The Portia Club Of Payette: Then and Now
The Portia clubhouse in Payette, Idaho stands today as a testimonial to an extraordinary group of women. An examination of the club's yearbooks, personal memoirs and meeting minutes call out for these women to be remembered. There is a wonderful record of their accomplishments, thanks to Mrs. J. E. Oldham who, as long as she lived, carefully preserved each year's booklet of officers and events and to the secretaries who logged detailed minutes of each meeting.
by Cleo Dolphus Thompson
Portia's first ten years were scantily documented. The members had no idea what they had spawned when they gathered, in 1895, to form a small literary group dedicated to "mutual improvement and social benefit", according to Mrs. B. P. (Eva O.) Shawhan. The 27 year old Mrs. Shawhan had invited her mother, Mrs. Ulysses (Elizabeth) Pickering, her sister, Miss Jessie Pickering (Mrs. C. S. Loveland) and a group of friends to meet at her home in Payette.
Guests at that first meeting were the Mesdames J. H. Shawhan, D. C. Chase, Douglas W. Ross, Mrs. J. B.(Mary) Burns, and the Misses Gertrude Shawhan (Mrs. Henry Sommercamp), and Bess Shawhan (Mrs. Henry Jones). Shortly later that year, they were joined by others including Mesdames J. Keagan, W.A. Coughanour, Henry Irwin, John McGlinchey, A. B. (Celia A.) Moss, G. W. Williams, G. Whitney, J. Toole, L. Grojohn and Miss Alice Adam (Mrs. Albert Grothe).
Mrs. Burns, a former teacher and school principal from Chicago who had moved to the New Plymouth-Payette area in 1895 suggested the name "Portia" for the new club, after Shakespeare's witty, intelligent heroine of The Merchant of Venice. Mrs. Burns who was born in England on December 8, 1858 to American parents, Mr. and Mrs. Lemuel Daw Owen, returned to the United States when she was three years old, and died 72 years later in England during a visit there after being struck by a motorcycle. In the intervening years she gave much of herself to her community and church, not the least of which was her service to the Portia Club in the early 1900's.
The Portia Club began its existence with three standing committees: entertainment, refreshments, and general arrangements. It evolved into a powerful club with committees including conservation, forestry and irrigation, health, historical, household economics, park improvement, relief, library, village improvement, music, educational and loan scholarship, literary, auditing, legislative, home products, industrial and social, executive, membership, entertainment and travel, among others. It appears likely from reading the minutes that the committees met separately and came back to report to the general membership. In reading the first twenty years of minutes, I found no instance where a committee did not report back in a fortnight as requested. Most often with the task accomplished.
There is much Portia history that will not be recorded here. Additional records are available at the Payette County Museum in Payette, including names of the board of directors and committee members. All of what follows was gleaned from meeting minutes, personal memoirs and yearbooks. The yearbooks were sometimes mimeographed and sometimes printed professionally.
The covers of the 1969-1970 yearbooks were hand stenciled and cut out by a popular Payette citizen, Curtis T. (Corky) Carico, an Idaho Power lineman, who was left paralyzed by a work related accident in May of 1964. Mr. Carico was the son of Nellie and Curtis Carico. His maternal grandparents, Nancy and John Bartshe, and paternal grandparents, Tom and Alma Pearl Carico, were all early settlers in the Payette valley, according to Mrs. Donn (Sharon Carico) Cahill, Corky's sister.
Mrs. Burns was Portia Club president in the 1910-1911 club year. She was particularly devoted to the formation of a public library in Payette and spent many years as chairman of the library committee. She carried the first installments of book in a baby carriage to a small building near a Dr. Avey's residence, according to recollections by Mrs. B.P. Shawhan. In January of 1912, five hundred hand written postcards were sent out by members requesting donations of books.
In April of that year Mrs. A. P. Scritchfield donated a room over the post office for a temporary library; by June the women had, according to varying accounts, 400 to 625 books and an enrollment of 58 patrons. In September, the library committee reported a total of 687 books with 214 application cards. The city of New Plymouth agreed to donate books if they could access the library. The new library in Payette's city hall opened on 24 March 1913, with seventy members and guests attending the grand opening. Mesdames Burns, Albert White, Muller and Mandeville were reportedly named in charge of the newly opened library. In March of 1922, the committee reported loaning 330 books the previous week; by October of that year there were a total of 3600 books in the library. At the January, 1925 meeting the library report listed 7,000 books, 3,000 patrons and a total of 12,000 books loaned in 1924.
The women tackled village sanitation problems, buying "waste boxes" manufactured by
Chaney & Sellers for corners of the village main street in 1908. Members Mary Kastenbader and Hattie Branthoover placed the boxes themselves, receiving seventy cents each from Portia for their efforts. The club then convinced the city fathers to tend to their upkeep. They insisted the village elders tend to the "chicken nuisance" and to the "fly question" and instituted the first annual village clean-up day on 3 April 1909. The village furnished drays to haul away garbage from the streets and alleys. The Central High School girls complained to Portia of the unsanitary condition of their toilet rooms and the health committee resolved the issue and then campaigned for fire escapes, fire drills and sanitary drinking fountains for the school's hallways.
Persistent champions of young people, Portia held yearly art and poetry contest until they disbanded in 1972. From 1924 onward, the club supported the Girl Scouts. Named to that first Girl Scout committee were Mesdames Crump, Moss, Hogue and A. E. White, Sr. The industrial and social committee was formed to provide for the welfare of the young girls of town. In March of 1913, Mrs. Chase reported back to the general assembly that fountains had been ordered for the high school grounds at the north and south entrances. The students installed them with the advise of a Mr. Turner. There were reports in the minutes of placing orphans in homes. In September of 1922, the women selected two from their ranks, Mrs. H. W. Douglass and
Mrs. E. E. Parsons, to run for school board directors to better address their concerns regarding the education of Payette's children. Both women won seats on the board. Yearly teas and recognition ceremonies were given for the teachers. High school civil service essay contests were held with the first mentioned winner being a Miss Mildred Dressler who was presented a Portia souvenir spoon by Mrs. S. D. Stroup in 1908. Mrs. Stroup was credited in some of the memoirs as compiling what records there were of the early Portia days. These have not been found.
Portia women were dedicated to village improvement. In 1912, one hundred and five members strong, they urged the lighting of the high school grounds and the establishment of a public park, in which they planted a portion of 1065 rose bushes they had ordered. March 28, 1912 was known, thereafter, as the first Rose Planting Day. In January of that year, the city's Park Commission thanked the club for planting forty dozen bulbs in the Jacobsen Public Park and the school grounds. They planted trees on the west side of the Westside School, worked with the city on renaming streets and numbering houses and urged the appointment of a sexton to oversee the care of Riverside Cemetery, a tax supported entity to this day.
Their charity work continued to the very end. With far fewer members, 33, in 1971 and limited resources, $42.32 in cash in December of 1972, the women were still giving what they could: to the Chamber of Commerce for Christmas lighting, to the library, oranges to residents of Casa Loma Nursing Home, boxes of clothes, paperback books and puzzles to the veteran's home in Boise and a donation to the Jaycee Club for their Kellogg Mine Disaster Fund.
Years before, when they were younger and stronger, financially and physically, they had formed a Look Out Committee in December of 1911 to care for destitute families. A month later the committee had aided 17 families and 74 children with clothing, food, coal, medical expenses and Christmas toys. A request in October of 1912 from the Home Finding Society for bloomers and waists for the children at the Children's Home in Boise prompted the women to sew one and a half dozen waists for the children and to spearhead a city wide donation of a train carload of needed items for the home in November of that year. In June 1913, Portia requested that the home supply them with the equivalent of 300 quart jars to fill. They contacted church societies to help fulfill the task.
In November of 1921, they collected and sent wash cloths and linens to the veterans barracks hospital in Boise. That same month the public welfare committee headed by Mrs. R.A. Crump outfitted six children with school clothes and one widow with clothes and furniture. In December, they led the Christmas Seal sale to benefit The Idaho Anti-Tuberculosis group and met Payette's quota in one day of canvassing the downtown area. In September of 1922, Mrs. P. H. Brown chaired a committee to support one "Near East Orphan" by assessing each member forty two cents.
The women jumped into the middle of any political discussion that concerned them, writing to their city, state and national representatives on topics important to them. In the 23 March 1908 meeting, Portia unanimously adopted a resolution, introduced by Mrs. Mary Hoskins, in favor of local option versus prohibition. In February of 1925, they adopted a resolution in favor of the establishment of an industrial farm for women federal prisoners, a reformatory for young men and first offenders and the development of adequate employment for every federal prisoner. In 1971 they sent letters to North Vietnam via Paris to urge release of the American prisoners.
The women never lost sight of the club's first goals of self-improvement and literary and musical enlightenment. In the early years of the club, critics were appointed for each meeting and, according to Mrs. B. P. Shawahan's notes, they were governed by "a wise provision, against the offenders being subjected to too severe criticism, for we appointed a critic and we were expected to improve rapidly in correct diction..." Every meeting ended with a speaker or a program with topics ranging from the different branches of chemistry to community property laws. The meetings invariably ended with a musical program.
In 1923, one-hundred and forty eight paid members went to work to give a gift of fun to the community and add to their building fund. The women had, for years, sponsored ten cent teas, served dinners, put on plays and lectures, held card parties, dances and rummage sales for this fund. Practically dollar by dollar, they saved toward their dream of a clubhouse of their own.
The idea of a May Day celebration was broached by Mrs. W. J. (Anne Young) Hughes. Plans were made for a parade, queen's pageant, maypole dance and a nighttime lantern parade, according to Mrs. Hughes recollections. Mrs. Hughes was named ticket chairman and conceived an idea to have merchants give one ticket to customers for every dollar they spent in their establishments. Each ticket counted as a vote for the May Day queen. According to Mrs. Hughes, the queen's contest created much excitement. The winner was Miss Mildred Barton. Her ticket count soared when her father received one ticket for each dollar he spent on the purchase of a new Buick the night before the contest ended. Miss Helen Griffin and Miss Helen Moss placed second and third respectively. Notes from the 12 March 1923 meeting indicated that a daughter of any Portia Club member was eligible for May Day queen.
Other chairmen for the event were Mrs. Albert Hobbs and Mrs. F. H. Hogue, pageant;
Mrs. D. W. Ainey, May queen's luncheon; Mrs. H. B. Catron, parade; Mrs. Frank Zimmerman, concessions; and, Mrs. John Helman, lantern parade. Mrs. Ainey and Mrs. Hogue decorated the queen's float with apple blossoms. The governor of Idaho crowned the queen that year and Portia presented her with a diamond ring. Her crown was made of apple blossoms and the choral club of the high school presented a program of song dressed in white dresses carrying umbrellas of purple, Portia Club's official color.
At the May 14 meeting, Mrs. Helman presented a check for $169.69 to the club as May Day proceeds. A portion went to the building fund and a portion to fund the district meeting of the Idaho Federation of Women's Clubs held in Payette that year. Portia had joined the district federation in 1903, the state federation in 1906 and The General Federation of Women's Clubs in 1912.
In 1925, Portia renamed the event "Apple Blossom Day". General chairmen that year were
Mrs. F. H. Shadoin and Mrs. Mary Crump. The festival is held to this date. It is currently a week long event held in May.
From the memoirs of Mrs. Bigelow, dated October 13, 2001: Note 1
"By the time I was in second grade, a group of ladies in Payette had formed the Portia Club, an organization whose mission was to bring culture to the town and area. One of their projects was a May first (May Day) celebration. Each school participated. My first memory of May Day was the Lantern Parade, a procession that wound up and down the town streets just after dark. My lantern was simple that year. Mom helped me cut out three camel shapes on a round oatmeal box. Then we pasted yellow crepe paper over the holes on the inside of the box. A candleholder was firmly attached to the bottom of the box and a short, fat white candle inserted. Then wires were attached to a long pole with a hook to support the lantern. We carried our lanterns swinging over our shoulders. Every child in every classroom had a lantern it made a spectacular sight to see all those lighted lanterns bobbing along the streets. The older kids made very elaborate see-through pictures on their lanterns I remember one I made in later years of stylized flowers, with many colors of petals. Although such a parade now would be too great a fire hazard to be allowed, I never heard of one such incident.
The May Day festival would begin about 10:00 in the morning with a parade of floats winding down the streets of Payette. I must say the merchants and social organizations such as the Masons, Eastern Star, Odd Fellows, and various churches came up with some beautiful creations. The high school girl chosen as Queen of the May and her retinue of princesses rode on the first float. It was a great honor to be chosen for the court, even better than being Homecoming or Prom Royalty! Marching bands from area high schools also participated, and there was the usual number of comic marches, animals on parade, and of course, the horse and riders contingent.
At the end of the parade, folks gathered at the high school building which sat well above the street level, its terrace providing a stage for the pageant that followed. There were two big Maypoles with ribbon streamers, and it took many practices for the dancers to get through the complicated steps, and even more complicated management of weaving the ribbons so they ended up tightly embracing the pole in a prearranged pattern.
Following the Maypole Dances, the various grade levels did their folk dances. The year I was in the fifth grade, Mom and Dad were able to see that I got to all the evening practices for our group I got to be a raindrop, in a costume of silver crepe paper, with row after row of silver strips loosely fastened to the dress meant to give the illusion of falling rain. We danced to the music of the William Tell Overture what a thrill that was for me to get to perform before all those people!
When the pageant was over, people brought their picnic baskets to the park, and kids got to tear around and relax after so much sitting and watching. This was an all-day affair, with competitions on the city streets such as sack races, horseshoes, or the carnival which came every year. While Mom was more than frugal, she could never resist a Merry-Go-Round! We had such rides as "Crack-the-Whip" and "Tilt-a-Whirl". One year I had my fortune told by a gypsy woman who was traveling with the carnival. I had to "cross her palm" with a fifty-cent piece to learn my future. She told me my parents loved me very much, said I had a long life line in my hand, but would suffer a serious illness at some time, and that I would live to be 86. I did the math and thought that I would be 86 in the year 2000 I greatly doubted I would still be here when we entered a new century, but here I am! The festival ended with a street dance after the lantern parade.
Those ladies in the Portia club did try to bring some art into our world....."
Concurrent with their concern and advocacy for their community, state and nation, the Portia women were committed to obtaining a permanent home for their club. They met at various locations during the early years, including member's homes, the meeting rooms of the Commercial Hotel, the YMCA and the Chamber of Commerce offices.
The Final Days
The clubhouse became closer to reality in March of 1924 when Mrs. Celia Moss offered to sell one lot on North 9th Street in Payette for $375.00 or two lots for $750.00. In April of that year Portia purchased one lot from Mrs. Moss for the $375.00. By the time they had decided to buy the second lot in February of 1926, the price had risen to $500.00. For a total of $875.00 the women owned sixty feet of frontage on North 9th Street in Payette. In May of that year the women had $1809.09 in the building fund. By the time the building was completed in 1927 the women had saved enough to pay for the $4,366.00 cost of the building.
On August 1, 1927, the community gathered to celebrate the completion of the building. The Club records were placed in a box by Mrs. J. R. McKinney, secretary; the box was sealed by Mrs. F. H. Hogue, chairman of the building committee; then, Mr. I. C. Whiteley, the architect-contractor, placed the box in the cornerstone setting it in place.
Mr. B. F. McCarroll, president of the Chamber of Commerce, spoke on the accomplishments of the Portia women. He especially praised their work with the city's youth and their role in establishing the City Library, which at that time, was checking out approximately 12,000 volumes a year. Twenty two years later in that same room, Mr. McCarroll's son, Mark, currently of Boise, received the Good Citizenship Award from his senior class.
The Rev. A. H. Shuman gave the invocation and the benediction. The building committee consisted of the Board of Directors: Mrs. D. W. Ainey, Mrs. R. A. Crump, Mrs. Albert White, Mrs. H. W. Douglass, Mrs. A. L. Pence and Mrs. Emma Conover. Club members on the committee were Mrs. F. H. Hogue, chairman, Mrs. P. H. Brown, Mrs. W. J. Hughes, Mrs. A. S. Stettler and Mrs. Albert Hobbs. Mr. W. A. Coughanour donated his services as building inspector.
The building was dedicated on 1 November, 1927, decorated to the hilt, with 150 ladies in attendance. The women noted that the inception of the building fund began in 1919 when Mrs. James W. (Nora) Swank turned in the sum of $60.00, profit from dances sponsored by the membership committee, suggesting they start a building fund.
Among the gifts presented was a president's table handcrafted by Archie Prindle, owner of the Payette Box Mill Lumber Company. The present renovators/restorers of the Portia Club, The Friends of the Portia Club, Inc., are investigating whether or not a podium found in the Portia Club is the original.
Thirty-four years later on November 11, 1961, the women deeded the building to the Payette Junior Chamber of Commerce, Inc. with the stipulation that they could hold their meeting there the second Monday of each month and could reserve two additional days a month with adequate notice. Another stipulation was that the American flag hanging on the stage should remain hanging until such time as wear and tear made it unpresentable. Mrs. Ernestine Patch, Portia's oldest living member, handed over the deed to Mr. Leon Celmer, Jr., president of the Payette Jaycees.
The last recorded meeting of the Portia Club was on 9 October 1972. Members present were the Mesdames Katherine Yost, Dasie Grey, Ida Lundquist, Evelyn Crump, Edna Stephenson, Grace Roberts, Katherine Ritter, Alice Bulmer, Lavonia Fenske, Rua Scott and Josephine Haverfield. The women had been discussing disbanding their organization for several months; their advancing age and inability to attract new members given as primary reasons.
The Friends of the Portia Club, Inc.
Mrs. Fenske moved to vote on disbanding, seconded by Mrs. Bulmer. Mrs. Grey moved to vote by written ballot. The vote to disband was unanimous. The women adjourned with plans to meet on November 13th, to spread out on tables their remaining treasures for sale to members. It is not recorded, but it is a safe wager that the women donated the last of their monies to charity.
Accounts of the disbanding of Portia cannot help but bring to mind the words of Mrs. D. C. Chase in her Brief History of "Portia Club," written in 1927: "In the years to come to those who fall heir to this Portia Club history I send greetings and wish you every good fortune."
The Friends of the Portia Club, Inc., a non-profit corporation, was formed in December 2004; its purpose to restore the historic Portia Clubhouse and its community programs. In February 2005, they obtained the deed to the clubhouse. Years of neglect had taken its toll on the structure.
With in-kind assistance from Kenneth Rice of Holladay Engineering Company in Payette, it was determined that the clubhouse was structurally sound; but, immediate steps needed to be taken to prevent further damage.
A five phase restoration began. The first phase was to save the building. A new roof was the top priority. With help from Williamson Roofing in New Plymouth, Idaho (who donated all materials), private donations and a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the old roof was removed and the new roof completed in July 2005. Termites were also exterminated in this phase to prevent continued damage to the west wall. Completion of this phase includes replacing broken windows panes and manufacturing replacement windows.
The second phase, bringing the clubhouse up to current buildings codes includes replacing the wiring, plumbing, and heating and air conditioning systems. A complete audio-visual system is planned. Mr. Jerry Bunker, of Vale, Oregon, is consulting, gratis, on this issue. This phase also includes making the building more accessible to persons with special needs. The Idaho Community Foundation has awarded a grant to assist with this phase.
The third phase will concentrate on restoring the historic fabric of the building. The Idaho Heritage Trust has awarded The Friends a cash match grant of $3,000.00 for this phase. Projects include refinishing the red oak floors, repairing the original plaster on the stage and restoring the fireplace and wall niches on the north wall.
The last two phases of the project include renovating the interior walls and ceiling, updating the kitchen and repairing the exterior stucco of the clubhouse. The Payette Valley Gardeners have agreed to lend their expertise in landscaping the grounds.
The unique design of the building will make it an ideal community center. The Portia Club is a Spanish style stucco building. It is approximately 2,225 square feet with a large hall (about 32' x 56') including a stage and restrooms adjoining both sides of the stage (with doors accessing the stage for performers), and a kitchen (about 18' x 24'). It is now being recognized as one of the oldest women's clubhouses in Idaho.
Note 1 - Excerpted from the memoirs of Florence Steigerwalt Lattig Bigelow, with permission from her sister, Mrs. Dorothy Cahill of Weiser Idaho. Mrs. Bigelow was born in 1915, the first child of Frank and Mary Steigerwalt. Her maternal grandparents, Elijah and Florence Cox established a farm north of Payette in 1901. The farm has been designated as a Century Farm by the Idaho State Historical Society and the U. S. Department of Agriculture. E. B. Cox grandchildren, Mary Trail and Jon Trail, care for the farm to this day.
Note 2 - To learn more about the Portia Club Restoration Project please visit the web site at www.portiaclub.org or contact Cleo Thompson at (208) 739-3483.
- Payette Enterprise (Payette, Idaho), 1924 & 1927 weekly issues
- Cemetery Records, Payette County
- Shawhan, Mrs. B. P., History of the Portia Club of Payette, undated
- Portia Club meeting minutes, 1907 to 1972
- Portia Club legal transactions, 1965
- Portia Club yearbooks, 1921-1972
- Haverfield, Josephine, Scrapbook, undated
- Chase, Mrs. D. C., Brief History of "Portia Club", 1927
- Hughes, Mrs. Ann Young, May Day Report, 1923
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from about 1965