Lombard College Boarding Hall girls in the late 1800’s. Photo from Lombard College Scrapbook.

By Mindy Long

Local History Librarian

Ida Public Library

The subject of our Rad Women of Belvidere series this month is the sister of Belvidere’s legendary ghost, Nellie Dunton. Much has been written about Nellie, who drowned in the river behind her home in 1920 and is rumored to haunt the property still. Yet few people recall that Nellie had an older sister, Mary, who became a well-known presence in Oak Park.

Mary was born in 1847, five years before Nellie. She was the second child of William and Almira Dunton, staunch Vermont farmers who came to Belvidere in the early 1800s when land prices were low, and a New England farmer could quickly build wealth with a bit of arduous work. Mary joined brother Wilbur who was born in 1845 but unfortunately died in 1849 from a childhood illness. Mary was without siblings until Nellie was born in 1852, followed by brother George in 1854.

The Dunton family were devotees of the Universalist Church with its belief that God embraces all people of all religions equally and reason or logic leads the way to truth. The children grew up attending services at the Universalist Church on Van Buren and E. Hurlbut Street and would become enduring members of the religion. Mary and Nellie would teach Sunday school in their young adult years. Mary continued in adulthood as member of the Church of the Redeemer on the west side and then Unity Church of Oak Park after a merger.

Members of the family were stalwart readers and lifelong learners. Father William was a strong leader in the community and eventually served as President of Belvidere’s First National Bank for many years. He encouraged his children to learn about current events and was one of the first paying subscribers to The Atlantic Monthly magazine when it began in 1857. Education was paramount to the Dunton parents, especially for their two daughters. So, whilst son George received a legal education and would later become a prominent Sycamore attorney, Mary and her sister Nellie were sent to Lombard College in Galesburg to receive their degrees.

Lombard College was formed in 1851 by the Universalist Society and was the second college in the nation to offer co-educational instruction. Although men and women had separate living and dining quarters, classes contained a broad mix of both genders. Mary and Nellie received the same education as their male counterparts, with a focus on science and mathematics, disciplines usually taught only to males. It was here, at Lombard College, that Mary would meet the love of her life, Samuel Kerr.

Mary and Samuel were on the same educational concentration track and attended the same classes. They became study partners, but more than that, Mary fell in love. By all accounts, her feelings were returned by Samuel and they talked of marriage after graduation in 1869. After the graduating ceremony, however, they decided to be sensible and spend the next two years building their careers before marriage. Samuel planned to attend law school and study for the bar, while Mary determined to set up a teaching practice. Mary’s mother was also ailing, and sister Nellie was two years away from graduation, so the couple decided that Mary would return to Belvidere until Nellie was able to take over her care.

Back in Belvidere, Mary and her friend Alice Walker opened the private Academic School with classes held in the rooms over Cephas Gardner’s store at 204 N. State. Their school was a preparatory school aimed at teaching the higher-level language and mathematic skills needed for students entering college and meant to fill in the gaps of public school. In the summers, Mary traveled to a camp in Iowa where she worked as a shooting instructor for young ladies. She also served as secretary of the Belvidere Ladies Library Association and helped create the first library catalogue of books held which sold for 10 cents.

Mary and Samuel continued to write each other, although not as often as Mary would like. She began to plan for her wedding, purchasing trousseau items and even a wedding gown. Samuel passed the bar in 1870 and moved to Chicago in 1871 to begin his practice. Everything seemed to be going to plan, so you can imagine Mary’s heartbreak and shock when she learned of Samuel’s marriage to Josephine Kirk in 1871! Years later, Mary’s heartbreak would be attributed to Nellie, and Nellie’s death would be rumored to be the result of a wayward fiancé. Some even said that Nellie donned the wedding dress she had been saving for years the night she died. In fact, Mary would later state angrily that Nellie never owned a wedding dress and the dress saved in a trunk was hers.

The dress in question, however, was happily donned ten years later. Samuel’s wife Josephine became ill and passed away in 1879, leaving behind two sons aged 7 and 4 and a grieving Samuel. Hearing of Josephine’s death, Mary wrote to Samuel expressing her condolences and the two began corresponding regularly. Their romance rekindled, and after another two-year waiting period, Samuel and Mary were finally joined in matrimony in 1881, moving to Oak Park to begin their life together.

Mary gave up teaching to look after her two small stepsons and soon gave birth to two more sons, William born in 1883 and Samuel born in 1887. Her life seemed complete, but Mary was too intelligent to rest on her laurels. She became heavily involved in the Chicago Legal Aid Society, which worked tirelessly to protect and uphold the legal rights of the poor citizens of Chicago and suburbs. Mary was also an organizer and fundraiser for the Building and Aid Society which helped get the first high school built in 1892 and a new replacement in 1904.

Mary joined many Oak Park and Chicago ladies’ clubs, including West End Woman’s Club, Nineteenth Century Club, and Nakama. She became great friends with Catherine Wright, first wife of Frank Lloyd Wright, and they attended many social and fundraising functions together. Mary’s stepson Robert and son Samuel helped William form the Kerr & Kerr law firm of Oak Park. Stepson Ellis became a physician and helped found West Suburban Hospital. Son Robert was the civil governor of Vera Cruz, Mexico in 1914 but died in Mexico City in 1918 while trying to flee the war.

Despite her busy and fulfilling life in Oak Park, Mary never forgot Belvidere and was a frequent visitor with her sons and granddaughters. The granddaughters fondly recalled staying in the family home, swimming in the Kishwaukee river, fishing, visiting the horses in the large barn next door, and laughing with their great-aunt Nellie. Mary Dunton Kerr passed away quietly but suddenly in her stately home in Oak Park just after Christmas in 1936, surviving her parents and both her siblings. The last of the grand Dunton family of Belvidere, her death signified an end to one of Belvidere’s richest growth periods and the stately family home on East Lincoln was put up for sale. Although the Duntons held a family plot in Belvidere Cemetery, only Nellie and her parents are buried there. Mary was laid to rest in Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park.

Be sure to catch next month’s Bizarre Belvidere article featuring the scandalous crimes of Mary’s cousin, Will.

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