Women’s clubs were formed since the early days of our country for the purposes of political involvement, study, recreation and philanthropy. In March 1889, the General Federation of Woman’s Clubs was formed in New York in an attempt to coordinate the goals of the women’s clubs then in existence.
In November 1891, 97 women met in the parlor of the Unitarian Church in Grand Haven, which once stood near the corner of Washington Avenue and Fourth Street. The purpose of the meeting was to form a society of women devoted to the study of music, literature, art, history and science.
Originally called The Ladies Literary Club, the name was later changed to Woman’s Club of Grand Haven. The group planned to meet weekly from October through May and charge a dues of $1 annually. By the end of 1891, the group’s membership had reached 98 when Grand Haven’s first teacher, Mary A. White, was made an honorary member.
The meetings held in the 1890s often dealt with topics of concern to housewives. Dave and Dottie Seibold’s book, “In the Path of Destiny,” lists early programs like “Servant Girl Problems,” Should we be Obligated to Employ Untrained Servants” and “How are American Servants Trained?” as topics for discussion at Woman’s Club meetings.
Members soon proved to have interests far beyond domestic issues. The club waded into the city’s cultural affairs when they became involved in such projects as the beautification of the grounds at the former City Cemetery and the building of a bandstand in which summer concerts could be held. The success of these projects empowered the Woman’s Club to move ahead with involvement in future issues such as the ringing of curfew bells and lighting darkened city streets.
In 1896, the Woman’s Club contracted with the Unitarian Society for the use of the Unitarian Church as their regular meeting location. The Woman’s Club also voted to increase their annual dues to $3 per year in order to help the church cover the added expenses incurred by having their meetings held there so regularly.
In 1901, the Woman’s Club led the charge for a library. It took several years, as well as lobbying the City Council, but in 1913, the Woman’s Club got the city to agree to accept $12,500 from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation for the new library. By the 1910s and 1920s, the Woman’s Club became involved in supporting the efforts of the YMCA and the Red Cross, purchasing a new town clock, the installation of the town’s public drinking fountain, and constructing the steps at the foot of Washington Avenue, to name just a few.
Martha Duncan, a member of both the Unitarian Society and of the Woman’s Club, deeded the property now known as Duncan Woods to the city in 1913. When she passed away in 1918, her will stipulated that when the Unitarian Society was no longer functioning, the Unitarian Church building should go to the Grand Haven Woman’s Club. This was to happen in exchange for the Woman’s Club paying $100 annually for the upkeep of Duncan Memorial Park (Duncan Woods.) The Unitarian Society did stop functioning, and in 1924 the Woman’s Club inherited the Unitarian Church, which they called home until 1964.
The Woman’s Club continued with a variety of projects and causes. They were on the forefront of environmental action, fighting the destruction of trees in downtown, and advocating for the preservation of sand dunes 50 years before the rest of the community realized the need. The club continued to spearhead the Red Cross, cancer and polio drives, and were instrumental in starting a fluoride program in local schools and for campaigning for pasteurized milk being sold in Grand Haven.
In the early 1960s, the U.S. Postal Service made plans to build on its current site on Washington Avenue. The Grand Haven Woman’s Club sold their building to the government and contributed much of the proceeds to the city’s new Community Center building project, with the understanding that the Community Center would become the permanent home of the Woman’s Club.
The club celebrated its centennial in 1991 and, 128 years after its founding, it remains an active and vital group in our community today. The Grand Haven Woman’s Club meets on the third Tuesday of the month (September to April) and on the second Tuesday of the month (November to December) at the First Presbyterian Church of Grand Haven. The club continues through volunteer service to work on issues important to area women like health, education and welfare.
About the writer: Kevin Geary
is the curator of education for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum, 200 Washington Ave. in downtown Grand Haven. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 12-5 p.m.