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The iron mountain drawing room club: a legacy of learning.

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Iron Mountain, Michigan was founded in 1879 when ore deposits were discovered beneath the area's towering trees. It grew quickly--to 8,000 individuals in seven years--with the influx of miners and merchants hoping to profit from the nearby Chapin Mine. Still, because of its distance from any major city, it was considered a bit of a cultural backwater.

It was in this environment that the women-only Drawing Room Club (DRC) was established by Mrs. A.M. Tuten and Mrs. Oliver Evans. Meeting for the first time in 1890, a constitution was immediately drawn up. Article II summed up the group's goal: "The club is organized for the purpose of intellectual culture."

The club rules set the tone for all future meetings:

* Aim to study, not create literature.

* Beware of long quotations. "Brevity is the soul of wit."

* Let but one talk at a time and that one talk only of the matter in hand.

* Start no side conferences; whispering is poor wisdom and bad manners.

* Be as willing to expose ignorance as to parade knowledge.

* Come prepared. Begin and close to the minute.

* Meet all discouragements with grit and industry.

From the start, this was intended to be a forum for serious study.

Getting Started

Research resources were scarce in Iron Mountain in the last decade of the 19th century. The only newspapers were weeklies that often went undelivered during inclement weather. There were few magazines and no bookstores or libraries. In 1891, the members of the Drawing Room Club had to send away for a box of books to review Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Marble Faun"--a fantastical romance novel that was the subject of that year's study. According to the club's minutes, the choice was not a hit. With "some of the Club not enjoying the reading of the 'Marble Faun,'" the women moved to abandon it and instead study the works of American poets: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Each lesson had a leader who prepared a detailed talk on the topic. The women met weekly in each other's homes, and dues were 10 cents.

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Literature was a mainstay of the group, but topics soon expanded to include art, music, and architecture. By 1894, the women were choosing countries for study, dividing them into time periods and further by geography, customs, religion, art, and literature.

A reader can follow the rise of technology by leafing through the DRC minutes. In February 1925, the group heard about Marconi's latest invention--the "short-wave beam"--which led to a "now continuous communication between London and Australia." At the meeting of November 1, 1937, Mrs. Davison offered a biography of the Duke of Windsor, embellishing her report by playing his abdication speech on her Victrola and showing a newsreel of his life. Transportation topics moved from the roads of 1932, when the club addressed the "increasing moral, social and economic influence of the automobile," to the cosmos of 1958 with a look at Sputnik.

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Current events frequently spiced up the agenda. In 1895, the women heard opposing views of doctors on the uses and abuses of opium. They tackled the teaching of sex hygiene (sex education) in public schools in 1914, as well as the question of prohibiting immigration for 25 years.

While the group studied the conflicts in Europe during the 1930s with readings and reports, the minutes of December 8, 1941 make no mention of the attack on Pearl Harbor the previous day. However, the women began in earnest to do charity work related to the war, and that work is reflected in the minutes. For example, they gave up individual sewing projects to wind thread for the Red Cross. They volunteered as airplane spotters on Pine Mountain and studied how Victory Gardens could aid the war effort. At the meeting of October 5, 1942, the agenda included a discussion of whether or not to serve tea at meetings "in view of probable rationing." (A decision was made to serve coffee or tea, but not both.) The DRC also dispensed with printed programs and donated the saved money to the Red Cross. Meetings were changed from every week to every other week, so the members could spend the alternate afternoons rolling bandages at a local school.

Not surprisingly, women's issues show up again and again in the minutes, with topics reflecting the changing times. In December 1894, Mrs. Tuten made the following motion: "To wit 'That in view of the contemplated revision of our City Charter, the Drawing Room Club petition[s] that said charter be made to agree with state law permitting school suffrage to women; also that women be eligible as a school officer as per state law.'" Members in 1911 debated the issue of women in business and, in 1927, the question was, "Should Women Be Allowed to Teach in Secondary Schools?" The subject of women's rights was linked with a discussion of segregation in 1960 and, in 1984, it all came together with "Who is Today's Woman?"

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Lighter Moments

The women of the DRC devoted themselves to learning, but the subjects weren't always solemn. Lacemaking, birds, bagpipes, and Japanese floral arrangements show up in the minutes from time to time. And, from early on, the women combined whimsy with study. Members in 1916 answered roll call by giving the name of a city in Prussia. The following week, each woman had to answer with one of the battles of Frederick the Great.

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Mixing with charitable works and occasional field trips were luncheons, picnics, and holiday parties. A major annual event was the celebration of George Washington's birthday. The minutes of February 10, 1896 report on what appears to have been the group's first such party, which included the women's husbands. The Range-Tribune called the event "A Brilliant Success," and went on to list the attendees and describe in detail what each women wore. The write-up didn't ignore the men: "T.W. Paton, [dressed] as Washington, was handsomely costumed, as becoming his high station, in a rich plush coat trimmed with gold, flowered vest, small clothes and stockings of white silk and silver-buckled shoes."

Another party, called an "annual jollification," was noted in the minutes of May 26, 1908: "Wearing our finest toggery and sweetest smiles, we accompanied our best beloved to the Amidon residence on West Fleshiem Street ... witty repartee and merry laughter ... an informal good time."

On December 13, 1920, the following report appears: "DRC met at Mrs. Russell's home to celebrate our annual Christmas party, at which we call each other by our first names [an uncommon practice], exchange inexpensive presents accompanied by an original poem, have a Christmas tree and sometimes a Santa Claus, ending with an elaborate luncheon." The summary continues with a reference to a poem recited by Mrs. Cole on a subject which modesty forbade the secretary to include. "It would not look well in the minutes of DRC but was appreciated by all present."

Into the Present

One hundred and twenty years after its founding, the Iron Mountain Drawing Room Club is still a going concern. No one has a drawing room anymore, but the members still meet in one another's homes. For that reason, membership is limited to 18. New people are invited in only when someone leaves, and a vote must be unanimous. Member Vivien Koffman explains that they're looking for a good fit. "Everyone is expected to participate," she says. "If we vote someone in, we meet with them and stress that this is a commitment. We work very hard on our lessons."

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As always, topics revolve around a central theme for the year, chosen by two co-chairs and announced at the opening luncheon in the fall. Lessons (and hostessing duties) are then assigned. The theme for 2010-2011 was "Perception and Cultural Identity," with the women exploring four areas of the world--Italy, North America, France, and Israel--through literature, art, biography, and other subjects.

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The Drawing Room Club maintains and cherishes its traditions, but some things have changed. "When I joined the club," says Gloria Boyce, a member for more than 55 years, "we [were] all women who stayed at home, matrons who played bridge, and did good works. But now most women have jobs and we don't get them [to join] until they retire."

It's also a much more diverse group, Susan Khoury says. "My father's family came to Iron Mountain around 1890 from Syria, my mother's family from Yugoslavia. They were laborers or potential merchants. At that time, nobody from those two groups would have been in the DRC. But those days are long gone."

The women of today's club use Google to spark their research, have extensive resumes and advanced degrees, wear pants--an innovation that came about in the 1950s--and definitely call each other by their first names.

Still, Pauline Werner believes that members maintain a strong connection with the women of the last century: "I feel honored to be a part of such a historic club."

Would the women who founded the group in 1890 be surprised by today's Iron Mountain? The famous Chapin Mine is closed, and the city has erected not one but two library buildings in the intervening years. But the colors of the autumn trees would certainly be familiar as would the Tuesday afternoon meetings of the Drawing Room Club, where women still gather to talk, to listen, and to learn.

Deborah Donberg is a freelance writer living in Chicago. She thanks the women of the Iron Mountain DRC for their cooperation in the research for this article, including access to their minutes and scrapbooks.
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Author:Donberg, Deborah
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Words:1619
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