Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Improve Your Mind While You Work...

     As women’s history month draws to a close I would like to highlight a group of extraordinary ladies. The Ladies’ Reading Club of Junction City, which grew out of the Ladies’ Aid Society, a group dedicated to the welfare of the Junction City community following the Civil War.

     In August, 1874, the community suffered from the Grasshopper Plague, and the Ladies’ Aid Society responded with a relief program. They wrote to friends and relatives back east about the crisis of their community and received 53 barrels of clothing and food. They distributed these barrels to 225 of their struggling neighbors from December 1874 to March 1875.

     In November, 1875, the Ladies’ Aid Society became the Ladies’ Reading Club when a group of fifteen ladies decided to listen to each other read cultural papers while they continued to do their aid work.  Eventually a more formal organization would be set up for the Ladies’ Reading Club; in the beginning there were, “no officers, no established rules, nothing to induce stiffness or formality. Just a time to listen to someone who had come prepared to share cultural ideas, while others served.”  The club was the only women’s literary club outside of a school in the area. They were a novelty and proud of that fact. In 1876, the first election of officers took place, and Mrs. James Humphrey was elected President. Following the election, the group constructed their first meeting place. At 5th and Adams, Centennial Hall was dedicated July 3, 1876.

     “The objectives have always been to direct thought to the great questions of the day, to foster a habit of looking at them from all points of view and to teach a consideration for the views and opinions of others, even though diametrically opposed to one’s own. All denominations, and all political faiths were represented in the club, yet it has been possible to scrutinize every creed and every political faith without descending to personalities. It is the pride of the Club that it’s self-poise and dignity can be maintained through even a discussion upon woman’s suffrage or prohibition, upon which questions and opinions are apt to be decided and maintained with warmth.” – A report by Mrs. James Humphrey in 1885

1900 group photo of the Ladies Reading Club. Photo property of the Ladies Reading Club.

     Each meeting started with 30 minutes of discussion on modern events, such as a discussion in the 1930s on Mussolini. Educational programs and presentations were given on everything from Women in Politics to the Purchase of Alaska to The Greek World.  Shakespeare and other literary classics were read aloud and then discussed, and each meeting was ended with “quotations,” where the women repeated pertinent ideas that had been presented that day. But throughout it all, the women always kept their hands busy, helping their community. During the Grasshopper Plague the women packaged provisions, and throughout the years of WWI, the women rolled bandages while they listened and discussed. Always, the concern for the community’s welfare was in the forefront of their minds.  

     The Ladies Reading Club believed that others in the community could benefit from the access to literature and educational programs. In 1876, with the dedication of Centennial Hall, the Ladies’ Reading Club set out to start Junction City’s first public lending library. Friends and relatives back east often sent books to their western relations and these books were the basis for the lending library. By 1891, their library had grown to include 684 books, 214 of which had circulated throughout the community that year.

     The Ladies’ Reading Club is the oldest Federated club in Kansas and one of the oldest west of the Mississippi. In many cases, membership became a family affair, with sisters, mothers and daughters all becoming a part of the organization. In the 1900s, Mrs. Charles Manley became president of the LRC, and her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Charles Manley Jr. became President 20 years later, from 1927-1928.

     On April 8 1897, Capt. Bertrand Rockwell, the wealthy merchant husband of Ladies’ Reading Club member Julia Snyder Rockwell, gave the Ladies Reading Club their own Club House.  On the corner of 3rd and Jefferson, the house was in recognition of their serious and efficient works. The house still stands on its original site and is in use by the Ladies Reading Club to this day.

     The Ladies’ Reading Club is still active today. They meet in the same club house that was donated by the Rockwell’s over 100 years ago. Their projects are funded with proceeds from their annual Fall Festival, which features beautiful handmade items, delicious baked goods, a tasty lunch and their signature Pecan halves.  

     While doing research, a 1914 J.J. Pennell photo was brought to our attention titled the Black Ladies Reading Club.  From what we can find they served the African American community in the same functions as the Ladies Reading Club and improved their minds as they worked. Unfortunately there is very little documented information about the group. If you have information about this group please contact the museum 785-238-1666 so that we can record their story.
Black Ladies Reading Club, 1914. J.J. Pennell photo property of the Spencer Library. Members include Mrs. Ida Perkins (left) and Ida Morris (right) in the front row. Valinda White is third from the left in the second row. Ellen Johnson and E.M. McCord stand on the left and right ends, respectively, of the back row.