Eva Benefiel arrived in Kankakee July 31, 1915, to begin her “dream job” as county advisor for the newly formed Women’s Home Improvement Association of Kankakee County.
Exactly one year later, on the afternoon of July 31, 1916, tragedy struck — the 32-year-old Miss Benefiel drowned in the Kankakee River, and a friend who tried to rescue her died in the attempt.
The local Women’s Home Improvement Association was the first to be formed in the state of Illinois and was only the second such group established nationally. Miss Benefiel, a graduate of the Household Science department of the University of Illinois, was chosen from a field of five candidates for the Kankakee County position.
Organized into units in each of Kankakee County’s 17 townships, the association (renamed the Home Bureau in 1922, then Homemaker’s Extension Association in 1962), was formed on June 5, 1915. Hundreds of women enrolled in the new organization (Kankakee Township alone counted 300 members). As advisor, Miss Benefiel attended meetings of the individual units and presented instructional programs on household science topics.
On July 31, 1916, Eva Benefiel and a group of young women from Manteno gathered at Harnit’s Grove, a resort located along the Kankakee River northwest of Aroma Park. The young women were members of the Women’s Home Improvement Association.
At about 5:30 p.m., the group gathered on a stone pier projecting into the river to observe Miss Benefiel conducting a swimming lesson with Miss Abbie Wright. The Kankakee Daily Republican, in its Aug. 1 edition, carried a detailed report of what occurred.
“Miss Wright stated that she had just started to the shore when she heard Miss Benefiel call for help. ‘Girls, get help quick, for I’m going,’ was all that she said. ... The witnesses testified that Miss Benefiel was holding on to the edge of the stone pier. ... She was in water that did not come to her shoulders at the time. She also wore a pair of swimming wings on her shoulders.”
A former Manteno teacher, Miss Essie Carpenter of Stockton, Ill., was standing on the shore when Miss Benefiel called for help.
“Miss Carpenter … plunged into the river, with all her clothes on, and went to her assistance,” reported the Daily Republican. “It is believed ... that the struggles of the two women carried them downstream for a distance of between 50 and 75 feet where there was deep water, and Miss Carpenter sank to the bottom.”
Eva Benefiel “apparently became unconscious and seemed to lie helpless in the water, but did not sink,” according to one of the spectators who made an unsuccessful rescue attempt (her body may have been kept afloat by the “swimming wings” she wore).
S. L. Harnit, owner of the resort, launched a canoe and succeeded in bringing Miss Benefiel to shore.
“Every immediate means of resuscitation was used,” noted the newspaper, but to no avail. A physician who was present said that “from the time she was taken from the water, he could detect no signs of life.”
Meanwhile, efforts were underway to recover the body of Miss Carpenter. She was eventually found some 75 feet from the shore, in 8 feet of water. As in the case of Miss Benefiel, resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.
At an inquest held by Kankakee County Coroner L.E. Fenouille, there was considerable discussion of whether the cause of Eva Benefiel’s death was drowning or heart failure. The coroner’s jury ruled that “drowning was the cause of death, whatever may have been the cause of helplessness in the water.”
The newspaper reported on the widespread reaction to the drowning of the two women: “The tragic death of Miss Eva M. Benefiel … and Miss Essie Carpenter, the brave girl who died in attempting to save her, shocked the county today.”
The article cited the “universal manifestation of sorrow … called forth by the untimely death of Miss Benefiel, who during her short stay here established a place in the hearts of hundreds of people, and by her work, proved herself one of the county’s noblest women.
“Miss Carpenter, while not so well known here as Miss Benefiel … was well-known at Manteno, where she taught school last year. Her memory will be cherished by those who have never seen her. … Miss Carpenter’s act was a true act of heroism.”
The deaths of the two young women, bringing the number of drownings in Kankakee County for the month of July to seven, prompted the Daily Republican to run a black-bordered editorial on Page One.
“The deaths of seven young people in waters, in and near Kankakee, during the month of July, is silent evidence of the necessity of drastic action on the part of authorities for the protection of citizens and visitors from the treacherous waters of the Kankakee River,” wrote the newspaper’s editor. “What Kankakee needs is a bathing beach … where young and old folks can bathe and be watched over and protected by competent guards. … It is high time that some drastic action was taken in the nature of providing a suitable and well-protected bathing beach in Kankakee.”
Unfortunately, that call to action, issued in 1916, went unanswered until 1950, when a public swimming pool was opened by the Kankakee Park District.