If it weren’t for the ladies … | VailDaily.com

If it weren’t for the ladies …

Kathey Heicher
Courtesy/Eagle County Historical Society

At the turn of the century, women’s clubs often focused on eduation and cultural projects. These Red Cliff women were members of the Neighbors of Woodcraft Kinnikinick Circle No. 453. This photo was taken in 1910.|Special to the Daily/Eagle County Historical Society| |

Men may have settled the rugged mountains and green valleys of Eagle County – but it’s the women who civilized them.

From the days of the raucous High Country gold- and silver-mining camps of 100 years ago to today’s resort economy, women’s organizations have played a key role in shaping the mountain communities of the Eagle Valley.

Pulled together by common factors ranging from church affiliation to educational interests, the female influence throughout the valley cannot be ignored. The female-inspired “cultural” entertainments brought gentleness and some degree of culture and refinement to the raw society of the mining camps. The keen patriotism and tireless efforts of the Red Cross women who raised funds and knitted sweaters for the soldiers of two World Wars instilled communities with the spirit and sense of unity essential to pulling through tough times.

Ladies were key

No doubt about it, the club ladies of the past 100 years left their mark of refinement, and played a key role in establishing our current cultural and social values. The women’s efforts also made life a lot more fun. Mining camp-era newspapers are filled with references to masquerade balls, ice cream socials, plays, and musical reviews, which provided a welcome break in the toil and roughness that characterized mining communities. Often, the events had a philanthropic purpose, reflecting the desire of the women to improve their communities.

“The lady minstrels expect to render their entertainment at the Legion House in Red Cliff on the evening of Feb. 3, and at Gilman Feb. 4. The proceeds will be donated to the fund already subscribed for the purpose of advertising Red Cliff and Gilman to the outside world.”

The Eagle County Blade

Jan. 26, 1899

Follow-up issues of the The Eagle County Blade indicate the minstrel ladies were a persistent group. During the week that the entertainment was scheduled, record snows blocked the roads and the program had to be canceled. The determined ladies trekked through the snow a week later, and presented their play “The Belles of Blackville,” raising an astonishing $436 for their cause. Perhaps that money was used to produce a brochure titled “The Empire of Eagle,” a descriptive history Chamber of Commerce-style pamphlet published in 1899 that paints a very favorable picture of the mining camp community:

“Intelligence is marked in every district, as the settlers have gained from travel a wide and practical knowledge of places and affairs that is lasting and useful. Then again, they are all close students of human nature, devourers of books and periodicals, quick of comprehension and retentive of memory. They naturally look for improvements in all things and aim to assist in advancing improvements. Literary societies, debating clubs, dramatic clubs, and reading circles are numerous and well attended.”

The Blade praised the ladies for “their efforts to do something to wake up our people to the necessity of some little push to gain recognition in the world.” Furthermore, the newspaper advised that “the example set by the ladies should be followed by the men of this section, and Eagle County should be made known to the outside.”

Intellectual stimulation was often a motive for the formation of clubs.

Women gathered to study history, classical literature, and art. In effect the social groups were mining-camp universities for middle-aged women. Meetings were most regularly held in the winter, when children were in school and the women had more free time. Historians speculate that the club activities, involving research and public speaking, prepared the women for leadership roles in the later reform era that saw such issues as women’s suffrage and prohibition rise to prominence. The clubs often adopted innocuous or nonpolitical names, in order to avoid criticism that the true purpose of the group was political reform. Club names often alluded to classical or literary figures, or flowers.

The ladies of Eagle County followed that trend. Newspaper accounts refer to the activities of Emerson Circle and the Delphian Society. One of the longest-surviving clubs was the Kinnikinick Circle No. 453 Women of Woodcraft, a social and philanthropic group established in Red Cliff in 1902. The group was still meeting in the early 1970s.

The betterment of the community was often the end result of the sisterhood activities. In May, 1900, the Ladies Aid Society of Eagle hosted a “toothsome and delightful” supper. This fund-raiser apparently involved the men paying 25 cents to dine with a lady. “Tommy Gleason ate six times with six pretty girls,” the Eagle County Blade reported. The profits were used to buy new Venetian blinds for the church.

Ladies clubs and libraries

Records throughout the West indicate that as many as four-fifths of the public libraries in the United States were started originally by women’s clubs. The clubs wanted books not only for their own use, but also in response to community need.

The ladies of Eagle’s Delphian Society, a literary study group, also mixed their self-education with philanthropic goals. When ranchers brought their wives and children to town on weekends to run errands, there was often no place for the women to congregate or socialize.

The Delphian ladies put aside their studies long enough to tackle this situation. They raised funds with a series of events, including a Valentine’s dance, suppers, card parties and minstrel shows. Eventually, the women accumulated enough money to buy a building that once housed a pool hall and supplied the room with inviting furniture and rest facilities. The community house served as the town library for a period of time, and was eventually deeded over to the Town of Eagle. The structure until last year continued to function as the Town Hall.

World War I brought new problems and concerns for communities and club women. The sisterhoods shifted their priorities to supporting the war effort through canteens, bond sales, conservation measures, supporting military hospitals and work with the Red Cross.

The Eagle Valley Enterprise reported in December, 1917 that an “old settlers” dance raised $78.50 for the local Red Cross Branch Chapter. Fair receipts brought in $1,295; and a Chautauqua brought in another $57.50. Branch workers were set up in every town in the county.

Lutheran ladies

In Gypsum, the Lutheran Ladies, another long-time organization, was community-oriented. They gave the town money for street lights, contributed toward development of the high school football field, and dug up $1,000 for the local Fire Department when a new truck was needed.

“The Women’s Club of Minturn will discuss “The Winning Plan’ submitted to a vote of the American People. “

The Holy Cross Trail

January 26, 1923

No project was too big for the sisterhoods to tackle. In 1937, the ranch wives of the Sweetwater community, northwest of Vail, decided to dispel their isolation by establishing a community club. Their first project was a big one: Watershed pollution was creating problems in Sweetwater Creek, the water source for most of the families in the area.

The women made a map of pollution sources, then persuaded a state bacteriologist to test the water. As a result, people were encouraged to move their outdoor toilets away from the banks of the stream.

That first project set a pattern. For years, the women hatched ideas, and the men were drafted into service to carry out the plans. The Community Club accomplishments included lobbying for a railroad underpass to eliminate a hazardous crossing, campaigning for construction of the Colorado River Road, bringing electricity, telephone service, and television reception to the area, and starting a community library.

By 1939, the political situation in Europe had again become unstable, and again the American Legion Auxiliary became a prominent in local newspapers. Fund-raising efforts enabled the group to set aside $2.50 for the purchase of a Christmas gift for every child in the Eagle and Gypsum school communities. An Auxiliary Santa Claus handed out six food baskets to needy families. The group also donated money to military hospitals, and to a fund benefiting children with infantile paralysis.

A July, 1943 issue of the Enterprise once again reports on local organization of the Red Cross:

“Mrs. Harry Benton came in from Burns to visit the county headquarters and not only accepted their share of the county quota garments, but said they were planning to make more, sharing the expense of materials. Yarn for 20 sweaters has arrived and will be sent out in the order requested… .”

A ladies’ “welcome home’

When the wars ended, the ladies’ work continued. In the 1950s, the Eagle Homemakers’ Club ladies got down on their hands and knees and painted yellow strips down Eagle’s main street, using paint left over from one member’s recent kitchen remodel.

The tradition continues today. These days, club membership tends not to be segregated by sex. The energy of volunteers and philanthropic nature of small-town residents drives many projects in the valley. The Lions Club and Rotary are active in various community causes. Often, it is an informal group of volunteers rather than an organized club that make events such as Flight Days or Gypsum Daze happen. Some organizations raise funds for causes such literacy or help to organize and deliver holiday food baskets to needy families.

As they have for more than 100 years, the ladies of the clubs are still leaving their mark on this valley.

This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.

Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories about local ladies clubs, past and present. The second story will appear Sunday.

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