When members of the Northville Woman’s Club gather on Oct. 5, at Meadowbrook Country Club, the opening luncheon not only will mark the beginning of a new season, but also the group’s 120th anniversary — a milestone for this community institution.
The oldest organization in Northville and the oldest woman’s club in Michigan, the Northville club maintains a membership of approximately 175 women (both active and associate members), and meets the first and third Fridays of the month, October through March. Apart from the opening luncheon at Meadowbrook Country Club, its regular meetings are held at the First Presbyterian Church.
One meeting a year also is held at the New School Church in Mill Race Historical Village, a testament to the club’s history and one of its original members Mary Lapham, who bequeathed the 1845 structure to the Ladies Library Association (she chaired the organizing committee of that group in 1889) with the proviso that the Northville Woman’s Club be allowed to hold its meetings there in perpetuity.
Lapham, a bulwark in civic affairs who donated the first 250 books to the original library in addition to being the first president of the Ladies Library Association, would become the second president of the Northville Woman’s Club in 1894.
Its first president, Lucy Stout Dowd (whose daughter Edith married Mary Lapham’s brother William Lapham), was responsible for organizing the first group of women in 1891 known as the Circle of Friends. In 1892, the group reorganized as the Northville Woman’s Club with Dowd elected as its first president in 1893.
The September 5, 1893 roster of the club’s original members reads like a who’s who of Northville’s history. Among the 70 original members were Mrs. C.L. Dubuar and Camilla Dubuar, Mrs. A.H. Randolph, Mrs. M. H. Carpenter, Mrs. Libbie Wheeler, Mrs. Eugene Clarkson, Emily B. Swift, Mrs. William Ambler, Mrs. E.K. Simonds, Mrs. W.J. Ely, Mrs. L. H. Beal, and six Yerkes women — Nettie, Sarah, Helen, Mrs. H., Mrs. W.G., and Mrs. Charles Yerkes.
The club’s records, including minutes of each year dating from its early beginnings as well as program books, scrapbooks and other information, are housed in the Northville District Library.
The club was originally formed as a study group with members researching and presenting programs on a myriad of topics from Thackeray and Shakespeare to history and current events. At a time when women had limited opportunities for intellectual pursuits, the club was an opportunity to network with other women in scholarly endeavors.
Mrs. Charles A. Dubuar noted in a 1932 report from a past president’s luncheon that during the club’s early beginnings “women turned their attention with seriousness to actual study. They delved into history, studied early martyrs, and even read Shakespeare together. Led by their ‘captain’ Mrs. Stout, they overcame timidity and learned to stand upon their feet and talk extemporaneously.”
The club’s trademark program books, which retain the original pocket-sized format of its early years, date from 1897-98 and reflect more than a century of history — locally and nation-wide.
A few highlights from past Northville Woman’s Club program books and meeting minutes include:
- 1917-18 – The club contributed $2 to the Women’s Council on National Defense, $44 to the War Victory Commission and $7.75 to the local Red Cross.
- 1919-1920 – The club sent telegrams to Michigan’s senators and representatives in Washington, D.C., asking them to support the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (establishing prohibition) and the Volstead Act.
- October 14, 1921 – Club members took the interurban streetcar to Detroit for a tour of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
- 1930-31 – The club voted to award $10 in prizes for the “best-made graduating dress in the senior class.” Work on the dresses was done in the domestic sciences department at Northville High School. Winners were Isadore Keeney and Dorothy Heatly (first place), and Esther Parmenter (second place).
- 1941-42 – Because of the limitations of transportation in wartime, the club held no out of town meetings and dispensed with the usual guest day for neighboring clubs.
- 1943-44 – The club helped collect 10 tons of tin for the war effort.
- 1944-45 – The club collected used clothing for Russian war relief.
In the decades after World War II, club membership increased, and the organization outgrew its library meeting space. In 1964-65, the club moved to its present meeting location at the First Presbyterian Church.
In addition to the venue change, the club’s program format also underwent a transformation with speakers brought in to address meeting topics. According to current club president Susan Bray, the club strives to present programs on a variety of topics from the arts and history to finance, travel and current events.
Friday’s opening luncheon speaker is James Kuhl, producing artistic director of Northville’s Tipping Point Theatre. Other program highlights for the coming season include a presentation on the Northville District Library by library director Julie Herrin, a preview of “The Rise and Fall of Faberge” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, holiday entertaining presented by Williams Sonoma, and a program titled, “Guernsey: A Family Story.”
Bray said the club is always mindful of its original mission and purpose as a study and cultural group, but now also supports college scholarships for Northville High School seniors and provides aid to a woman returning to complete her education at Schoolcraft College.
Education and improving the lives of women were important crusades for the club’s early members, particularly its first two presidents.
Lucy Stout Dowd was an ardent supporter of the temperance movement and women’s suffrage. She served as secretary of the Northville Woman Suffrage Association and wrote frequently on the topic.
Like Dowd, Mary Lapham was a maverick ahead of her time. Though a daughter of privilege (her father Jared Lapham owned the Lapham State Savings Bank), she threw herself into community work. In addition to chairing the Ladies Library Association and serving as president of the Northville Woman’s Club, Lapham also was treasurer of the Northville School Board.
Ten years after her father’s death, Lapham pursued her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. After graduating from medical school, she opened a sanatorium in North Carolina and became a pioneer in the treatment of tuberculosis. She traveled throughout Europe with the Red Cross during World War I, and worked in refugee camps after the conflict ended.
The vision of Lucy Stout Dowd and Mary Lapham continues today as Northville Woman’s Club celebrates its 120 years — a circle of friends with the common purpose of enhancing the lives of Northville women.
For more information about the Northville Woman’s Club, contact Susan Bray at email@example.com or by phone at 248-344-9356.