoa area. She married her husband, George, on July 31, 1901, and had four children.
After her husband’s death, Dutton stepped in as board president and saw the bank through the Great Depression. She stepped down from that position in 1939 and became chairman of the board, an office she held until her death.
On Dec. 11, 1933, Jane Dutton announced the bank had been accepted into the national banking system and its name was changed to The National Bank & Trust Co. of Sycamore.
When Jane Dutton died September 9, 1952, the bank closed for the day the Thursday after her death “in respect to the memory of Mrs. Dutton,” according to the history center.
Letitia A. Westgate
Letitia A. Westgate, born in 1866, established the first hospital in DeKalb County in 1897, calling it the Sycamore Surgical Hospital, according to the history center.
After graduating from Northwestern University Woman’s Medical School in 1892, Westgate practiced medicine in an office in Sycamore near what was then Sandberg’s Shoe Store. In 1897, she leased the rooms adjoining her office on West State Street and let physicians and surgeons use the space for their patients.
In 1899, Westgate organized the Sycamore Hospital Association and built a hospital on the corner of Somonauk and Elm Street. Though Westgate died in 1945, the building still stands today.
Maude Dennis, a farm wife and one-time member of the DeKalb Congregational Church, left her mark in the political history of DeKalb County, according to the history center.
Dennis organized the county’s first Women’s Republican Club in 1925. She paved the way for women to become involved in the political process, often making the rounds in her neighborhood to pick up the ladies and get them to the polls.
Dennis also worked hard to promote women serving as jurors. Even though they got the right to vote in 1920, women could not serve on a jury until 1930. It was not until 1938 that DeKalb County had both men and women jurors.
Dennis also became the county’s first woman bailiff in 1938.
Ester Mae Nesbitt
Esther Mae Nesbitt, born in 1913, was a trained artist from Sycamore who volunteered for the newly formed Women’s Army Corps on October 1, 1942, according to the history center.
Nesbitt went overseas in November 1943 to England and, on July 14, 1944, became the third woman to step ashore on Omaha Beach. That was 10 days after D-Day, the largest invasion ever assembled, of 156,000 Allied troops by sea and air on five beachheads in Normandy, France during World War II. Nesbitt was among the first 49 Women’s Army Corps members to land at Normandy before the Allied Breakthrough.
In France, Nesbitt served as a map custodian, making maps as part of her intelligence analysis role. According to a plaque in her honor, her maps spanned 12-feet by 20-feet and showed locations of military units, supply depots and supply routes.
“Updated information was needed by generals on an hourly basis to save lives,” the plaque reads. “For her unique contribution to the war effort, she was the only non-commissioned officer in the European Theatre of Operations to receive the French Croix de Guerre medal 25, October, 1945.”
Nesbitt served on active duty until Nov. 2, 1945 but was recalled to active duty in late 1950. She then served in Tokyo, Japan and Korea during the Korean War.
After serving in the Pentagon and in Germany, Nesbitt retired as a Sergeant Major on Sept. 30, 1968 after 21 years in the army. She died in 1971.
Susan B. Anthony
On March 29, 1871, Susan B. Anthony spoke in Sycamore. In the prior week, newspapers reporting on her appearance called her “one of the ablest, worthiest, and most sincere of the female orators of the day.”
Anthony, who was then 51, gave a two-and-a-half-hour talk entitled “The New Situation,” about the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. She argued that, based on the language of the amendments alone, that “women were already voters, and no power had the right to refuse them the privilege.”
Anthony “interested her hearers to the last,” the Sycamore True Republican newspaper wrote at the time, ending on a “rousing, animated and inspiring” note.
“She believes that the world would be better for giving women a share in the direction of the government, and she is working zealously for the accomplishment of that result,” the True Republican wrote. “We hope that she may live to see it accomplished.”
The following year, with women still not able to legally vote, Anthony was arrested for voting illegally. She was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to pay a fine that she would never pay.
Congress later passed the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, on June 4, 1919. The amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, more than 14 years after Anthony died.