By Susan Hardee Steger
November 14, 2020
An Impressive History
Tucked away behind the Atlantic Avenue Recreation Center is a beautiful white colonial-style building, home to the GFWC (General Federation of Women’s Club) Woman’s Club of Fernandina Beach. In 1920, the same year ratification of the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, the club was founded. Its mission; “to improve the City of Fernandina, morally, educationally, and physically.” This year, the Women’s Club of Fernandina Beach celebrates its 100th anniversary.
During the club’s early years of service, many impressive women lead the organization. The leaders included familiar names to local history buffs: Whitney, Haile, Goldstein, Hardee, Simmons, Solomon, Johnson, and Fishler.
The first president of the organization, likely a driver in the club’s formation, was Ida Joe Messick. Mrs. Messick’s husband, Irving, was involved in Fernandina’s booming fishing industry. While in Fernandina, the Messicks lived at 314 North 5th Street, and their house still stands. Ida Joe was an organist at the Methodist Church, president of the Women’s Missionary Society, and mother of three girls.
From 1920-1930, the club provided books to the public school and “procured 50 large trash cans to be strategically placed around the city and to be maintained by the city.” The club lobbied for a referendum to build the former Fernandina High School, which over the years, served as a Junior High School and is now home to the Nassau County School District Offices.
In the club’s effort to “fight against contagious diseases,” it lobbied for mosquito control. Yellow Fever outbreaks were generally under control in Florida, but malaria cases were increasing. In communities throughout Florida, there were efforts to reduce the mosquito population. In Fernandina, George Wolff, father of the late Mary Agnes White, developed a canal system throughout the island to drain water pools, breeding grounds for the mosquitoes.
The Woman’s Club’s mission to “establish adequate mosquito control” led to “politicking” efforts during the first decade of the club’s existence and continued on and off until the 1950’s when they sponsored a referendum for mosquito control. According to the Amelia Island Mosquito Control District of Nassau County website, “the independent self-taxing district was formed in 1950 by a special referendum with the sole purpose to improve the quality of life on beautiful Amelia Island, Florida through the control of pestiferous and disease-bearing mosquitoes.”
When it was believed tonsils caused various illnesses and infections, the Woman’s Club held 20 sessions of clinics serving 230 children. Dr. David Humphries and Dr. Bunker performed the surgery in the basement of the former residence of David Yulee, which was known as the Community House. “Volunteers from the club assisted.”
My mother, Suzanne Davis Hardee, said that as a little girl, she lived in fear of Emma Love Hardee, grandmother of Kasey Sapp, who served as president from 1928- 1934 and was very involved in the club’s tonsillectomy efforts. Despite those little girl fears, Emma Love Hardee was a lovely woman who eventually, through marriage, became my mother’s aunt.
In the 1930-1940 period, the tonsil clinic continued. Kay Johnson, whose family has a rich Fernandina history, said a few days after receiving a quilted robe and pajamas from an aunt in California, she received the news that she would have a tonsillectomy. She recalls entering a room in the Community House lined with cots. Shortly, Kay arrived in the procedure room, received anesthesia, and soon woke up with a very sore throat. Once home, Kay was asked by her mother if she needed anything. Since it was raining at the time, Kay asked for “rainwater in her blue Shirley Temple glass.”
In 1953, with help from area dentists, Dr. Bill Rodeffer and Dr. James Stewart, the Woman’s Club launched a dental clinic. The dentist appeared at area schools, examined children’s teeth, and, if necessary, donated time to perform dental work for those in need. Although Stewart eventually moved from the area, Rodeffer served the dental clinic for 21 years.
In the 1930s, another club effort led by member Mrs. D.H. Ground lobbied to bring a bill to the Florida State Legislature to designate the Fort Clinch property, which was then in developers’ hands, as a State Park. Fort Clinch State Park is now one of the most visited parks in the state.
The Woman’s Club fashion show was an annual fundraising event over the years. Lynn’s Dress Shop, Allen’s Department Store, Charlene’s Dress Shop, and various hat stores provided the clothing.
In 1954, the club established a “Juniorette Club” for high school students, now known as “Little Women.” The organization continues to this day.
Building a New Home
The club’s meeting locations changed over the years. The Community House, referred to as the Yulee Community Club in the minutes, was the meeting location beginning in 1923. In 1937, when the city-owned Community House was declared unsafe, the club moved to the First Presbyterian Church Sunday School Room, now known as Jim Thomas Hall. In the 1940s, another move was made to the Masonic Hall in the Old School House on Atlantic Avenue. ( Fundraising organizations rented a portion of the hall managed by the club for $8.00.)
It was 1952 when the Woman’s Club began to plan for its own clubhouse. “C.E. Ward, President of Ward Builders, donated a 300 x 400-foot lot valued at $10,000 for the new location of the Woman’s Club. Mrs. W. M. Hogan was president at the time. The club granted the city a portion of the lot on the north side of the property to construct a Little League Baseball Field in exchange for improvements to the club’s driveway and placement of a sidewalk.
Mary Oliver, who served as president in 1953 when the dental clinic began, took on the monumental task of chairing the building committee.
Fundraising efforts went into full swing with Galloping Coffees, Jubilee, Shrimp Salad Luncheons, and Pot Pie Dinners. Donors purchased cinder blocks used in the construction of the building.
The Woman’s Club Follies entertained the community throughout the years. In 1958, The Follies “Red Gloves Revue” featured a “Can-Can Chorus Line” and a “Maharajah Contest.” The event held at the “Municipal Auditorium,” now known as the Atlantic Recreation Center Auditorium, attracted both young and old. Featured was a “Can-Can Chorus Line” and a “Maharajah Contest.” (Rumor had it, the Baptist Church, which didn’t approve of dancing, lifted the dancing up in prayer.)
Six men represented various organizations were contestants in the “Maharajah Contest.” Ballot boxes placed throughout town collected a “Penny a Vote.” The night of the follies, “Harem Girls” served as ushers, later escorting the winner of the Maharajah contest to the stage. The “Twirling Tots” from the Bean School of Dance also performed.
After successful fundraising efforts, which raised $11,000 and securing a loan for $24,000, the club broke ground in January of 1960. E.R.”Randy” Willis, whose wife was a club member, was the building’s architect and contractor. The new $35,000 clubhouse was dedicated to six deceased past presidents: Mrs. Irving Messick, Mrs. W.S. Whitney, Mrs. W.T. Haile, Mrs. Louis Goldstein, Mrs. N.A. Hardee and Mrs. John Simmons. The Woman’s Club finally had a home.
Local President Moves to State
A highlight of the club’s history is when one of its members Mary Powell, became the President of the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs. Mary began her association with the Fernandina club in 1984 after member Karen Gildenston invited her to join.
She served as president from 2002- 2004.
After holding various state offices, she became state president from 2016 – 2018. As state president, Mary received support from the Fernandina Woman’s Club, thereby strengthening the local and state association’s connection.
According to Mary, each new president of the GFWC president is asked to select a service project. Always interested in supporting youth, Mary chose the Hacienda Girls Ranch in Melbourne, similar to the Florida Boys Ranch. The ranch is for girls who are homeless. During the 70s, the Florida Federation of Women’s Club contributed funds and ongoing volunteer support to maintain, establish, and manage the ranch until the state began requiring professionally licensed support.
Mary’s next project was Arts 4 All, which promotes accomplishments for artists with disabilities. It is a not-for-profit organization that conducts art education programs in schools, at the Department of Juvenile Justice facilities and community center. To Mary’s great satisfaction, the project continues to be funded by the Florida Federation.
The highlight of Mary’s service was attending and addressing a gathering at the Royal Palms Park re-dedication of a 4,000-acre parcel, now part of the Everglades National Park (Click here to read Mary Powell’s address.) Leaders from both State and National Park Services were in attendance.
The re-dedication was an opportunity to reflect on the Florida Federation’s impact on a significant conservation effort to save the Royal Palms Park, Florida’s first state park. Under the leadership of Federation President May Mann Jennings (1914-1917) of Jacksonville. The Florida Federation successfully lobbied the Florida State Legislature to protect the Royal Palms Park. In 1916, the Federation became the first and only Women’s Club Federation to own a State Park. For over 30 years, the Federation managed the park and hired a ranger, added a lodge, roads, and trails. In 1946, the Federation turned the park over to the newly established Everglades National Park.
Later, when Mary attended a dedication of a suffrage monument near Washington, D.C., a knowledgeable gentleman told Mary that the 19th amendment would not have been ratified without the Florida Federation’s efforts.
1960 and Beyond – History Tidbits
“Mrs. T.W. Oliver served as District 4 Director for the Florida Federation of Women’s Club from 1960-1962.”
“Mrs. Harriet G. Wood was honored on her 88th birthday. She was a charter member of the organization having joined in 1920.” (December 1961)
“International Costume Ball was held on April 28, 1962. The affair jointly benefited Radio Free Europe, a national project of the GFWC, and the building fund. Passports were cleverly designed by Mrs. John Robas and sold for $3.00 a couple.” (April 1962)
“The Reverend Don Himmelman, [minister of the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church], spoke on the subject of “Bible Reading in the Schools.” (October 1964)
“A sewing day was held to make hospital gowns for Ship of Hope.” (January 1965)
Letter to the Editor – “The potential death trap at the intersection of Sadler Road and A1A (8th Street) . . . . . surly human lives are more important than the expense of providing a traffic light.” (September 1965)
“GFWC Convention in Daytona . . . . A resolution passed calling for the State Legislature to pass a state law requiring all children entering Florida schools to be vaccinated against smallpox.” (April 1967 Minutes)
“December 1, 1967, Fashion Show, “Fashions by Charlenes.” A comment added later: What no hats? This may be the first year the hats disappeared.”
“Mrs. Ralph Wood is elected state corresponding secretary for the Florida Federation of Woman’s Clubs.” (1975-1976)
“S & H Green Stamps Company is working with Women’s Clubs in Florida sponsoring a membership campaign. Each sponsor of a new member is to receive 100 Green Stamps! The club with the largest percentage of increase wins a silver service.” (October 1968)
“Mrs. Ben Dickens (Anne) president of the Woman’s Club presents L.A. Ferreira, president of Florida National Bank with a check as final payment to pay off the mortgage of the clubhouse. The ten-year mortgage was paid off in 8 1/2 years.” (February 1969)
The Fernandina Woman’s Club continues to serve our community by offering scholarships to students and supporting many worthwhile projects. The Woman’s Club building, now 60 years old, has served its membership and our community well. To raise money, the building is rented for weddings, family reunions, and other special events. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is preventing rentals at this time.
Today, 97 club members carry on the tradition of holding fashion shows and other fundraising activities. They work tirelessly to fund worthwhile projects and to keep the building maintained.
New members are always welcomed. Click here to receive information.
If you are interested in contributing to honor the 100th anniversary or pay tribute to members or past members of this organization, please send checks to Woman’s Club of Fernandina Beach, P O Box 15354, Fernandina Beach, Florida 32035
Editor’s Note: Thank you to Marilyn Showalter, Sue Dwyer, and Mary Powell for providing information about the history of the Woman’s Club. The collection of pictures and well-documented records is a tribute to all those who worked tirelessly over the years to preserve important moments in the club’s history.
A special thank you to Ronda Outler, archivist at the Amelia Island Museum of History, who was a valuable resource during my search for information on the first President Ida Joe Messick and her husband, Irving. It was heartwarming to learn Mrs. I. R. Messick actually had a real first name! (We can thank her husband’s World War I Registration Form for that.)
Even though there was no indication which publication printed the Follies photos, we assume they were from the NewsLeader. If so, we offer credit.