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Portia Club National Register of Historic Places Registration Form

KSD Consultling LLC, July 8, 2009
1602 W. Hays, Suite 301, Boise, Idaho 83702

History of the Portia Club

Western settlement, spurred on by agricultural expansion through the Carey Act and through construction of America's railroad system, brought independent farmers and entrepreneurs to the West. Many, many small towns sprung up around the intermountain west, serving agricultural efforts in the surrounding areas. But even with a community nearby, life for western women could be filled with loneliness and boredom. Early settler Annie Pike Greenwood, whose family homesteaded in the rural region of Hazelton, observed that "you can have such a hunger for your humankind that you learn to know every wagon as it goes by on the road ... Annie Pike Greenwood, We Sagebrush Folks, Page 53 (Moscow: The University of Idaho Press, 1988). Women found themselves eager to participate in non-religious arenas of social causes and personal betterment.

While women's clubs thrived nation-wide during this period, women from rural towns and isolated homesteads also found that they were also helpful in combating loneliness while addressing societal ills. The end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries saw a heightened interest in the creation and participation of social clubs, an era marked by social displacement with limited means for long-distance contact. Women moving from urban eastern areas to rural western regions were eager to recreate the social experiences they left behind. One of Idaho's earliest women's clubs, the Columbian Club was formed to sponsor a women's room in the Idaho building of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Following that project the Columbian Club went on to adopt civic causes such as the creation of Boise's first library, curtailment of unsightly billboard advertising in the city, and the creation of playgrounds. So popular were women's clubs that the Idaho Federation of Women's Clubs (lFWC) was created in January 1905; by 1912 the IFWC represented 2,000 members in 52 clubs. Idaho women 's clubs supported national and state parks, sought to enforce health laws, and worked to create or improve access to lending libraries. Through the efforts of women's clubs, Idaho was the first state to institute slaughterhouse inspection laws, and, at their insistence, Idaho businesses and schools stopped using public drinking cups (women's clubs even raised the money for Boise's first downtown drinking fountains) Sharon Snow Carver, Clubwomen of Boise in Encyclopodia of Women in the American West, ed. Gordon Morris Bakken and Brenda Farrington, Pages 64-66 (Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2003).

Though women's social clubs contributed to Idaho culture in the 19th and 20th centuries, buildings dedicated entirely to women's clubs were scarce. The Portia Club, formed by the women of Payette, opened their clubhouse to the public on November 1,1927. The Club itself, however, had formed in 1895. While much of Idaho's irrigated agriculture consisted of independent farmers in far-spread homesteads, Payette (and the neighboring and aptly named Fruitland) was settled largely by men in the orchard and fruit-shipping business. The wives of these businessmen took it upon themselves to add to tbe culture of their community. Barbara Wilson, interview with KDS Consulting, Portia Clubhouse, Payette, 10, July 8, 2009. Between 1895 and 1915, the Portia Club, named for the heroine of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," began a city library, funded free health clinics for children, organized the Payette Apple Blossom Festival, sponsored lectures concerning laws dealing with women and children, held debates on women's issues, and worked to expose the citizens of Payette to art and literature. While they met initially in members' homes, the women of the Portia Club increased and meetings took place in the Commercial Hotel and in the Hotel Bancroft. In 1905, they joined the Idaho Federation of Women's Clubs, and by 1919, the clubwomen decided that they needed their own building. The Portia Club formally incorporated in 1921, and raised $4,366 to cover construction costs.

In their support of literacy and in lieu of an established library, the Portia Club pooled books from personal collections and, under the direction of 1910-1911 club president Mrs. Burns, operated an informal library from "a small building near a Dr. Avery's residence." By 1912, they had over 600 books to offer from a temporary library set up in a room above the Payette post office. A year later the library moved to city hall, greeted by 70 people in a grand opening ceremony. In 1925, the library boasted 7,000 books and 3,000 patrons (J,E. Oldham, "The Library, Friends of the Portia Club). The Portia Club contributed not only to Payette's literacy, but also to local tradition and tourism as well. The Payette Apple Blossom Festival, "an annual event that brings thousands of interested and enthusiastic visitors to the city each May," was begun by the Portia Club. Coordination of the Apple Blossom Festival and, in 1961, the Portia Clubhouse itself, were turned over to the Jaycees (Mrs. Edna Stephenson, A Brief History of the Portia Club).

Raising the money for construction and later furnishing of the Portia Club required community effort. Club dances, dinners, performances, and rummage sales helped bring in funds for building construction and for the purchase of tables. chairs, dishes. and an electric range. Donations of small items (salt shakers, vases, tablecloths, teaspoons) also came in from the community and club members. Besides the construction of the clubhouse, the formation of a local library, and the myriad social functions arranged by the Portia Club, the organization featured committees involved in seemingly endless issues: conservation, forestry and irrigation, health, history, home economics, park improvement, library and community improvement. music, educational scholarship, area politics, home products, industrial and social concerns, entertainment, and travel. In addition to their civic activities, the women of the Portia Club kept extensive records in the form of meeting minutes, personal memoirs, and even yearbooks (Payette County Museum now holds records containing the names of board of directors and committee members).

Like many women's organizations, the Portia Club played a role in community health and safety. In 1908, they provided trash receptacles for Payette's Main Street and then "convinced the city fathers to tend their upkeep." They also began an annual city-wide clean-up day (starting in 1909), and insisted the city address problems stemming from agricultural nuisances (i.e. flies). When Central High School girls called the Portia Club's attention to unsanitary conditions in school restrooms, Portia's health committee tackled that problem and went on to campaign for school fire escapes, fire drills, and indoor drinking fountains. Described as "persistent champions of young people" the club supported the Girl Scouts, placed orphans in homes, ran members of the club for school board elections (Mrs. Douglas and Mrs. Parsons won seats in 1922), and held yearly ceremonies to recognize the efforts of local teachers.

Membership waned as the 20th century wore on. While in 1912, the Portia Club had 105 members (who, in that same year planted 1,065 rose bushes in a public park, and 480 flower bulbs in parks and school grounds), by 1971, the club bad only 33 women. Even as their ranks dwindled, in 1972, the club supported the Chamber of Commerce's Christmas lighting project, the library, provided oranges to Casa Lorna Nursing home, provided clothes, books and puzzles to Boise's veterans' home, and donated to the Jaycees collection for their Kellogg Mine Disaster Fund. Over the years, the Portia Club planted trees, supported the care of Riverside Cemetery, collected linens for the veterans barracks in Boise, provided clothes for local children in need, and led a Christmas Seal sale on behalf of the Idaho Anti-Tuberculosis group. They got involved in political issues, writing letters to city, state, and national representatives on matters ranging from establishing a reformatory for young men to urging the release of American prisoners in North Vietnam.

The memoirs of one Mrs. Bigelow recount civic festivities promoted by the Portia Club, particularly the May Day celebration in which local school children went on an evening parade with elaborate candle lit lanterns. May Day included a daytime parade with floats created by the Masons, Eastern Star, the Odd Fellows, and local churches. The festivities crowned a local teen the "May Queen" and included maypole dances, folk dances, pageants, picnics, sack races, and even carnival rides. While the Portia Club did much for social betterment, the stories of celebration and shared tradition speak of a lasting impact on the community's character. As Mrs. Bigelow summed up, '"those ladies in the Portia club did try to bring some art into our world ... "

By 1961, the members of the Portia Club recognized their own limitations as to their ability to maintain their aging clubhouse building. That year, they deeded the property to the Payette Junior Chamber of Commerce with a stipulation that they could continue to use the space for its monthly meetings as well as two additional days per month.

October 9, 1972, saw the final recorded meeting of the Portia Club with eleven members in attendance. They made a unanimous vote to disband, primarily because of the advancing age of their ranks and their lack of new members. The end of the 20th century saw the Portia Club building empty, gradually deteriorating into ruin.

In December 2004, concerned citizens formed The Friends of the Portia Club, Inc. The non-profit organization, determined to restore the historic clubhouse and its community programs, received the building's deed in February 2005 . Holladay Engineering of Payette deemed the clubhouse structurally sound but in need of immediate work. Williamson Roofing, New Plymouth, Idaho, donated all materials that, with private donations and a National Trust for Historic Preservation grant, went toward the new roof, finished in July 2005. Termites and broken windows were also taken care of before the group addressed the problems of wiring, plumbing, and heating/air conditioning systems, all of which needed to be brought up to modern code. Restoration projects continue, but the Portia Club, as it stands, serves as a historic reminder of women's important role in Payette's social past with the potential to contribute to the community's present and future.

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 From November 1927

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