Looking back on...Woman's Club of Downey

DOWNEY - Women have always played a pivotal role in Downey's development.While pioneering men were hard at work building roads, managing mercantile businesses, establishing busy schoolhouses, and ministering in growing churches, Downey wives, mothers, and daughters used their time, talents and influence to help cultivate something just as important to any society: culture. Clad in lacy blouses with cameo brooches, long, stiff petticoats, and daintily buttoned high-heeled boots, the early female citizens of Downey who migrated to the Los Nietos Valley during the late 19th century didn't cower when faced with the new frontier. Conversely, a quorum of women banded together, pledging to enrich the new developing community of Downey by promoting "the social, moral and intellectual interests of the community." This small group of seven women initially known as the Friday Afternoon Club would eventually transform into one of the most influential non-profit organizations in Downey's nearly 140-year history: the Woman's Club of Downey. Founded in December of 1898, the Friday Afternoon Club was the first Downey organization established that was not affiliated with a church or men's group. State federated in 1900, and incorporated by 1909, the club highly valued education, starting out in 1898 for the discussion and study of the literature, philosophy and history of ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece. According to an original agenda, the first meeting, held inside the Firestone Boulevard home of Mrs. J.W. McKellar, included a lesson on the geography of Egypt. During that initial meeting, McKellar hosted her daughter Miss Judith McKellar, H.A. Scott, Josie McKellar-Magee, Jessie McCoy, Elma Smith and D.D. DeNure, who was elected as the club's first president. In addition to the study of the ancient sages, typical meetings also included the exchange of family recipes, commentary on prevailing education theories, renditions of music by classical composers such as Brahms and Handel, fundraisers for a future clubhouse and public library, and long before women could vote, the club hosted sessions on politics and legislative reform. By 1901 the club's first goal started to become a reality when a "good-sized" library was opened and small rental fees/donations were used to purchase additional books. The early library was established in a room of the J.W. McKellar home. People were asked to come on Saturdays so the lady of the house, schoolteacher Josie McKellar, could be home to greet every reader. Soon the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed to contribute $10 a month to help establish a Los Angeles County Free Library at the club. Downey businessmen gave $15 per month toward the cause. With the influence and scope of the Friday Afternoon Club quickly expanding, a request eventually came from town teachers, and the club became the Saturday Afternoon Club. However, by 1912, meetings were held Wednesdays, twice a month. There was a limit of 25 members. In 1908, fees and donations had accumulated to cover the $1,752 needed for the construction of the Saturday Afternoon Club's first home. In 1910, the club purchased a lot on the corner of New Street and Firestone Boulevard where a new clubhouse was built. The structure became a popular meeting and social place for other community organizations as well. The Downey Rotary Club held meetings there in early years. Hoping to further influence and shape Downey culture, the women soon tackled their next project: a Downey entry in the Tournament of Roses Parade. With the help of the Downey Board of Trade, now the Chamber of Commerce, the Saturday Afternoon Club entered "Butterfly Float," Downey's first Rose Parade entry, and won Banner and Silver Cup in 1920. It wasn't until 1924 that the club changed its name to the Woman's Club of Downey, almost 25 years after it became affiliated with the California Federation of Women's Clubs. Just two years later, the library outgrew the Woman's Club and was moved to the Masonic building on Downey Avenue. The library moved several times as it got larger, until the collection became an official county library and moved into its own building. Although this Downey branch was ultimately replaced in 1959 by the present Downey City Library on Brookshire Avenue, the women continued their yearly support for the library they helped establish. In 1928, the county health department decided to help improve child welfare. They turned to the Woman's Club who added on to its Firestone building to provide one of the earliest day care centers staffed by county doctors and nurses. Additional funds for the project came from the Woman's Club, Kiwanis and Rotary. During World War II, as in World War I, the women did their part, serving in the Red Cross, providing first aid equipment and home nursing services for the returning injured, as well as selling and buying war bonds, serving as air raid wardens and staffing canteens and USO centers. After WWII, many Downey women, some coming out of the war time workforce and others, having acquiring the volunteer habit during the war, joined the Woman's Club, hoping to continue their service. By 1947, the Firestone clubhouse became insufficient, too small to house the growing membership. The building was sold for $28,000 and two years later a corner lot at the intersection of Paramount Boulevard and Lubec Street was purchased for $11,000. Construction of the new clubhouse was completed in the fall of 1950. The resulting 7,000-sqaure-foot facility featured an auditorium, dining room, lounge, kitchen and caretaker's cottage. Today, the clubhouse, located at 9813 Paramount Blvd., still serves the membership and helps sustain the 113-year-old organization, which leases out the property every week for weddings, anniversaries, luncheons, meetings and special occasions. The Woman's Club of Downey hit its height with close to 500 members and a long waiting list in the late 50s and early 60s. However, as more women began entering the workforce and two-earner families became a reality, the number of new members started to decline sharply as many working women had less time to devote to club activities. Today, though the membership has dropped significantly, the Woman's Club of Downey still donates money to the city's local charities and non-profit organizations just as the club did decades ago. The club not only contributed to the city library, but since the early 1900s, the Woman's Club has also supported Rancho Los Amigos, Downey Community Hospital, now Downey Regional Medical Center, Downey Theatre, and the Downey Family YMCA. Moreover, much credit is often given to the early male pioneers who excelled in agriculture, the dairy industry and aerospace, but Downey also had its fair share of strong women who used their gifts and influence to help nurture this community. Due to the vision of leadership of these women, Downey can be proud of its common culture, which continues to promote education, service and goodwill.

********** Published: April 14, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 52