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Stillwater’s 130-year-old women’s reading club may soon end

October 27, 2018
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In this Oct. 1, 2018 photo, Debi Orff, club president wears a pin which belonged to Mrs. W. M. Helen McCluer, the original founder of the club, during the monthly meeting of the Woman's Reading Club in Stillwater, Minn. The club was founded in 1886. Now, 132 years later, members are wondering whether the club will survive and are looking for new members. (Scott Takushi/Pioneer Press via AP)

STILLWATER, Minn. (AP) — The Stillwater Woman’s Reading Club gathered at St. Paul Lutheran Church on Oct. 1 to eat ginger cake and listen to a program about how the new St. Croix River bridge was built.

The women, 14 in all, were carrying out a tradition that is 132 years old.

The Woman’s Reading Club has met the first Monday of the month from September through May since 1886. Club members discuss books, listen to lectures and socialize.

But the club’s days may be numbered. Unless an influx of women join soon, it’s unlikely the group will continue in 2019.

“Most of the members are in their 80s and 90s,” Debi Orff, club president, told the Pioneer Press . “We have lost several members just in the past year. Ten years ago, we had more than 40 members, and now we’re down to about 20 active members, give or take.”

The club’s meeting time — 1 p.m. on the first Monday of the month — makes it difficult for working women to attend, Orff said, but there has been no push to change it.

“To change a tradition that is that long-standing is difficult,” she said. “When you consider the age of the existing group, changing it to an evening time would be an issue.”

Club meetings follow strict rituals: Meetings are called to order with a gavel, members recite the Pledge of Allegiance and then say the “Club Collect,” a prayer written by Mary Stewart. It includes these lines: “Keep us, Oh God, from pettiness; let us be large in thought, in word, in deed. Let us be done with fault-finding and leave off self-seeking. May we put away all pretense and meet each other face to face, without self-pity and without prejudice.”

Women used to need a letter of recommendation from a current member to join the club; that practice was discontinued several years ago.

One practice that has continued: When a Woman’s Reading Club member dies, the club presents a book in her honor to the Stillwater Public Library or the Bayport Public Library.

The club was founded by Helen Jenks McCluer, the wife of District Court Judge William McCluer. The couple wed in 1858 in Waterford, New York, and moved to Stillwater later that year.

On June 7, 1886, McCluer invited a small group of women to her home “for the purpose of the literary and social culture of its members and the promotion of the community interest,” said Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, which keeps the club’s meeting minutes, records and keepsakes in a large metal file case in its archives.

McCluer was elected president and continued in that position for the next 46 years, until her death at age 95.

“For more than half her presidency, the meetings were held at her home, and she planned all the programs,” Peterson said.

McCluer and the reading club members are credited with helping found the Stillwater Public Library in 1897.

McCluer’s legacy lives on.

In accordance with tradition, the president of the club is given custody of an amethyst brooch originally presented to McCluer on her 91st birthday. At the meeting in October, Orff wore McCluer’s brooch pinned to her sweater.

At the Oct. 1 meeting, Orff introduced Todd Clarkowski, who was the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s project coordinator for the St. Croix River bridge. For about 45 minutes, Clarkowski discussed the bridge and answered dozens of questions.

“What do you do with the snow?” asked Marilyn Schmoeckel, 88, of Stillwater.

Clarkowski said the snow is plowed off the bridge and dumped on a 5-acre site in Wisconsin.

Other programs have included presentations by authors such as Dave Fabio, Carolyn Porter, Heidi Parton and Colleen Baldrica.

Orff, 68, of Stillwater, said she plans to broach the subject of sustainability at the November meeting.

“We may be taking a vote at the end of this year: Do we continue, or do we maintain with the people that we have?” she said. “Not everybody is going to make it every month, and 14 people isn’t very many.”

Norma Singer, 89, said she has tried to persuade friends to join the club, but “none can come because we’re all getting too old.”

Singer, a retired kindergarten teacher, said she likes being part of a club that does not require advance homework.

“I don’t have to come and have something prepared or have read a book,” Singer said. “It’s more like a social club. I come, and I learn something. We always have interesting programs, and it’s just a nice group. Most of the time you go to a club meeting, you have to be prepared for something. I was a teacher, and I got so sick of that. You know, you always were expected to be prepared.”

Former club president Ellen Campbell, 89, of Stillwater, said she hopes the club continues.

“It helps us keep up with books,” she said. “I read a lot of books; I read every night. I would miss it very much.”

Campbell took detailed notes during Clarkowski’s presentation. “I learned more about what’s going on with the bridge,” she said. “I just think it’s important to keep up.”

“I’ll be 97 in November,” she said. “I don’t know how much longer I can carry on.”


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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