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dayton-womens-clubOne of the things my mother-in-law left behind when she died this summer was a paid-up membership to the Dayton Woman’s Club. Through the generosity of the club and my husband’s siblings, I inherited her spot as a member.

Jane took us there many times for special events and Easter brunches, so I knew what an elegant, historic place it was. I could hardly believe my good fortune.

The gift coincided with one of my recent fantasies: carving out some time for myself to retreat from work and life. (Do you think about this, too?)

It’s a two-hour trek to Dayton, but I schlep interstate highways regularly and love time in the car. Driving over once or twice a month to enjoy the club is a wish fulfilled.

phyllis-taylorI’m trying to use my membership to show gratitude and hospitality to family friends who cared for my in-laws all through life, especially near the end. Their friend and next-door neighbor for over 60 years joined me for an afternoon tea. At 90, Phyllis is still radiant and a delightful conversationalist—in short the perfect tea companion. She’s also one of our last links to Jane and Jerry.

For a history buff, the gift of membership couldn’t have come at a better time because this year, the Dayton Woman’s Club is celebrating its 100th year. They’ve loaded the calendar with centennial events to celebrate, including a recent introduction to Electra Collins Doren, who started a library training school, introduced the Dewey Decimal System in Dayton and opened Dayton’s library to the public.

I invited the world’s most logical guest for that one: Carol is a classmate of my husband’s who was dear to my in-laws. She’s also the director of the public library in nearby West Milton.

We learned the key role women leaders played in restoring the Dayton Public Library after the Great Flood of 1913. The library was more than just a pillar of light in Dayton; it became a place of safety and refuge for people who might have died without it.

Here’s an account from Minnie Althoff, a librarian who was working the day floodwaters crept toward the library.  

“We flew to the shelves, lifting books, supplies and catalogue trays to the top rows wherever there was space, working with all possible speed, each at different rooms. Soon I noticed water running along the floor and started for the stairs, when suddenly there was a terrific noise; the east doors and windows were thrown violently open and a great surge of black muddy water rushed in like a tidal wave upon us. I screamed for Miss Walter and Mr. Harvey and made a dash for the stairway. Mr. Harvey was caught in the waves up to his waist and only with the greatest difficulty, succeeded in reaching the first floor. Miss Walter I did not see again. Through the hours that followed, I was pursued by the thought that she had perished. Hundreds of horses from the livery stable were taken to the canal bridge, which is slightly elevated, in the hope of saving them. These we saw swept off into the fast-rising current. At first they struggled wildly, floated a while, then sank. One sought the library steps, but unable to reach the door, turned away and was almost immediately drowned. This sight shook us terribly.”

On the brink of having our first female president, it’s intriguing to think about the role of women’s clubs—past, present and future. Most metropolitan areas today have a corollary club founded within a few years of the Dayton club. Here in Indianapolis, it’s the Propylaeum, which takes its name from the entrance to the Acropolis.

Many of these clubs are struggling to stay relevant to a generation of women who work outside the home. Too many of us see them as a place for Ladies Who Lunch, but there’s plenty of evidence that they were much more than that in the early 1900s. Where are they going now? I hope to learn and report more about that!

On my last trip, I stole a few moments to read in the lounge just outside the ladies' powder room.

On my last trip, I stole a few moments of reading in the ladies’ powder room.

What about the women in your family? Are any of you involved in organizations like this? I’d love to learn more about their history where you live.

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.