Mary Elizabeth Pepoon Howe was born June 26, 1831 in Painesville, Ohio. She died April 4, 1903 on a farm near Table Rock, Nebraska. The Pepoons were French Huguenots from Corsica: originally the name was spelled “Pepin.” The Pepoon family traces its ancestry to Charlemagne. Because of the persecution of Protestants in France, the family spent time in Holland, where the “i” became “oo.” Protestants in France faced persecution from the Inquisition, in addition to being victims of the frequent wars of religion. In 1685 the Edict of Nantes, which granted civil rights to Huguenots, was revoked, and 300,000 French Protestants were forced to flee. Most, like the Pepoons, made their way eventually to Acadia. By 1700 the Pepoon family was living in New England. Joseph Pepoon fought in the Revolutionary War.
Mary Elizabeth’s parents were Silas, son of Joseph, and Mary (Benedict) Pepoon. The Pepoon family settled in Ohio in 1803, bringing peach stones, apple seeds, and pear scions. The Pepoon orchard and farm was large, about 300 acres. In Painseville, the Pepoons were farmers and outspoken Abolitionists. They used various buildings on the farm to shelter fugitive slaves on their way to Canada. It was because of their commitment to the anti-slavery cause the Pepoons knew Henry Clay and the Eber Howe family. Mary E. became friends with Eber Howe’s son, Orville, and the two later married. About 1854, Orville sent Mary the gift of a watch to show his interest. The gift was not acknowledged, and Orville married someone else. Orville’s first wife died, and in 1861 Orville married Miss Pepoon. She had never received the gift he sent.
Mary Pepoon wrote frequently about her experiences in the Abolitionist movement. In 1890, she wrote “Letter from Nebraska” for the “Telegraph” in Painseville, Ohio. The “Telegraph” was an anti-slavery newspaper started by her father-in-law, Eber Howe. The Pepoons were acquainted with noted Ohio Abolitionists, including Henry Clay, and Theodore Weld, for whom her brother, Theodore Weld Pepoon was named. Mary wrote “My father and his brothers all became earnest anti-slavery men. How little this present generation can know of that stormy time when the dignitaries of church and state raved at Abolition.” On Dec. 29, 1890, she described an 1835 incident when a mob stormed the building where Mr. Weld was speaking. Mary was four years old at the time. She wrote: “I slipped away and went down the aisle toward the window. At that moment an egg came flying through and hit me fairly on my bare arm, the shell breaking, and most of the contents remaining where it struck — ” Mr. Weld was forced to flee, but little Mary had her revenge. “I saw the big boy who had thrown the egg. In a moment I stooped down, picked up as big a stone as my little hands could grasp, and holding it as high as possible, let it fall one on of his bare feet.” She adds “he never suspected the little blue-eyed girl, in muslin dress, so innocently holding her mother’s hand — “
Later in the article, she describes her childhood in an Abolitionist home. “My father kept for years a station on the ‘˜underground railroad,’ and his children remember many interesting incidents connected with the shelter of hunted fugitives. Once a mother and little children were hidden away in a chamber, while the father had escaped by a different route. Great were the fears of the poor mother lest some little dark head popping up at a window should betray their place of refuge to some slave-catching neighbor. At last one dark night a big coal wagon drove up before the door, the dark human freight were smuggled in and sent to Fairport, where the good steamer Rochester, with its noble hearted captain, took them safely across the lake to Canada and freedom. Let us rejoice that those days have passed forever away.”
The Pepoon family moved to Warren, Illinois in 1850. Passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act increased penalties for those who helped slaves escape, and the Pepoons were concerned for their safety. Mary Pepoon became a school teacher. She wrote poetry, some of which was published in local newspapers and journals. Poetry was a life-long love for her, and she wrote her entire life. The Pepoons were acquainted with the Howe family, fellow Abolitionists from Ohio. Orville Duane Howe’s first wife, Mary Ann Fenton, died in the spring of 1861. In December of 1861, Orville came looking for Mary Pepoon, who he had known in Ohio. When word reached her that she had a visitor, Mr. Howe, Mary Pepoon was so excited she could scarcely continue teaching. The couple married immediately, just before Christmas. The misunderstanding about the watch that was never received was forgotten.
Orville Howe was a teacher as well. In 1862, the couple had their first child, Edmund. In 1866, the growing family moved back to Ohio where Orville studied orchard growing, “orcharding.” In 1867 the couple had a daughter, Myrta Eunice. In 1869, the Howes purchased 160 acres in southeast Nebraska. Travel to Nebraska was difficult until the railroad was finished. In 1871, the tracks were laid, and the Howes moved to their farm in Nebraska. They built a large house, and Orville Howe became an elected county official: school superintendent and later county surveyor. Mary continued writing, and had the ability to compose poetry for almost any occasion.
Several of Mary’s siblings had preceded her to southeast Nebraska. Her brother, Joseph, who fought in the Civil War with the Oregon Cavalry, brother Theodore Weld Pepoon, and sister Eunice Pepoon Boone all moved to Pawnee County in the late 1860’s. The siblings hoped to establish a Utopian community which they called Bunker Hill. It was near the town of Table Rock, and the area settled by the Pepoon siblings was referred to as “North Table Rock.” Table Rock was named for an unusual geological formation that had been sacred to the Otoe Indians. Mary Pepoon Howe and her husband built a large frame home, which was mostly finished in 1872. The upstairs remained unfinished for a few years, and served as a community center for the area. Bunker Hill School was held there, as well as meetings of the Grange and the Independent Order of the Good Templars, a temperance society. The house was large; in a newspaper article from 1883, Mary writes, “Mrs. Mumford has engaged the school in district 35; will commence next Monday. She expects to keep house with her two children in part of O.D. Howe’s house.”
Mary Howe and her husband were committed to the temperance cause. Some of Mary’s best writing is on the subject, and she wrote articles for the local newspaper, the Table Rock “Argus.” She was the correspondent from North Table Rock, and in the 1880’s and 1890’s wrote a regular column. Nebraska joined the temperance movement early, passing laws first against hard liquor, and even beer and wine in 1916. The nation didn’t begin the “Noble Experiment” till 1919. Temperance united liberals with religious conservatives, and pitted established citizens against new immigrants, especially Germans and Czechs. The Pepoons were traditionally Protestant, as were the vast majority of Nebraska temperance supporters. The Catholic church, peopled mainly by new immigrants, was opposed to temperance, and the Nebraska Brewer’s Association raised funds to fight the anti-alcohol movement. Some advocates of temperance fought against all alcohol, but most wanted just the abolition of hard liquor, and permit beer and wine.
Temperance in Nebraska, as well as in other western states, was closely connected to the movement for women’s suffrage. The Catholic church and the Brewer’s Association realized that the liberal Protestants fighting for women’s rights were by and large the same people supporting temperance. Consequently the suffrage movement in Nebraska was opposed by the groups that opposed temperance, and Nebraska was the last western state to approve voting for women. In Nebraska, the Brewer’s Association was successful in portraying suffragists as anti-feminine extremists. Women against the suffrage movement received generous funding from the Brewer’s Association. Women finally received a limited right to vote in 1917. This first law allowed women to vote only in municipal and presidential elections. It wasn’t till 1920 full suffrage became the law of the land. Both Mary and Orville Howe fought for both temperance and suffrage.
Mary Pepoon Howe left a large amount of poetry, some of which was published in newspapers like the Painesville “Telegraph” and the Table Rock “Argus.” In addition the Howe family printing press in Nebraska published collections of her work. In 1902, “Early Poems,” poetry written when she was a child, was published by her son, Edmund. While her poetry has not stood the test of time, some of it is remarkable, especially since some of it was written when she was a child. Her range of subjects is interesting: she wrote about escaped slaves, gold mining in California, the plight of Native Americans, and memories of her deceased friends. Mary’s poetry could be considered of an era, it wasn’t necessarily appreciated in her day. Apparently readers of the Table Rock “Argus” didn’t care for it. In the June 6, 1885, North Table Rock column, she ends by saying, “So sorry you don’t like poetry, because, you see, I was intending to— but I won’t harrow your feelings by mentioning it.”
Death is a prominent theme in Mary’s poetry. Like Emily Dickinson’s work, it’s tempting to conclude the poetry of Mary Pepoon Howe is macabre. However, in the mid-19th century, death was very much a part of life. Medicine was essentially unchanged for a thousand years. There was no germ theory, no public sanitation, no food safety standards. Epidemics were rampant. Malaria, for instance, ravaged communities in Ohio every fall. Although Mary’s family was historically Congregational, Mary, like her husband, Orville, believed in spiritualism. The Howes believed communication was possible with those who had entered the “summer land.” The Howe’s daughter, Myrta, was a spiritualist who made a living in part by holding séances.
Although Mary was a prolific poet, she was not as committed to keeping a diary. In 1855-57, she made just five diary entries. In addition to poetry, after she married, she copied and possibly invented scores of recipes. Some seem strange today, for instance, her “potato pudding” sounds unappetizing. Recipe quantities are huge: cakes call for a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, and Â¾ of a pound of butter. Many of the ingredients are unfamiliar today. Before baking soda or baking powder was readily available, cooks used sal volatile, an ammonia based leavening agent that was also the active ingredient in smelling salts. It’s noteworthy that the pro-temperance Mary used wine and brandy in her cooking. The Howe farm house had six bedrooms, and there were often extended visits from family members. The North Table Rock news reports holiday dinners for up to 40, and dances held. Mary founded the Bunker Hill Shakespeare society, and was interested in literature as well as politics.
From about 1881 -1889, she wrote a column, “Letter from Nebraska” for the Painesville “Telegraph,” a newspaper in Painesville, Ohio, founded by her father-in-law. These regularly appearing articles present a slice of life about farming, women’s rights, and other political matters in Nebraska. Weather and crop yields are very important as well. Mary writes about seeing the aurora borealis, and describes lightning strikes on her neighbor’s homes. Mary’s husband Orville was first a member of the Free Soil Party, and later, the Republican party. She describes herself as a partisan Republican, supporting that party’s support of prohibition. Her son, Edmund, was first a Populist, then a Democrat, then a Socialist. Edmund’s political affiliation was a shock to conservative Table Rock, and some of the citizens of Table Rock boycotted his newspaper and farm because he was seen sporting a political button for Coxey, a Democrat. This caused Mary consternation, and she wrote a satirical poem about the “Twelve Wise Men” who treated her son that way.
In 1888, Mary suffered severe injuries when her horse was spooked. She was battered and bruised, breaking among other things, both her arms. She was in bed for many months, unable to write. In 1896, her beloved brother Theodore and his family, as well as her sister, Eunice, moved to Arkansas. According to a niece, Elsie Pepoon Sutton, Mary never recovered from this loss. She passed away in 1903. She didn’t live to see either temperance or suffrage, causes for which she worked all her life, become law. She was survived by her son Edmund, his wife Mary Viggers Howe, and their three sons. Her daughter, Myrta, died the following year, and her husband Orville Duane lived till 1917. Mary Pepoon was much loved, and at her memorial service poetry was read. She was remembered as a writer, founder of the Bunker Hill Shakespeare Club, and political activist, untiring in her work for temperance and women’s rights. The Women’s Club of Table Rock, which Mary had helped to found, had a poetry reading on the anniversary of her birthday for several years after her death.
The author would like to thank Helen Howe Saylor for access to primary documents.
“The Battle for Votes for Women in Nebraska,” pp1-8, http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0700/stories/0701_0110.html, retrieved 7/25/2010.
Mary E. Pepoon Howe, “Diary.” Painesville, Ohio, unpublished, 1855.
Mary E. Pepoon Howe, “Early Poems.” Table Rock: E.D. Howe Press, 1902.
Mary E. Pepoon Howe, “Letter from Nebraska,” Painesville “Telegraph.” 1881-1889.
Mary E. Pepoon Howe, “North Table Rock,” Table Rock “Argus.” 1880-1900.
“Prohibition of Alcohol in Nebraska,” pp 1-6, http://www/nebraskastudies.org/0700/stories/0701_0120.html, retrieved 7/25/2010.