Women power in Glen Arbor

The Glen Arbor Women's Club Smorgasbord in 1962

By F. Josephine Arrowood
Sun contributor

They don’t wear their sparkly Wonder Woman suits out in public, or leap tall buildings in a single bound, but the members of southern Leelanau County’s two well-known service clubs are definitely community superheroes. Both the Glen Lake Woman’s Club (GLWC) and the Glen Arbor Women’s Club offer a warm welcome to new members who are seasonal or year-round residents, provide community fellowship and enjoyable social and civic activities that greatly enhance the quality of life for the people of the Glen Lake area as a whole. Their many decades of service have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money to young people seeking higher education, beautified or parks, bolstered music programs, fed the poor, and helped create the Glen Lakes area arts mecca that draws tourists, residents and economic prosperity.

Although each club operates independently, the two groups share a long common history, when the GLWC formed in 1937 with 16 charter members bearing such familiar Leelanau surnames as Dumbrille, Egeler, Tobin, Westcott and Andreson. Their slogan, “If you wish to live in a better place, better the place in which you live,” reflected a common theme of service groups throughout the country in the early part of the 20th century, from men’s mutual aid societies like the Odd Fellows to the growing social work movement led by women such as Jane Addams and Frances Perkins. In the pre-World War II era, when most women’s work still centered around family, their clubs provided a means for influence in the greater societal issues of the day, as well as opportunities to gather for social enjoyment.

But by no means should the women be thought of as a gaggle of housewives, interested only in their offspring, flowers, fashions and the social pecking order.

Longtime member Jeanine Wessinger Dean, who had been a summer resident since 1945, says, “My first degree was in business administration; I worked in San Francisco in the design department of several major women’s clothing stores such as Gantner’s of California.

“I later got my master’s in teaching, and taught third grade for 12 years,” before moving full-time to Glen Lake in the 1970s. She brought her business and organizational acumen to the chairmanship of the Art Fair in the 1980s, helping to transform it from a quiet “village fair” tucked away inside the town hall to the current bustling, daylong indoor-outdoor spectacle of arts, crafts, bake sale, raffle, and musical entertainment every third Wednesday in July (July 20 this year), and the major fundraising event for the club’s civic projects.

Other members bring their formidable skills from diverse walks of life to the group as well, including education, theater arts, psychology, business, the health professions, and the arts. Their focus continues to be the betterment of the Glen Lake community, through “improvement and beautification of the Old Settlers grounds and Chapel,” as well as the Fourth of July flag-raising ceremony there; support for the Glen Lake Library; a holiday party for the residents of the Maple Valley Nursing Home (in the early years of the GLWC, this was the county poor farm and later the county “infirmary”); music scholarships to summer camp at Blue Lake; and especially, scholarships to Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) for Glen Lake High School students.

Scholarship chair Janice Freeman, who has chaired the committee for five years, says, “Last year, we had such a good fair that this year, we were able to give out nine scholarships to Glen Lake seniors, and for the first time, one scholarship renewal to a student entering her second year at NMC. In the past, we’ve picked children that were learning disabled, children that have had horrible family problems, or [students] that others wouldn’t have looked at,” as obvious scholarship material. “They don’t often have a lot and it’s very difficult for young people to make it. I have wonderful stories about some of these kids, what they’ve accomplished, what they’re going to do.”

She sings the praises of club members who work so hard to boost young people’s chances of success in the larger world.

“They are so active! They’re giving back. When I worked [downstate], I could never volunteer, I was too busy! This was all totally new to me, and fun to be able to give out about $19,000 in scholarships this year. We have 100 involvement during the fair from our members,” and husbands and other family members often contribute, as well as scholarship recipients, who work during the fair, which draws about 90 participating artists from all over the country, and over 2,000 visitors to the village of Glen Arbor.

By the early 1960s, women found greater choices (as well as necessity) for work outside the domestic sphere, and the GLWC’s members reflected this trend. At about this time, some members of the group, who worked outside the home, had small children, or felt the need to change direction, hived off from the established group. In 1962, the new group, then known as the Glen Arbor Junior Women’s Club, joined the Michigan Federation of Women’s Clubs, and it is believed this was the approximate time of the separation from the Glen Lake Woman’s Club. Their motto at this time became, “Unity in Diversity.”

The Glen Arbor Women’s Club (GAWC) met one evening a month, and their projects — according to 1962 press clippings of the club’s activities loaned from member Dottie Thompson — seemed to focus on societal issues and events beyond the Glen Lake area (although they maintained local projects as well, such as volunteer support at Camp Roy-el at Twin Lakes in Traverse City, for “handicamper” children).

In 1964 they donated to the Salk Institute (remember polio?), the S.S. Hope (a “relief ship” for whom members made stuffed animals), and a program called “Stamps for the Wounded” (soldiers in Vietnam?). Speakers from around the world came and presented programs on the Peace Corps, the Common Market, and similar subjects; they issued policy statements against the formation of the dunes as a national park as early as 1963. More lighthearted projects included an annual fashion show and luncheon — still presented today — and the beloved October smorgasbord at the Glen Arbor Town Hall, which was their main fundraiser until about six years ago.

Gwen Baxter, who chaired that event for over 20 years, explained that, “In the earlier days, we had members who signed up to bring three dishes each that would feed 12 people. My husband did smoked fish that he and his friends had caught — we would get pumpkins and apples donated, I would even pick potatoes! We had groups that would come to a member’s house, peel apples and make applesauce. The Leelanau School would cook all our meat for us, restaurants gave.”

The fundraiser, in short, was a lot of hard work done behind the scenes, but was born in an era when many women did stay at home, cooked a lot of food on a regular basis, and saw the smorgasbord preparation as a time to enjoy each others’ company, while working for good causes, primarily scholarships and charitable donations.

“But then,” says Gwen, “we had one period where we didn’t have a lot of members, and it took about 50 people to do it. And” she laughs, ”women didn’t want to cook anymore!” This was about six years ago, and times had definitely changed for busy working families. Gwen hung up her apron, and the GAWC came up with the idea of a 5K run to raise money.

Everyone credits member Carole Becker with the idea; the seasonal resident had recently retired as a teacher from Ann Arbor, where one of her schools had organized a similar run. She changed the date of the new fundraiser from October to July, when many more people visit Glen Arbor, and suggested it be held on a Tuesday morning, a seemingly counterintuitive move that has generated huge crowds of participants looking for a fun, family-oriented weekday activity.

Community merchants donate prizes, time, and money to the effort as well, and the GAWC members all participate, helping to fund significant scholarships for college and Blue Lake Arts Camp, the Glen Lake/Empire Area Food Pantry, Traverse City Community Health Clinic, Glen Lake Schools programs such as Big Pals, the music department, and the ninth graders’ Leadership Retreat. This year, four Glen Lake seniors were each awarded $2,000 scholarships to the school of their choice. One of these scholarships, the Extraordinary Achievement Award, honors a student who has made the most outstanding efforts in self-improvement (not necessarily the highest GPA) in this or her high school career.

Both the Glen Lake Woman’s Club and the Glen Arbor Women’s Club continue to lead by example, supporting the growth of the region, and contributing to its quality of life. So many of the women contribute their time, skills, and money that it would be impossible to name them all without slight, but the works of their hands and hearts and minds speak for themselves.

Unlike the “olden days,” when members were restricted by age (under age 35? Junior member or senior member?), or had to receive a personal invitation to join, today’s groups are open to all, and many Glen Lake area women are members of both.

The GLWC’s 40th Annual Art Fair will be held on Wednesday, July 20 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call (231) 326-6087 or 620-7223. The GAWC’s 5th Annual Running Bear 5K will be held on Tuesday, July 26 at 9 a.m. For more information, visit www.runningbearrun.com or call (231) 334-7363.