By Lynn Colburn
Thanks to the curiosity and dedication of three local women, new pieces of Jacksonville history are being uncovered or rediscovered through the records left by local women long ago. This led to a new book, “Literary Ladies: The First 130 Years of The Wednesday Class,” which can be pre-ordered at Our Town Books, 64 Central Park Plaza for $25.
Cathy Green, Linda Ryan and Suzanne Verticchio began their voyage of discovery several years ago. “The impetus for the whole book project came in 2012 when we realized we let the 125th anniversary of our women’s literary group, the Wednesday Class, go by,” says Verticchio. Ryan adds, “I think there was a feeling that we had an archive of wonderful historic information from the last 125, now 133, years of materials and it is behind closed doors. No one will know what we know about these women or see their photos if we don’t tell their stories.”
“This is a hidden world of our local history,” Ryan continues. “I don’t think there are any other publications that tell how a literary society in Jacksonville like this works, the history of the class and especially about the lives of the members. To me, that is extremely exciting.”
In the 1990s, Iver Yeager held a meeting of representatives of all the local literary societies to encourage them to preserve their minutes by copying them on archival paper and donating them to the Illinois Historical Society.
Member Joy French Becker, the Wednesday Class archivist since 1976, has carefully stored the complete collection of Wednesday Class minute books in a bank vault at The Farmers State Bank and Trust Company.
Inside the minute books, the authors discovered another art form that is slowly fading. When Green and Verticchio began working through the Wednesday Class minutes, they discovered that the older minutes were deteriorating. Some of the inks used were heavily oil-based and bled, making them more difficult to read. Also, the one-hundred-plus-years-old elaborate handwriting was difficult to decipher.
“The style of handwriting that the women used was almost totally illegible for Suzanne to transcribe, a challenge that took a lot of persistence,” says Ryan.
“The Illinois College archivist is interested in any way she can to preserve our history,” says Verticchio. “We talked about having her students transcribe the entries that I couldn’t read. But we realized, if we couldn’t read the cursive, twenty-somethings aren’t going to be able to either!”
But as Verticchio transcribed the archived minutes, the authors were able to pull back curtains and peek into the homes and lives of families in historical Jacksonville. And much like Charles Dickens had three spirits take Ebenezer Scrooge through different eras of his life to see himself through the eyes of others, the Wednesday Class women of the past 130 years took the authors on a trip through time, giving a rarely-heard perspective of history. In the late 19th century, the voices of these women were rarely documented.
“The biggest mystery was finding out about the women themselves,” explains Ryan, “because they were hidden behind the husbands! We could only find pictures of some of our members by going on Ancestry.com. Suzanne, Cathy and I did a lot of research to see if these women were part of family trees. Unfortunately, some were single and had no descendants to put them in family trees. That was the challenge.”
The authors recognize that these women represent a particular slice of Jacksonville life. They were women of means, many of whom had household help. Their husbands were ministers, doctors, lawyers and owned businesses like a carriage factory. Most of the early members lived near each other; the farthest away lived in Winchester in the 1920s.
The Wednesday Class began with nine members at the first meeting on March 23, 1887.
“The very first semester of the class, they talked about the 16th century,” says Ryan. “The art, music, history, political leaders. Then they moved on to North American and early American history. In the first three years of Wednesday Class, they examined the history of America and the United States closely.” And they did all this without internet or a public library.
When Green’s mother, Carolyn Crawford, joined in 1934, there were still two charter members of Wednesday Class in the group and she said her mother was in awe of those ladies.
“They left us with a legacy of learning because that was their whole purpose. In fact, their original purpose was ‘the mental, oral and physical improvement of the members.’ I don’t think we’ve done a lot toward the physical improvement lately,” laughs Green. One recent exception was when Deborah Rothfuss incorporated some of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s favorite exercises for members to do at intervals during her presentation on the justice’s life.
“The early members were women who were very well-educated for that time,” continues Ryan. “And yet, after their education, most married, and then what? They didn’t have the opportunities that we have today to create careers. What were they going to do with themselves? They latched onto this idea of continuing to learn. As individuals, they were also involved in local organizations like the Art Association of Jacksonville, DAR, the Ladies Education Society, Passavant Hospital Auxiliary, and, of course, the churches.”
But finding information on women of the time was difficult. “The historical atlases and encyclopedias that we used for our research, says Ryan “had pictures of the early men in Jacksonville and those men’s wives were often in literary societies, but their pictures aren’t easy to find. Unless we could find their participation in clubs or civic organizations in the newspaper, there wasn’t much documented about a lot of these women. We wanted to open the door on who these women were as much as we could. Many of the pictures were loaned to us from family members or came from yearbooks.”
Green, the proclaimed membership specialist, says “There have been a total 155 members since 1887, not including visiting members. But, of course, it wasn’t for everyone. One woman came to one meeting and quit. Then we also had Madge Barnes who was an active member for more than 59 years, still giving papers and hosting. Louise Bone was the second-longest active member at 56 years.”
In the early years, the class had many guest days and open meetings. “They had to limit the number of guests after a while because there were occasionally meetings with more guests than members,’ says Verticchio. “Eventually guests were limited to visitors from out of town or caretakers.” All this was written into the Wednesday Class bylaws.
The Wednesday Class had close connections with the other local literary associations,” explains Green. “They had a very strong connection with Sorosis and often met together.” The authors were not quite sure why joint meetings started falling off in the 1960s.
In the 1890s, Marshall Ayers hosted two joint meetings of local men’s and women’s societies — including Wednesday Class — at the Ayers mansion on West State Street.
Members traveled extensively at a time when there were no commercial airplanes. A rare automobile was a new-fangled thing “that just might be here to stay,” some concluded. Travel was not only to states such as Michigan and Wisconsin but much farther.
“One woman led a study group to Japan,” says Verticchio. “Many did the ‘grand tour’ overseas and one spent the summer in Turkey. The extent of their travel was astounding as were the deep subjects that came from those trips, such as the study of world religions and Asian cultures.”
“It wasn’t just that the women traveled,” says Ryan, “they had family members who were spread out all over the world.
For instance, on a trip to India, one member went to visit family who were missionaries. Later these missionaries came back and gave programs to the Wednesday Class. And after World War I there were some connections to a Methodist mission in France. Travel opened them to issues they wouldn’t have known about so personally if they had stayed here.”
“Wednesday Class was the place that they could be curious and ask questions and discuss things that were not probably acceptable for public discussion. They developed a true bond with one another,” Ryan says with pride when reflecting on the women of the group. “In the chapter I just finished editing — the era before WWI — they included a French play about venereal disease. Pretty shocking and cutting edge in terms of this being approached in the theater.”
Verticchio laughs quoting from the minutes, they “had to take refuge in their knitting.” They couldn’t even look up from their knitting because they were so embarrassed by some topics.”
“We have come to love these women,” says Green. “Some members were extremely good at writing poetry and often recited their original work at meetings.”
“Several members could present a 45-minutes to an hour-and-a-half program without notes,” says an amazed Verticchio. “They had researched it well enough that they could just extemporaneously talk for at least 45 minutes and field questions on the subject.”
Minutes revealed even more than their lives and program topics but also revealed information on local history and about incredible changes taking place during the eras of their meetings. World events, changes in society, fashion, changes in technology and more were evident from their unique perspectives. Ryan has done extensive research on changes during these eras.
Adjustments were made during the World Wars and other times, such as finding ways to have refreshment for guests while relying on sugar ration coupons and also thinking of their family’s needs. So they served refreshments made without eggs or sugar.
There are seven time periods documented in the book. “With every chapter we worked on, we pooled our ideas and discovered more information,” explains Ryan on the process of the book’s development. “The introductory part of each section sets the tone for the time period as far as what was going on in the world and in Jacksonville. Beyond talking about the minutes and what the women studied, we have a section in each chapter on clothing. Photos from the anniversaries over the years show the changing fashions and style. The section on entertaining establishes what it would have been like to entertain each time period, for example in the early years when the washing of tea napkins and tablecloths was done in a vat in the backyard. We try to tell those stories as we go along.”
“The end of each chapter includes a biography of two or three Wednesday Class members from that chapter’s time period,” Verticchio explains on the format. “Our current members offered to research biographies and it was wonderful to see what they came up with.”
“It is also fun to see how the tea parties have evolved,” says Green. “We certainly have elaborate ones now, but it started out simply with maybe a cup of tea, some biscuits, or fudge. Of course, Joy (French Becker) and I grew up with having the tea parties in our homes and remember being excited to get home and eat the goodies our mothers served,” says Green. Both of their mothers were also Wednesday Class members.
During the Centennial of Jacksonville in 1925, the members were encouraged to talk about their families and how they came to Jacksonville. Several women wrote accounts of how their ancestors came to the area.
Verticchio says, “And it was not an easy matter, you didn’t just get on a train and come west. They would have to come by cart, by train, by boat — down one river and up another. Anyone who is interested in Jacksonville history and how people came to this area can learn from these remembrances. They are just fascinating women with wonderful stories to tell.”
There are also connections with famous people. One member’s husband had a property next to Teddy Roosevelt’s out west and went hunting with him. Someone else’s grandfather was a great friend of Lincoln. “What struck us too,” said Ryan, “was how close these women were to the Civil War when the class started. Their parents or grandparents would have had memories of that era. So, to see history progress through the eyes of these women throughout the decades is absolutely amazing! And the projects they did to help out with the war efforts, it’s fascinating.”
“We really made an effort to include these little gems,” explains Ryan proudly. “This is not information available anywhere else. So, people who are researching their families in this area may find information in our book that no one else has. And the class archives have even more detailed information. Green has a large database about the membership. We couldn’t publish all of that, but that will eventually be available to anybody researching.”
Plans to unveil the book at a public event were curtailed by the pandemic. Instead they are annoucing the availablity of the book for sale. They hope to have a more elaborate public kick-off when it is feasible and safe.
The authors want to recognize several people who have helped this book come to fruition, including Chris Ashmore with the Morgan County Historical Society, who has been a valuable resource as well as assisting with the book publishing. The authors are especially grateful to Bob Sibert of Bound To Stay Bound for his early interest in the book and encouragement. Steve Varble formatted the book and, the ladies say, “fashioned it with fonts that reflect the times and created its beautiful cover.” Thanks also goes to Jacksonville High School teacher Jim Chelsvig and one of his classes for creating the map of the locations for all the historic homes.
Additionally, Ryan teases there might be another Wednesday Class project to announce at a later date that will complement Jacksonville’s tourist attractions.