Cindy Hoedel: ‘Just be glad’ is the motto of this 100-year-old women’s club

07/12/2014 7:00 AM

07/12/2014 7:11 PM

Just be glad.

That is the official motto of the ladies club in my adopted hometown, printed at the top of each month’s program. The New Century Club of Matfield Green was formed in 1914 by wives of the small Kansas town’s leading families.

As the world was tumbling headlong toward global war, these prairie women banded together and said, “Just be glad.”

Meetings rotated among members’ homes, where light refreshments were served along with discussion of current events and lectures on topics ranging from science to politics to finance.

A battered box handed down from an early member contains a trove of old programs spanning a century. The programs reflect the ebb and flow of fortune in this hardscrabble town built on cattle and the railroad.

In good times, the postcard-sized booklets were produced at a local printer’s shop. In lean years, the inner pages were typed by hand, mimeographed and stapled into pastel construction paper covers.

Even as the town’s population dwindled from more than 200 in 1914 to 47 today, the New Century Club never died.

The club celebrated its 100th anniversary last month with a formal tea at the community center, a tin building that shares space with the volunteer fire department. My invitation arrived in the mail, printed on heavy white card stock with an embossed pearl-colored border.

It read, in part: “Dressing up is not required but please feel free to wear a dress, gloves and hat if you wish. We’ll have fun!”

All the women of Matfield Green and the surrounding township (which pushes the population figure to 119) were invited to the fete, and 26 showed up. The tables were laid with pink cloths, lace runners and doilies and fine china plates and tea cups.

Sumptuous cucumber sandwiches, miniquiches, chocolate-dipped strawberries, homemade scones with fresh whipped cream, homemade blackberry jam and homemade lemon curd were served. The food was better than the high tea offerings of a London hotel where I once stayed.

I generally avoid clubs for a constellation of reasons. Foremost is a selfish desire to keep my calendar free of commitments that might interfere with spontaneous bursts of working on a story or going for a sunset drive.

Other factors include my sub-par housekeeping, which makes entertaining stressful, and an aversion to excessive likemindedness.

On the other hand, the grand dame of the New Century Club, Clara Jo Talkington, who just celebrated her 80th birthday, is one of my local heroes. Clara Jo raises a large garden and drives a pickup truck. She likes to tell people about the time she “spent the night with the Chippendales.” (The male strippers once performed at our town’s now-defunct bar.)

Clara Jo cooks for a monthly bingo supper in nearby Cottonwood Falls and other community events. If you want to help her unload the large pans of food, set up tables and chairs, hang decorations or wash dishes, you better show up and get working; she hates asking for help.

Clara Jo sometimes wears a T-shirt that says, “Inside this old body is a young person wondering what the hell happened.” But she also has gloves and a fancy hat and a sunny disposition. She is a perfect ambassador for the town’s century-old, just-be-glad brigade.

The club’s longest-standing member, Betty Swift, is no less a role model. Betty, nearing 90, still farms and raises the eggs I eat, collecting them from her barn even on days when the wind is so cold it makes your face go numb.

Once Betty stopped her truck in front of my house, which I’m having re-sided, to discuss tools. “A nail gun is heavy, but boy you’re glad to have one if you’ve ever had to bang in every nail with a hammer, let me tell you,” she said.

At the tea, Betty looked like European royalty, in a knee-length scarlet dress and glamorous saucer-shaped red feathered hat.

With members like that, the New Century Club is the first social organization I’ve ever wanted to join. I just hope no one looks under the furniture when it’s my turn to host, if I get in.

Reach Cindy Hoedel at choedel@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and the Star’s Chow Town blog.

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