SKOWHEGAN — The group that brought the first sidewalks to Skowhegan, worked toward the advancement of women and pressed for sanitation, clean air and water as early as 1900 is celebrating a birthday this weekend.
The Skowhegan Woman’s Club ratified its original constitution in November 1882 — 130 years ago this month.
The club today, with 35 regular members, is part of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and has two offshoots in Skowhegan — Semper Fidelis, with about 20 members and the Dove Society, also with about 20 members.
Together, the three clubs have just raised $10,000 for the Skowhegan Free Public Library.
“It’s a good place to learn people skills and leadership skills,” said past club president and club historian Maxine Russakoff, who has the original documents and ledgers from the founding. “When it was first started it was not supposed to be a service organization, it was purely social and educational. And it was not to be philanthropic. It was purely for education and the betterment of women.”
Russakoff, 81, said the women — about 50 of them at first — would assemble in private homes twice a month from November to April for educational programs, in which each of the ladies would do a presentation on educational and literary topics. Meetings later were moved to the upstairs parlors at the Skowhegan library.
The original charter said the object of the club was to establish the “moral, intellectual and social development” of Skowhegan women.
Pamela Fuller was the first club president.
They were among the first feminists, Russakoff said.
The history of the club begins with Fuller and Deborah Fellows, who had heard of women visiting Skowhegan from Lynn, Mass. These women already had formed a new kind of club, Russakoff said.
Their husbands were to be the founders and managers of the town’s first shoe shop, owned by the Keene Bros., of Lynn. Skowhegan later would become known as a center for footwear manufacturing, continuing today with the New Balance Athletic Footwear Co.
Club women would have a children’s day each year with costumes and cake and a gentleman’s night once a year. They would hold readings, especially from Shakespeare, and often would have debates.
In one such debate, in December 1884, Russakoff said, the notion was presented that reading the daily newspaper was less important than reading Shakespeare and the Bible.
One woman, a Mrs. Norris, suggested that “much reading of the newspapers (was) a very dissipating exercise for the mind,” Russakoff said, reading from the minutes of a meeting.
“The members seem to be agreed in thinking it better to read a good weekly newspaper thoroughly, than to read a daily paper carelessly and spend so much time on account of accidents and murder,” the minutes read. “The (club) president referred to the time before the era of daily papers when the Bible and Shakespeare were sufficient to furnish any a private library.”
The debate resulted in a draw, with a leaning toward knowing the news, Russakoff said.
The Skowhegan Woman’s Club joined the Maine Federation and in turn the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1892.
In 1920 the club changed from an educational and social organization to more of a practical service group, Russakoff said.
“Now, we volunteer. We give of ourselves,” she said. “We are working with newborns in need, making garments for babies that are premature. Last year it was Operation Smile for donations for children with clef lip and goodie bags and blankets.”
The club also raises money to combat domestic violence, provide healthy food packages for needy children to take home on the weekend, raises money for St. Anthony’s Soup Kitchen, the local food cupboard, hospice and the local animal shelter.
Quoting a club member from years past, Russakoff said club members believe doing good things for the community results in better lives for everyone.
“In doing nothing for others, you’ll do nothing for yourselves,” she said.
Doug Harlow — 612-2367