“I am woman, hear me roar.” Before Helen Reddy sang these words in 1972 there were women making their voices heard.
One such woman was Laura Fessler. Born Laura Sechler in Pennsylvania, she and her family moved to Rochelle when she was very young. Laura was educated in the Rochelle school system. In 1879, Laura married James Fessler. James was a successful businessman and banker. Though James was a very prominent member of the community, Laura was not going to live in her husband’s shadow. She had a light of her own and was not going to hide it beneath a bushel. Laura Fessler was committed to improving her community and the lives of those who lived and worked there.
Laura founded the Humane Society in Rochelle. She was instrumental in securing the Iron Fountain that today sits in front of the Flagg-Rochelle Museum on 4th Avenue. The fountain serves humans, dogs, cats, birds, and horses. Many who grew up in Rochelle have slaked their thirst at the fountain.
Laura pushed for legislation at the state level for the adoption of a state tree, bird, and flower. She also fought to have the school children of Illinois determine the winners. It was Jan. 29, 1908 that the State of Illinois passed legislation adopting the Oak, Cardinal, and Violet, in no small part due to the efforts of Laura Fessler.
In 1915, Laura Fessler became the first woman candidate for city council in a local election. With no woman’s vote, she missed being elected by fewer than 180 votes. The 19th Amendment, or Woman’s Suffrage, was passed in Illinois on June 10, 1919. Illinois was the first state to pass the right of women to vote and that was four years after Laura was almost elected.
It was 1979, 64 years later, before a woman was elected to office in Rochelle. Laura owned one of the first electric cars in Rochelle. In 1915, she was driving “green.”
A member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Order of the Eastern Star, Rochelle Woman’s Club and the Rochelle Civic Council, Laura kept busy.
With the outbreak of World War I, Laura became active in the support of our troops at Camp Grant in Rockford. The troops could count on Laura and her friends to organize book collections, baked goods, knitting, sewing and social activities for the warriors. If the soldiers had a need Laura found a way to answer their call.
She was trained in surgical dressing and nursing and when the Spanish Flu was decimating our troops Laura was at Camp Grant working in the camp hospital trying to save lives. In a war where 45,000 soldiers died from flu, Laura was on the front lines.
From her home at 520 N. 6th St. Laura established an impromptu park on the empty lot across the street from her house. She began a new mission, create a city park that could be utilized by all of the citizens of Rochelle.
Through her involvement with the Woman’s Club she began work toward acquiring land for a city park. Unfortunately, time was not on Laura’s side. She became ill and passed in 1920.
The Woman’s Club was successful in buying land on the south side of town in 1922. Initially called Oak Park, the land was given to the City of Rochelle and re-named Memorial Park. It became the first park for the City of Rochelle fulfilling one of Laura’s greatest dreams, a place where every person could go and be surrounded by nature.
Laura lived a life devoted to giving and we all enjoy the fruits of her labor.
Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.