In honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the Peto Museum of Island Heights highlighted the contributions of the many Women of Peto, including John F. Peto’s daughter Helen (who was a watercolorist); his female students (including Emily Perkins); and art and artifacts of other Peto family members. The history of Peto’s granddaughter Joy Smiley’s life growing up in the Studio is also explored, as well as the works of some of the founding members of the Peto Museum (Jean Wetta, Alice Askoff and Sarah Punderson).


Immediate Family

Catherine Ham Peto (Mother)

Catherine Marion Ham Peto was born on January 2, 1831. She was the daughter of Hoffman Ham and Maria Tomlin, and the seventh of eight children. In 1852, she married Thomas H. Peto and had five children: four sons and one daughter. John Frederick was her oldest; at school age she sent him to live with her parents and two unmarried sisters. Her family were significant landowners in upstate New York, and in 1900, a lawsuit was filed involving this land; it took a toll on her (and John’s) health. She died of carcinoma of the intestines on September 3, 1908, at the age of 77. Her son John died one year earlier.


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Christine Pearl Smith Peto (Wife)

Christine Pearl Smith Peto was born in July, 1869. She was the daughter of John Farrell Smith and Margaret Houston (fourth cousin of Sam Houston). She was born in Loredo, Ohio, on the family logging farm (which was the subject of Peto’s painting The Old Mill.) The oldest of five girls, she married John F. Peto in 1889 in Island Heights. Shortly after they married, they began to take in boarders in “The Studio”. In 1893 they had one daughter, Helen. Nine years after Peto’s death Christine married Bowman Peterson Van Kirk, a neighbor in Island Heights. In 1936, Van Kirk died, and she reclaimed the Peto surname. She spent several winters in Florida with Helen and family, then became ill in 1942. Her daughter Helen returned to Island Heights to help during this time. Christine died June on 30, 1945 at the age of 76.  


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Helen Serrill Peto Smiley (Daughter)

Helen Serrill Peto Smiley was born in Island Heights on February 24, 1893. She was the only child of John F. Peto and Christine Smith. At age 14, her father died of Bright’s Disease. She attended school in Island Heights, the Peddie School in Hightstown, New Jersey, and The Philadelphia Conservatory of Music. She studied cello, taught herself piano, and had an exquisite lyric-soprano voice. In 1914, she eloped with George Smiley to New York City.  They had three daughters: Blossom, born in Washington, D.C.; Barbara, born in Philadelphia, PA; and Joy, born in W. Palm Beach, FL. In 1942, she and her husband moved to Island Heights to care for her mother. In 1953, her husband George died. Throughout her life, her travels took her to Brazil, Rome, Paris, Egypt, Bangkok, Japan, and Spain. She loved to garden and was particularly proud of her tulips. She took in boarders and raised mink for fur to help support her family. She died at “The Studio” in Island Heights, on May 25, 1978 at the age of 85.

Below, you will see a photo of Helen Serrill Peto in her playhouse with her favorite doll, Lulu. John Farrell Smith, Helen’s maternal grandfather, is in the background on the right. The Smiths, residents of Ohio, visited the Peto family when they came east to attend a reunion of the Grand Army Veterans. Smith served at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Reunions of soldiers who had served on both sides of the Civil War began almost immediately following the war. The thirty-third National Grand Army of the Republic Encampment was held September 6-7, 1899, in Philadelphia.  These reunions served as a wider symbol of reunification, honored the veterans, and gave meaning to their sacrifices. 


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Helen M. Serrill (Financial Supporter & Friend) 

Helen M. Serrill was Peto’s daughter’s namesake. According to an inscription on the back of the photo, she was a fellow artist and great friend of Peto’s who helped him financially. 

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Island Heights and Philadelphia

The images in this group depict the Peto family at their Island Heights home as well as their Philadelphia home. Some of the furniture in the Philadelphia interiors can be found in the Island Heights home photographs.

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The Aunts, Cousins & Others

Margaret Ham, Maria Ham and Helen Ham Smith (Aunts)

The images in this group depict Margaret Ham, Maria Ham, and Helen Ham Smith, who were Catherine Ham Peto’s sisters (Peto’s maternal Aunts). Peto lived with them for a time when he was younger, and later on the Aunts came to live with him in Island Heights.

Below is a collection of original furniture which holds paints and painted dishes/china, (all original to the house) depicting how his aunts (and many Victorian ladies) might set up an area to paint china, a popular pasttime in the late 1800’s.

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Florence May Cowdin Peto (First Cousin)

Florence May Cowdin Peto was the wife of Joseph Edward Peto, John F. Peto’s first cousin, once removed. She was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1881, and died in August 1970 at 88 years old. She lived in Tenafly, New Jersey for much of her life. Florence was an author, historian, collector, designer, lecturer, and quilt maker. An avid collector of antique quilts, a large part of her collection can be seen at the Shelburne Museum. She was also the author of two books: Historic Quilts and American Quilts and Coverlets. She designed and made award-winning quilts using antique fabrics. Florence’s first quilt, named “Marjorie: A Personality Quilt,” was made up of appliqué blocks referring to her daughter’s childhood and career; mother and daughter were very close throughout their lives. In 1980, she was inducted in the Quilters Hall of Fame, located in Marion, Indiana. She died in 1970.

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Marjorie Peto (First Cousin)

Marjorie Peto was the daughter of Florence Peto and Joseph Edward Peto, John F. Peto’s first cousin, once removed. She was born in 1904, and died in 1969. Marjorie received her R.N. and B.S. degrees from Presbyterian Hospital, and the Teachers College at Columbia University in 1925 and an M.A. from The School of Education at New York University in 1951. Between 1942 and 1945 she served as chief Army nurse with the Second General Hospital in England and France and received the Bronze Star for meritorious service. Marjorie wrote the book: Women Were Not Expected: An Informal Story of the Nurses of Second General Hospital in the ETO [European Theater of Operations]. She died in 1969.

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Gladys Emma Peto

At this time, the relationship of Gladys to John F. Peto is not known, however, we know there is some kind of relation because of the painted handkerchief that is in the original museum collection. She was born in Cookham, England in 1890 and died in 1977 at the age of 87. She was the only daughter of William Peto and Mary Jane Reeves of Cannon Court, Maidenhead, England. Gladys was an artist, fashion designer, illustrator, and writer of children’s books. From book covers and advertisements to Christmas cards and calendars, Gladys produced a vast array of work, even finding the time to design costumes and scenery for the Kings Theatre. Handkerchiefs decorated with her artwork were produced by the RH & S Plant, Ltd. She studied at The Maidenhead School of Arts (1908) and London School of Art (1911). In 1922, Gladys married Dr. Cuthbert Lindsay Emmerson, Royal Army Medical Corps. She traveled throughout Egypt, Cyprus, and Malta; lived in India for 5 years; settled in Northern Ireland in 1939, and died in 1977. At this time, it is not certain if they had children or if any living relatives remain.

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Emily Perkins (Student of Peto)

Emily Ritchie Perkins summered in Island Heights with her family. Her father, George Holmes Perkins, is thought to have been one of the founding members of the Island Heights Yacht Club and she is said to have studied painting with John F. Peto. At any rate, she and the Petos were good friends, as shown in a letter now in the collection of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Peto, Thank you very much for remembering me. I am not capable of writing much as yet. I am staying here with friends at Barbizon, two hours out of Paris – and have become very well acquainted with Millet’s two sons and their families – this is his studio. With kind remembrance and thanks to all – E.R. Perkins.”

Emily studied at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art & Design), and the art department of the Drexel Institute until 1895, when she continued her art studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). Emily was an athlete, sailor, artist, and musician, as well as a playwright.

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Painted by Emily Perkins while a student of Peto


The Granddaughters

Blossom (Bee) Helen Smiley Bejarano (Granddaughter)

Blossom (Bee) Helen Smiley Bejarano was born September 30, 1915, and died July 16, 2003 at the age of 88. She was the first-born daughter of George Smiley and Helen Peto. In 1937, she married Raymond Bailey in Palm Beach, Florida and had one son named Robert. George and Helen divorced in 1939. In 1948, Helen married Jose Rafael Bejarano, and Jose adopted Robert as his own son. They went on to have four more children: Georgiana (died at birth), Michele Helene, Barbara Alexandra, and Gregory Andres. Blossom and Jose lived in West Palm Beach, New York City, Brazil, Rome, Rochester, New York, Greenwich, Connecticut, and then moved back to Island Heights. Jose died in 2000, and Blossom died in 2003.

Barbara (Bobby) Smiley Ferguson (Granddaughter)

Barbara (Bobby) Smiley Ferguson, the middle child, was born May 8, 1919 and died in August 1982 at the age of 63. She was the second daughter of George Smiley and Helen Peto. She married William Stephen Ferguson and had one son, William Stephen Ferguson, Junior. Barbara lived in Arizona most of her adult life but in the 1960’s, she returned to Island Heights for a few years. She died in 1982 in Arizona.

Joy Marguerite Smiley (Granddaughter)

Joy Marguerite Smiley was born April 1, 1927 and died May 28, 2002 at the age of 75. She was the daughter of George Smiley and Helen Peto, the youngest of three daughters. Joy married four times (twice to the same man): Edgar “Eddie” Seesholts, Ernie Dean, Harold Richard “Dick” Segoine, and then remarried Ernie Dean. She had no children, and spent most of her time in Palm Beach, Florida and Island Heights. In 1978, Joy took over the family home and opened “The Studio” as a museum, gallery, and bed and breakfast, honoring the legacy of her grandfather. A 1983 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer read “Joy Smiley, an energetic, gregarious blonde, functions as resident curator, guide, and hostess.” Many long-time residents of Island Heights to this day remember Joy, the bed and breakfast and her big personality. Throughout her life, Joy enjoyed traveling to England, Fiji, Australia, Ireland, and Spain. Her will stated she was to be cremated and ashes sprinkled “in the Deep Blue of the Atlantic Ocean of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida.” She stipulated that there be “no funeral services at all.” Below the photos are artifacts and a collection of items from the boarding house.

NOTE: Joy kept all of the furniture, artifacts and objects that were left in the house and furnished the bed and breakfast with what was already there. When the John F. Peto Studio Museum took over, curators decoded where things belonged when Peto was living there and discovered most of the objects in his paintings were still there.

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The Women of Peto Today

Jean Carruthers Wetta

Jean C. Wetta is a well-known fine artist formerly residing in Island Heights. She served as a Board Member and on the Steering Committee. Jean now lives in Missouri.

The Peto Home, c2005, Oil on Board
View of other Jean Wetta Paintings,
Oil on Copper and Board

Sara Punderson

Sarah English Punderson is a fiber artist and designer, as well as a local historian, residing in Island Heights. She served as the original Board Secretary and was on the Steering Committee upon the Museum’s inception.

Study in Red (2013), Circle Vest, Various yarns
Study in Red (2013), Circle Vest, Various yarns
Study in Ribbon (2013), Circle Vest, Various ribbon yarns

Barbara Rivolta

Barbara Rivolta is a metals and jewelry artist and former resident of New Jersey. She served on the Arts Committee and served as a former Board President. She now resides in Florida.

Left: Birdhouse, Clay, Right: Pin, Necklace, Bracelet, Sliver, Beads, Fiber

Alice E. Askoff

Alice English Percy Askoff was an art teacher, avid art collector and curator. She served as Vice President, Chair of the Arts Committee and Board Member where she curated several exhibitions. Alice sadly passed away in 2014.

Sketch, Alice E. Percy Askoff
Original Peto purchased by the
museum in Alice’s Honor.

Abbey Ryan

Abbey Ryan is a local fine artist and a painter of still life in the trompe l’oeil style. She has held several workshops at the John F. Peto Studio Museum, and has exhibited in its juried trompe l’oeil shows.

Still life paintings, Abbey Ryan

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