200 North Main Street | Bloomington, Illinois | 309-827-0428
Jennie Thompson

Jennie Thompson (1860-1924)

Author: Anthony Bowman, 2016


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Jane “Jennie” Lynd Thompson was born on October 28, 1860 in Bond Head, Canada—located in the present-day province of Ontario. She was the oldest of (eventually) seven children born to Alexander and Mary (Henry) Thompson. The Thompson family immigrated to the United States in 1865. The first evidence of the Thompsons living in Bloomington, Illinois, comes from the 1870 U.S. Federal Census.

Before immigrating to the United States, Alexander worked as a cabinet maker. After the family moved to Bloomington, Alexander supported his family as an organ builder and case maker from 1870 to 1879. For most of that time he worked at Andrus Brothers, a local musical instrument manufacturer and seller. Later, he was employed as a piano repairer and tuner. The Thompsons moved regularly between 1872 and 1879, living at 402 Douglas Street, 420 N. Main Street, 608 N. Main Street, and on East Street. Between 1880 and 1893 they lived at 606 E. Walnut Street, 1002 N. Prairie Street, and finally settled at 304 E. Douglas Street.

On June 6, 1878, when Thompson was only 17 years of age, her mother passed away. Because of this, Thompson was now charged with caring for her younger siblings, including an infant brother. More sorrow struck the Thompson family in 1894, when her father passed away from a “hemorrhage of the brain,” possibly a stroke. The next year, Thompson and her siblings moved to 610 E. Douglas Street. And five years later, they resided at 612 E. Douglas Street, where Jennie lived until 1913.

It could be said that the early death of her mother, which made it necessary for Thompson to care for her siblings, is what led her to a life of caring for others in need. Thompson served actively in religious and charitable work. She was very involved with the church she belonged to; Second Presbyterian Church. Activities she led included multiple groups related to missions, education, and youth ministry. In 1891 she served as president of The Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor (YPSCE), where she pushed for the “promulgation of good literature among the [train] depots and stations, where it will be within easy access to all.” Three years later, Thompson became vice president of the McLean County Christian Endeavor Union. Around that same time, she also acted as treasurer of a Sunday school for Chinese immigrants, which Second Presbyterian Church hosted every Sunday afternoon. In 1908 Thompson became secretary of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society. Because of this new position, she relinquished her 16-year involvement with YPSCE. Between 1910 and 1914, she was a member of the Mission Circle of the Second Presbyterian Church. She also represented Second Presbyterian Church at various meetings throughout the 1890s and 1900s, including the Christian Endeavor convention, the annual meeting of the Bloomington Presbytery, and the district convention of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, which supported the church’s missionaries who served outside the country.

Thompson also worked as a housekeeper in 1900 and later as the private secretary to Dr. Henry Denlinger, the pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, in 1902. However, she was unemployed by 1910 and living with one of her sisters, who worked as a music teacher. Her obituary stated that Thompson was the assistant pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in 1924, though there is no additional evidence to support that statement.

In addition to her work with Second Presbyterian Church, Thompson became involved with the Day Nursery and Settlement Association, a private day care and kindergarten which opened in January 1908. Since its founding, Thompson was deeply involved with this organization, devoting the rest of her life to helping those in need. The Association was organized by a group of women affiliated with the Bureau of Associated Charities. These women felt they needed to do something “worthwhile for mothers who were obliged to work away from home during the day” and who had to keep older children out of school to watch younger children. The Day Nursery was a safe place for working mothers to leave their pre-school-aged children, thus allowing older sibling to attend school regularly. The goal of the Day Nursery was to provide a safe and caring place where the children of working mothers could be cared for while their parents worked outside the home.

Each of these founding women pledged to secure ten memberships at one dollar per year. Two prominent businessmen provided funds for the first year’s rent of a house on Bloomington’s west side. When the 200 memberships were secured, a public meeting of women interested in the movement was called at the Illinois Hotel in downtown Bloomington on December 19, 1907. In all, forty women who were local social and philanthropic leaders attended. By the end of that meeting, a constitution was ratified; a board of directors and committee members were elected; and over 100 women in the community, including Thompson, became charter members. Thompson was also appointed to be a member of the house committee, which appears to have been in charge of the Day Nursery’s physical premises and activities.

Almost immediately, the Association sought support of not just cash but materials and services, such as furnishings, toys, clothing, and volunteer teachers. Generous donors, members, and volunteers answered the call. In addition to the dollar membership dues, the Association was supported by a portion of the profits from the Women’s Exchange. Launched on April 3, 1909, the Woman’s Exchange provided a space for women in the community to sell their wares, be it needlework or coffee cake. The goal of the exchange was to benefit the women of the city, with a small percentage of the sales going back to the Association.

On January 20, 1908, The Day Nursery and Settlement Association opened its doors to great interest from the community, and 121 guests visited during the opening reception. Fourteen of those guests became new members, while several others showed interest in enrolling their children in the nursery. The Day Nursery was located at 1210 West Mulberry Street for the first five years of its existence. Thompson served on the reception committee for the opening. By July, she had transitioned into being the chairman of the “investigating committee.” The object of the committee was to conduct visitations among the homes of day nursery and kindergarten children “that would enable members to know if the families accepting our help in care of children were deserving.” Committee members were also charged with identifying any additional needs of those families. Thompson visited 50 families in 1909. A majority of those she visited that year were German immigrants. She reported that of all the families that she visited, “[t]he great majority are not of the destitute class but are persons who are trying to pay for their little homes and educate their children and help make it possible for the mothers to aid as wage-earners.”

In addition to home visits, the Association provided many services to members of the community over the years. Highlights of these services included providing access to an on-site public library branch; supplying material needs, such as clothing and food; and organizing classes in domestic science, sewing, and the English language to immigrants. In June 1908, the West Side Mothers’ Club formed and was composed of mostly immigrant women from the west side of Bloomington. They met regularly at the Day Nursery. Their meetings consisted of strength training routines (known as “physical culture”) and lessons such as “Recipes of German Cooking” and “How the Body Resists Disease”—topics that could help these women in their day-to-day lives. Over the years, this group also served as a supporting organization, purchasing supplies for the Day Nursery as needed. Similarly, a daytime cooking class operated at the Day Nursery for young girls. The next year, a night cooking class was organized for older girls between the ages of 16 and 20. Day Nursery programs emphasized physical health and productive lifestyles. English classes started in April 1908 with twelve Hungarian participants. The next year, sixteen German, eight Hungarian, and five American students participated in the course. The offerings grew as the community’s needs grew.

In September 1911, Thompson, who soon became known as “Miss Jennie,” took a more active role in the Day Nursery when she was hired as a “resident worker.” Prior to this appointment, she received six months of training in nurseries in Chicago. This role required her to identify and interact with the community’s neediest families, those who would most benefit from her organization’s services. During her first year on the job, Thompson received high praise from the new chairman of the house committee: Thompson “not only distributed food, clothing, and other bodily necessities, but gave friendship, comfort and wise counsel to all in trouble.” She continued to visit many of the student’s homes, where she saw that most parents were foreign born and had poor English skills. German, Czech, and Italian were common languages spoken at the homes of families serviced by the Association.

The Day Nursery’s services (and needs) grew rapidly. Because of this, at the December 1911 board meeting Thompson called for the creation of a larger space:

“Are there not among your friends, those, who as an expression of gratitude, for the children gathered about their own safe and happy firesides, or as a memorial to little ones gone beyond their keeping, into the Home Eternal, will give you in the form of life memberships ($100), or in some other form the means not only to meet the daily increasing demand of our growing work, but to open a neighborhood house which may be, in very deed, a gate beautiful to all who come within its walls.

An internal fundraising campaign began immediately, raising $1,000 by March 1912. By that May, the Day Nursery had joined forces with three other local charitable organizations—the Girls’ Industrial Home, Young Women’s Christian Association (Y.W.C.A.), and Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.)—to launch the General Welfare Campaign, which took place over just five days between June 3 and June 7, 1912. On the first day of the campaign, fifty solicitors—and twenty automobiles—traversed Bloomington in search of charitable community members. The goal was to raise $14,700 for all four organizations. The Day Nursery aimed for $5,000. A large thermometer on the courthouse lawn tracked the campaign’s progress. However, at the close of the solicitations, only $8,595.45 had been raised, of which the Day Nursery received $816—far less than its goal. Combined with the other funds, however, this amount was enough to purchase a slightly larger property at 1320 W. Mulberry Street in the fall of 1912 for $2,250.

Starting in April 1914, the home was remodeled to accommodate the ever-growing needs of the organization, and the greatly-expanded home reopened that October. A second story was added along with a new basement and additional rooms. The first floor now included a library and reading room, kindergarten room, lavatory, superintendent’s office, kitchen, dining room, and a large nursery. The second floor contained two bedrooms, a classroom, private bath, and supply distribution room. A new feature of the house was a free clinic on the second floor, staffed by Bloomington physicians. In 1916, the “dispensary,” as it came to be called, became a featured offering at the house when a dedicated nurse was allocated. Finally, the new basement was the home of a large classroom, lavatory, storage space, and furnace room. The work was performed by R.W. Evans. During the remodeling process, Thompson took up residence in another part of the city. At the completion of work, she returned to live in one of the second floor bedrooms.

Thompson eventually oversaw all departments of the Association and was deeply appreciated by the neighboring families. In 1914, The Pantagraph wrote that “She is a special favorite of the children and mothers of the neighborhood and her advice is sought daily.” Perhaps it was her philosophy that drew so many to her: “A settlement house must be a home, radiating comfort, counsel and cheer.” In the 1915 annual report, Margaret Robinson, chairman of the house committee, agreed:

“That [Thompson] is loved and trusted by these neighbors is proved beyond question and thru [sic] her the institution has gained their respect and confidence. The employment bureau is daily bringing those who want work to people wanting work done. The foreigner who knows neither our ways nor our tongue, is assisted and directed. The sick are visited, the expectant mother is befriended and advised, clothing is supplied in many cases, and in countless ways she has proved that she is the loyal friend when needed.”

The affection that Thompson radiated toward members of the community was reflected back to her.

Thompson worked hard to educate the larger community on raising healthy children. In May 1916, she served on the registration and enrollment committee for the “Better Babies” contest for children aged six months to five years. The goal of the contest was to educate the community and to “insure a better babies and better care” and “a better race of Americans” by teaching “parents how to improve the physical condition of children already born and to protect those yet unborn.”

That year also saw the English language classes expand to include 25 students of Hungarian, Italian, Syrian, Austrian, German, Polish, and American origins. Pupils now met two nights per week at Sheridan School. The language classes were important for the naturalization of foreign-born individuals because the Naturalization Act of June 29, 1906 made knowledge of English a requirement for naturalization. But 1916 saw a particular emphasis on the “Americanization” of foreign-born individuals with the United States Bureau of Education’s slogan: “Every American get one foreigner to learn English.” The mainstream belief was that English language skills were a requirement of good citizenship.

It is also known that resources through the Association were made available to African Americans in the community. According to the Association’s 1915 annual report, fourteen families were receiving services. Additionally, African Americans could also use the branch of the public library in the Association’s home. In 1916, a “colored women’s domestic science class” was started, which was viewed as “one that may be of practical value to the town.” However, the full extent of the services available to African Americans through the Association remains unclear.

In 1918, Thompson, now “field director” of the Association, made 992 house calls to 265 families—a total of about 1,325 persons. During these visits she provided parental care, assisted doctors during child birth, and cared for both mother and child for ten days afterward. Additionally, she provided alcoholic rubs and other treatment for those afflicted with pneumonia.

Thompson also cared for 50 families stricken during the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919. The disease reached Illinois in early October 1918 near the Great Lakes Naval Station at Chicago and traveled outward along transportation corridors to other cities, including Rockford, Peoria, and Bloomington. The pages of The Pantagraph were filled with obituaries of those who had died from the flu. In total, influenza and the resulting pneumonia killed an estimated 675,000 Americans. Thompson supplied medicine, made pneumonia jackets, and even prepared bodies for burial. The influenza outbreak was so severe that the Association settlement house—along with many organizations in Bloomington—was closed for four weeks from October 7 to November 7.

The Association, under Thompson’s oversight, continued to collect and distribute much-needed materials to local families, including layettes, shoes, linens, and furniture. And Thompson herself served as a true resource for the physical and emotional needs of local families: “Many women were glad to learn Miss Thompson was at home on Saturday and brought to her many wrinkles of their life to be smoothed out. In fact the Settlement House has been made … and outpost of humanity, radiating love, help and encouragement.” Thompson even had a telephone in her upstairs bedroom that she answered at all times of the night. She regularly accompanied children downtown for doctor appointments or to be fitted for shoes.

The Association’s clientele continued to expand throughout Thompson’s career. In the annual report published in The Pantagraph on January 18, 1923, Thompson announced that the Association had served three families from Mexico. Thompson pointed out that “For several years I have felt so sorry for them living in the desolate box cars, but until last year there was no one among them who could speak English. Thru [sic] last winter we were able to show them some kindness.” Ironically, a language barrier had separated them from the services of the Association. Another act of outreach was Thompson’s “ministry of flowers,” which she began in 1922. A ten dollar donation allowed her to bring flowers to four grieving mothers and two women being treated in the hospital. It was these thoughtful acts that endeared her to members of the community.

Thompson worked tirelessly until her sudden death on January 13, 1924 at Brokaw Hospital. She was 63 years old. Her health had been poor since the previous September. She underwent a goiter operation on January 4, 1924 but was unable to recover from her surgery.

Her funeral was held on January 16, 1924 at the Second Presbyterian Church. Afterwards, her body lay in state in the Day Nursery and was viewed by hundreds of mourners. On the day of her funeral, all of the social agencies in town suspended operations so far as possible to allow employees who were not absolutely needed on the job to take time off to attend her funeral out of respect for Thompson’s life of service. Mrs. Gertrude Aldrich, board president of the Day Nursery Association, described her as “a rare and beautiful character,” and heartfelt remembrances appeared on the editorial pages of The Pantagraph. Jennie Thompson was laid to rest at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in the Thompson family plot.

The work of the Day Nursery and Settlement Association continued well beyond Jennie Thompson’s lifetime. The Association operated at its Mulberry Street address until 1968, at which time it moved to 315 North Stillwell Street and became known as the Day Care Center of McLean County. The organization continues to operate today as Milestones Early Learning Center & Preschool, located at 1207 Six Points Road in Bloomington since 2014.