It is with pride that the GFWC Woman’s Club of Sleepy Eye announces a year of celebration, with 2013 marking the 125th anniversary of its organization in 1888.
This club is one of the oldest federated women’s clubs in Minnesota, and is part of the International General Federation of Women’s Clubs.
The seed of this international women’s organization first appeared in 1868, when a professional New York journalist by the name of Jane Cunningham Crowley, due to her gender, was refused admittance at a male press club dinner honoring novelist Charles Dickens.
Her reaction was to form a club for women in 1890, inviting women from across the United States to attend a convention in New York City. Sixty-three clubs attended. This was the beginning of what was to become the GFWC, which over the years expanded into thousands of clubs in all 50 states and some 12 countries.
The GFWC mission statement describes its purpose: “The General Federation of Women’s Clubs is an international women’s organization dedicated to community improvement by enhancing the lives of others through volunteer service.”
This service focuses on education, conservation, public issues, international affairs, home life and the arts.
The GFWC of Sleepy Eye has a long and productive history. According to the earliest club records it began to fulfill the need of a wider cultural development in the then, “pioneer town.”
A group of women gathered at the home of Mrs. F.H. Dyckman, wife of the president of the State Bank of Sleepy Eye, on the afternoon of March 15, 1888, to discuss the feasibility of organizing a study group.
That small group formed a committee to draw up a constitution and by-laws, which were signed by 17 charter members on May 25, 1888. At that time, dues and rules were established.
Interestingly, annual dues were 25 cents and no unexcused absences were allowed (though in reality they occurred and new rules were established).
Early minutes were written with a fountain pen in flowing cursive, often too faded to decipher. Those original minutes show that the Woman’s Club meetings were an interesting combination of practicality (early meetings often began with a sharing of recipes) and structured learning.
For many years, members were assigned topics to study and then present to the group. Early club programs read like high school or even college courses, including such topics as European history (studying the reigns of various kings), American history (studying various battles, Presidencies, territorial land purchases, and slavery), Minnesota history, art and architecture of many different countries and literature, including the lives and works of Shakespeare and other authors.
Page 2 of 4 - Over time topics of discussion gradually progressed to include more practical and contemporary concerns, such as women’s rights, safety on the streets, city sanitation, and animal welfare.
The club was not satisfied with in-home lectures and discussions, and began taking action in various areas of concern.
Over its 125 years the club has been involved in multiple national and state causes, ranging from protection of northern Minnesota pine forests, to support of War Bonds, European Relief, Salvation Army and Girl Scouts, and many more.
The club has been even more active on the local level. There is hardly an area of public concern in the town of Sleepy Eye that has not been touched in some way over the years by the GFWC Woman’s Club of Sleepy Eye.
One of the club’s earliest projects, even before the turn of the century, was installing a watering trough on Main Street for horses with a cost to the club of $60, which was a significant amount considering annual dues were just 25 cents. Also, in concern for the welfare of horses, the women organized a campaign to identify the owners of abused horses.
Club members made rounds of Main Street in the evening, and if they spotted horses shivering at the hitching post, they reported the owners to the police.
In the words of the first club president, Mrs. W. W. Smith, “We couldn’t have those horses standing out in the cold without blankets while their owners were tippling in the taverns.”
The health and welfare of town residents was also an early concern.
In 1900, club members were assessed a fee in order to pay for the installation of a drinking fountain on Main Street. To beautify the town they planted flowers around the public school. In the interest of public health they asked the city council to pass an ordinance to prohibit expectorating on sidewalks in public places. They also distributed literature about tuberculosis, which was a serious threat in that era.
In 1909, the club asked law enforcement to keep unchaperoned girls off city streets at night. The following year club members met with the local Board of Education and demanded that the school’s out-houses be cleaned daily until plumbing could be established.
In 1914, the club assisted in financing the establishment of a public restroom on Main Street.
Throughout the nation GFWC has played a major role in the establishment of public libraries. This was true for the Woman’s Club of Sleepy Eye as well.
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In 1898, the club lobbied the State legislature, asking the solons of the day to use their influence in establishing a traveling library system. Eventually, in 1900, the library campaign did help to realize the construction of a library here in Sleepy Eye.
A local banker, F. H. Dyckman (husband of a Woman’s Club founding member) donated land and financed construction of this new library, which was the first public library in Brown County. The Woman’s Club provided chairs and a flag, and community fundraisers financed the purchase of books.
A list of civic interests and initiatives of the club’s efforts in the past 125 years include funding for various items at Dyckman Library, Early Childhood and Family Education Program, Sleepy Eye Medical Center, Sleepy Eye Area Historical Society, Sleepy Eye and Divine Providence care centers, Sleepy Eye Fire Department, Sleepy Eye Aquatic Center, and the Sleepy Community Center.
Funding for projects is derived from major fundraisers, which have varied through the years. One highly successful fundraiser, which was held for many years, was a style show produced for the enjoyment of the entire community, which involved the help of multiple businesses in town.
In recent years the primary fundraiser has been a Holiday Auction, in which members all bring various crafts, baked goods and gifts of all kinds, which are bid upon. This event continues to be a highlight of the year, with spirited bidding resulting in an impressive sum to be used for the next year’s “Civic Improvement Project.”
In addition to the larger projects which are determined biennially, the club also provides ongoing support to local organizations, such as Sleepy Eye Community Theater, Dollars for Scholars, Sleepy Eye Area Food Shelf and After Prom Parties, as well as organizations in the greater community, such as Crime Victim Services, St. Peter Regional Treatment Center, and Gift of Life Transplant House. Also, for many years the Club has supported the March of Dimes and Operation Smile.
The Woman’s Club has been a dynamic force and contributor to civic improvement in Sleepy Eye since the very early days of the community.
Many stories remain in an upper room of Dyckman Library, which serves as an archive of club documents and scrapbooks.
A goal in the coming years is to make this history available to the public by creating a permanent revolving display at the Depot Museum.
The GFWC Woman’s Club of Sleepy Eye was one of the first federated women’s clubs in Minnesota, and has stood the test of time.
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It continues to be a vibrant group that meets monthly in members’ homes, where club business, a topic presentation, and light refreshments continue to be the long-accepted order of events.
The methods have changed; the goals have broadened. The work and the friendships continue, and the community benefits.