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An early member of the Friday Club

Friday Club reaches 100 years - and counting

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The year was 1914. A small group of Cloquet women decided to get together on Fridays to study home economics after an itinerant book salesmen came to town and sold them a book on the subject. All it took was one particularly dull session on the subject of milk, however, for the ladies to retrench and broaden their scope to include education, culture and civic activities. And hence, the Women's Friday Club of Cloquet was born.

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This page from the history of the venerable group, arguably the oldest and longest running club in the community, was front and center in the minds of its members during last Friday's 100th anniversary celebration at Our Savior's Lutheran Church. Local historian Joe Peterson gave an overview of the historical roots of the group, a handful of Life Members (30-plus years of membership) was honored, and everyone gathered to do what they love to do best -- spend time together "getting to know you."

And though they are charming ladies all, they are a far cry from their early predecessors...

At the start of the last century, the ladies of Friday Club were a formal and dignified lot who wore hats, white gloves and pearls to meetings, drank tea out of a silver tea service and went by their husbands' names, such as Mrs. Fred Vibert or Mrs. Alexander Barclay.

Many of them lived in the elegant big homes of the Chestnut Avenue neighborhood of Cloquet, and their husbands were administrators at the local mills.

"I think a lot of the wives moved here from big cities because their husbands were executives with the lumber companies," related current member Jennifer Behrens. "They wanted to preserve their elegant lifestyle, so things such as silver services, calling cards and maid's quarters were important to them."

Membership in the club was by invitation only, and a potential candidate could be voted down for reasons known or unknown to the rest of the group. In fact, at that time Friday Club was pretty much considered a "closed club," and it depended more on who you were or who you knew to join. Nonetheless, there was a waiting list to get into the club and it became very popular.

The early programming for the meetings often included dramatic readings of plays and manuscripts by its members, such as the dramatic presentation of "Robin Hood" staged in a grove of trees at the L.M. Foster farm.

"Mrs. Reginald Vibert was 'Robin Hood,'" the club history recorded. "Mrs. McNair was 'Maid Marion,' and Mrs. Proulx was 'Friar Tuck.' Mrs. Peter Olesen wore a dress up to her knees, which shocked her husband no end, even if it was for The Friday Club!"

When the members were assigned to present a program, many of them went to great lengths to outdo the others. One year, in order to create a beach scene for a skit that looked more authentic, sand was brought in from Lake Minnetonka and spread on the floor of the library clubrooms where the group was meeting at the time.

Mention is also made in the club's annals of one particularly lengthy play review that reportedly offended one of the ladies attending as a guest, who deemed it "too risqué."

"Her comment was, 'If that's what they do at Friday Club, I don't care to belong!"

Another time, a program was planned around the theme of "Hobo Picnic." Members were mysteriously asked to wear "outing shoes," and they ended up trekking around the Cloquet Forestry Center and then on to the YMCA camp on Big Lake for a fried chicken dinner.

"To her dismay," the historical account states, "Mrs. Hornby insisted on wearing heels!"

By 1920-21, the club had 37 active members. At the start of each meeting a member would present an overview of the current events of the day in order to keep the others well informed on world affairs. There were occasional outside speakers invited to present programs, including a dramatic reader, a man from Minneapolis who spoke on modern fiction and poetry, and Rabbi Harvey E. Wessel who spoke on Zionism.

In their groundswell of enthusiasm, the ladies of the group also decided to tackle various civic projects as well, an idea that soon fell to defeat after the ideas were presented to the group -- getting rid of the rats at the dump, beautifying the waterfront and "softening" the noise level of the ore trains.

In those early days, the group met at 3 p.m. Since many of them had husbands who were high-ranking officials at the mills, they wanted to be sure they were home to cook when their husbands came home for lunch.

Charitable donations were common, including the Pine Mountain Settlement School, Finnish Relief and Minnesota Crippled Children.

One of the club's major projects in 1935-36 was the sponsorship of an essay contest on the Cloquet Fire of 1918. Club members donated money for prizes, and the winning essays were bound and placed on file at the public library. Today, they are still on file at the Carlton County Historical Society.

The War Years found Friday Club taking an active part in all phases of the war effort on the home front, helping to register draftees, contributing used books to the soldiers, assisting in the surgical dressing room at the hospital and selling war stamps at the local theaters. Determined to do their part, members voted to cut their meeting dates to once a month "as a wartime measure." However, a motion to discontinue the serving of tea at the meetings was tabled indefinitely.

The Friday Club returned to its twice-monthly meetings in 1945-46, at which time their programming emphasis took a subtle turn toward more weighty subjects such as "The Problems of Building a More Lasting Peace," "The Pro and Con of the Russian Question," and "What the South Americans Think of Us."

More changes were afoot the following year. The meetings were cut back to once a month again, and the program year was changed to October through May. With a few exceptions, the members no longer actively participated in the programs themselves. Instead, they held twice-yearly luncheons at the country club, visited places such as the Duluth Athletic Club and the Hotel Duluth, toured the local mills and the Duluth Airbase. In between, the group met at the library clubrooms. When the new addition to the high school was completed in 1954, club members moved their meetings to the school's music room, which caused considerable grumbling by some because they had to haul the desserts, tablecloths and silver tea service all the way down the hall.

By the 1960s, the group had become an active supporter of the American Field Service (AFS) program and AFS members presented many programs at their meetings. Their wide variety of programs included talks by professors from the University of Minnesota Duluth, local attorneys and judges and educators from the high school.

In the mid-1970s to mid-'80s, musical programs were prevalent, with presentations by the Duluth Light Opera, harpists from Duluth, the Abby Minstrels from The College of St. Scholastica and the Cloquet High School Madrigals. They learned how to cook microwave desserts at the MP&L kitchens, tried their hand at oriental drawing at the Depot in Duluth, and learned about watercolor painting from esteemed artist Cheng-Khee Chee.

With the advent of the 1990s and 2000s, the group began meeting at the Presbyterian Church of Cloquet and took numerous tours, visiting the Bayfield Apple Festival, the Old Rittenhouse Inn, Fairlawn Museum in Superior, Naniboujou Lodge on the North Shore, and Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Mendota Heights. From time to time, their own talented members continue to present programs as well.

Today, The Women's Friday Club of Cloquet looks a lot different from those early years.

"We don't polish the silver for meetings anymore!" said Behrens.

In the early '80s, they dropped the formal usage of their husband's names and went to using their own first names instead. Gone, too, was the mid-afternoon meeting time, which was moved up to earlier in the afternoon.

"Now, many of us have young children and we want to be home by the time they get home from school," said one member.

In fact, it's now the husbands who sometimes gather for Manhattans on the days their wives are at Friday Club!

The group currently has some 60-65 members on its rolls, about 41of whom actively attend meetings, and there are 16 Life Members.

Membership in the group is much more open these days, and each of the members has a story about how and why they joined.

Chris Jenkins recalled she was first invited to join by her mother-in-law to attend one of the club's meetings as a guest when she was in her early 30s.

"They wanted to try to get more young people in the group," she said.

Liz Brenner said she joined because she, like so many of the other members, considers herself to be a "lifelong learner" and the monthly programs are always on topics of interest and things that are going on locally

Gretchen Chelseth related that when she first came to town in 1980, her neighbor, Sheila Butler, told her she should join Friday Club in order to become acquainted with more people around town.

"The club was very proper at the time," said Chelseth, "and there I was, pregnant with our first child and big as a house! Somehow, it felt a little awkward!" she added with a laugh.

Behrens' mother was a member of Friday Club and she recalls the times when her mom hosted the group at their home.

"I always had to take hot lunch at school that day because my mom was having Friday Club at our house!" she said.

As with most any such group, refreshments are an important part of every meeting, and women often get together ahead of time to share a recipe for several of them to make and serve.

"I remember making petit fours in the basement of the church, and we were still at it when the people began coming in the door for the meeting," said Chelseth. "It was always amazing how five people could get the same recipe and do it so differently!"

The club has a committee that maps out the year's meetings, and the goal is to strive for diverse programming, including everything from Ely bear expert Lynne Rogers to John Byrne's trip to Turkey, County Assessor Marcia Moreland discussing the 2012 flood, along with visits to the Swedish Institute and the Governor's Mansion as well as the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in the Twin Cities.

The group currently meets at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Cloquet, except for special events such as their recent outing in Jay Cooke State Park in October. Annual dues are kept at a minimal level, currently $20 for the year. The meetings last up to two hours, with a short business meeting, refreshments and socializing and 20-30 minutes devoted to various speakers or other programming.

When asked if they'd consider admitting a man to membership if one should apply, they all laughed.

"So far, no one's tried!" admitted member JoAnn Harden with

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