A woman with a wonderful name — Jennie Iowa Berry — was a leading light in Cedar Rapids social circles from 1895 to 1925, working for a while as a postmistress, at a time when few women worked outside the home, and then organizing and leading women’s clubs and organizations, a luminary in the “soft” power those entities wielded.
Jennie Iowa Peet was born on Feb. 5, 1866, near Viola in eastern Linn County. The story is that she was named “Iowa” because her father, Wilbur Riley Peet, a Civil War veteran of the 24th Iowa Infantry, loved the state so much. Her mother, Sarah Ellen Gillilan Peet, didn’t object.
The family moved to the Dakota Territory for five years when Jennie was a toddler before moving back to Iowa, to Troy Mills, in 1875, where Wilbur operated a store in the Linn County village.
Jennie grew up to become a teacher and married John A. Berry in Troy Mills on July 6, 1887, when she was 21 and he was 26.
Jennie was appointed postmistress at the Tipton post office when Grover Cleveland, a Republican, was elected president in 1885. She managed it so well that she was asked to stay.
In 1889, Lucy Bowers, the 22-year-old daughter of William F. Wolf, a former speaker of the Iowa House, was appointed to replace Jennie. Locals signed a petition demanding that she keep the job. The petition, as well as a flurry of letters to the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, fell on deaf ears.
In local news reports, Jennie was described as “the orphan daughter of an old Iowa soldier” — perhaps to drum up sympathy and support. Wilbur Peet was very much alive, having moved his store from Troy Mills to Swea City in northwest Iowa in 1894, where he and his sons, Harlan and Ray, were in business.
Woman’s Relief Corps
At that time, Jennie and John lived in Troy Mills, where John ran a store and creamery. After C.G. Greene built his Central Park housing addition in Cedar Rapids in 1891, the Berrys bought property there in 1892 and moved.
Jennie may have first become active in the local Woman’s Relief Corps, the women’s auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Civil War veterans, through her talent as a pianist. In 1895, she performed at a local WRC and GAR social at the home of Commander Frank Clark at 1016 Third Ave. SE. She became increasingly active, joining several civic and church organizations while teaching piano at the Berry home.
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She served more than four terms as president of the local WRC chapter before being nominated to a state post, as WRC department inspector, in 1902.
“Mrs. Berry’s fraternal loyalty and charity are only equaled by her untiring energy, her tact, her judgment and her good common sense, which last is perhaps the most important of them all,” the nomination read. “If heredity or ancestry can add anything to these qualifications, then Jennie Iowa Berry stands even there in an enviable position.
“Descendant of a revolutionary soldier, she is a valued member of the local DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), a daughter of a son of Iowa, a man who enlisted and served in two Iowa regiments, and was so loyal to his state that he gave his daughter the well-loved name.”
Jennie was elected by a wide margin over two other candidates.
When her year in the post was up, Jennie was elected president of the Woman’s Club. She also became national inspector for the WRC.
In August 1909, when she was 43, Jennie was elected national president of the WRC, and the organization’s national headquarters moved to the Berry home at 612 Third Ave. SE.
When the GAR’s 44th National Encampment met in Atlantic City in September 1910, Jennie, as WRC national president, directed that the Andersonville Prison Park — site of an infamous Civil War prison in Georgia — be presented to the U.S. government on behalf of the Woman’s Relief Corps.
In 1914, John and Jennie Berry moved from their Third Avenue home to Apartment A in the new Mead Flats at 1407 Third Ave. SE.
The next year, Jennie, as past national WRC president, hosted events to honor guests from Des Moines and Waterloo at the Montrose Hotel and at her home for the Pythian Sisters. She also was regent of the Ashley Chapter of the DAR that year.
Jennie became executive secretary of the Red Cross chapter in Cedar Rapids during World War I and was regent of Ashley chapter DAR from 1913-15.
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She also served as a member of the Americanization Council, instrumental in founding the Jane Boyd Community House.
In 1919, she was elected Linn County general chairman of the Red Cross Christmas Seal drive to fight tuberculosis. When the length of the fund drive was cut in half, Jennie strongly encouraged every woman’s organization in the city to set up booths in department stores, manufacturing plants, schools and colleges to meet the fund goal.
right to vote
In August 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, giving women the right to vote, Jennie told a reporter, “It’s a splendid thing for the women. It’s also a splendid thing for Sen. (Warren G.) Harding. The Republican women here are strongly organized and will be heard from at the next election.” Harding, a Republican, was elected president later that year.
In 1925, John Berry was transferred to Los Angeles by his job with Warfield-Pratt-Howell Co., a wholesale grocer. Jennie, who’d lived in Iowa 50 years by then, and John began packing.
Jennie was the guest of honor at a WRC farewell reception on Dec. 10, On Dec. 19, she and John left for California.
Jennie Iowa Berry “paved the way for women in political service in Eastern Iowa,” a Gazette editor wrote.
After an October 1932 trip to Springfield, Ill., to attend the WRC national convention, Jennie made a side trip to Cedar Rapids, staying at the Commonwealth and stopping for dinner at the Ausadie tea room. She was entertained by small groups of friends.
Jennie Iowa Berry died Dec. 18, 1951, in Los Angeles, at age 85. She was survived by her husband and a brother, Harlan.
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