Who Were Woman’s Club’s Founding Mothers?

When the Redwood City Woman’s Club’s building hit the century mark in 2011 there was frequent lauding of the venerable group’s “foremothers,” depicted as taking a daring step at a time when women were, as one club official put it, “expected to stay in their homes and concentrate exclusively on their own family.”

Researchers at the Redwood City library’s history archives found that most, if not all, were privileged women with a good deal of time and money at their disposal who felt that running a home was a career.

The first president of the Redwood City Woman’s Club was Katherine Cumberson, wife of Charles Elsworth Cumberson, described variously as a “wealthy capitalist” or “San Francisco businessman.”

There were 33 initial members of the club who were told by Cumberson that they were expected to be “a subtle power behind the throne.” She said women have always had such power “in the home and likewise may wield through her club for community benefit.”

Decades later, Jean Cloud, who once served as chair of the Redwood City Archives Committee, wrote in the Redwood City Almanac that the birth of the club was significant because it “was independent of any men’s group.” She noted there were several other woman’s organizations in the area, but these had “strong ties” to a male counterpart. Cloud also pointed out that each church had a women’s group that met on a regular basis.

“Women were very much involved,” she concluded. The local Bonita Parlor of the Native Daughters of the Golden West, for example, stretched back to 1887 when it was founded on Main Street in Redwood City.

There was no “Ms” title in those days and all the founders of the Woman’s Club went by the family name of their husband, who, by today’s standards, would be in the “1 percent” or close to it. 

Money, however, is no protection against tragedy, which struck the Cumbersons in 1915. In July of that year a former gardener at the family’s home on Roosevelt Ave. shot Mr. Cumberson twice, burned down the house and killed himself with poison.

“All that remains as mute evidence of that night of tragedy are the two brick chimneys of the house,” one newspaper reported.

Mr. Cumberson recovered and the family moved to Palo Alto. He died in 1929 at, appropriately, the Western Woman’s Club Building in San Francisco.                                                                 

Another Tragedy

Mrs. Henry Finkler, nee Aileen Jane Brophy of Salem, Oregon, a charter member of the club, became club president in 1915. The husband and wife both had a keen interest in public affairs. One historian said Mrs. Finkler “though always devoted to home interests, found opportunity and inclination to extend her field of usefulness into the world around her and was long an active and energetic leader in community life.”

Hailed as an inspirational speaker, she was considered a powerful factor in politics. Her resume included a stint on the Federation of Woman’s Clubs national committee on child labor. She was also a member of the Red Cross, the Woman’s Building Association of San Francisco and served on the Republican Party’s State Central Committee from 1916 to 1918.

She became a member of a very prominent family when she married Henry, who served as senior secretary to the State Supreme Court for more than 50 years, a job he took over from his father.  Finkler, who was known for his meticulous record-keeping, also served as the court’s statistician and historian.

The Finklers lived on land that today is Edgewood Park. Aileen’s friends said she spent much of her time cooking and gardening. Every day she would cook a pot of beans to serve to the poor who stopped by. Mrs. Finkler died in 1927 after being ill for several years. The couple had no children. Three years after his wife died, Finkler shot himself in the heart and died instantly. Many claimed he was despondent over the death of his wife.

Another “true love story” connected to the club’s early years involved charter member Mary Wahl Beeger, wife of wealthy Henry Beeger, who owned the Beeger Tannery.  Henry lived only seven years after the last of the couple’s seven children was born in 1891. Nevertheless, Mary considered herself still “married.”

She went on to run the tannery until her son, Henry, a future Redwood City mayor, took over the job.  In 1923, Mary, who died in 1941, built an imposing 14-room home at the corner of Hopkins and Fulton that the Redwood City Resources Advisory Committee lists under “historic properties.”     

The seven children included Gertrude, who was the Woman’s Club’s first corresponding secretary.  In 1976 Gertrude, a Stanford graduate, was interviewed by the Redwood City Archives Committee. She said that her mother “did a great many early things in Redwood City,” recalling that her mother and Mrs. Cumberson decided that “we ought to have a women’s club in Redwood City and, all right, they got one.” The Beeger line includes Diana Kadash who described “Aunt Trudy” as a “wonderful, gentle soul.” She said her great-aunt lived in the home on Hopkins until she died. “I do believe she was over 100.”

Taking part in the 1976 interview was Emma McCrea who said her mother had considered joining the club but didn’t.

"Ma and Elizabeth Hanson were all dressed up to go join,” she said. “Half way over they said, ‘Oh, if we join they’ll be making us work all the time.’ So they turned around and didn’t go.” Not a bad decision considering all the projects the club would undertake.

Many Tasks Ahead

One of the first of the club’s projects to draw public notice was the flower festival held on May 11, 1912. The San Francisco Call newspaper said, “everybody came to the celebration” held on the streets of Redwood City and the clubhouse grounds.

The newspaper’s account of the floral parade from downtown to the club tells of a simpler time: “Little schoolboys rode bicycles or pulled toy wagons behind them, while the tiny girls trundled gaily decorated doll buggies and go-carts.” 

The parade was organized by Miss Beeger and Mrs. George A. Merrill, whose husband was a leading San Francisco educator.  Among other accomplishments, Mr. Merrill served as director of the California School of Mechanical Arts from 1894 until 1939, when he retired and went on to become mayor of Redwood City.

The special edition of the Redwood City Democrat cost ten cents and the money went toward building a clubhouse for the new organization.

“How both the newspaper and the Woman’s Club made money with a total population of only 2,500 people is beyond me,” wrote Aileen Foster in “This Old House,” a history of the club. Foster, aka Mrs. Charles J. Foster, wrote the eight-page account in 1973 when she was the club’s recording secretary.

The newspaper was not the only means used by the club to raise money for the building fund. The members also made hats and sold them, a venture that drew the attention of the San Francisco Examiner’s Hazel Pedlar, who wrote the paper’s “Notes For The Women” column.

Pedlar reported in the Sunday, Sept. 8, 1912 edition that Mrs. Cumberson came up with the “millinery method” of raising funds for the building. Club members used Chinese matting and bright material to create “garden hats” which Pedlar deemed a “necessity” in Redwood City. “Every one of the club members and their neighbors count a garden as part of Redwood City life,” she observed.

The Clubhouse Becomes a Reality

Architect LeBaron Olive was selected to design the clubhouse, now a familiar landmark on Clinton Street.  There’s little in local archives about Olive, but the Santa Cruz Public Library has a newspaper published in 1889 that contained a column called “Building Notes” that reported on improvements in the coastal town during the “past five years.” The column described Olive as an “architect and builder” who was the son and grandson of builders.

“He served his full time as an apprentice at the carpenter’s trade” and went on to develop a resume that included work in Canada, as well as New York and other major American cities. By 1889 Olive had, the newspaper claimed, accomplished so much during the past four years that it would be “impossible to record” it all in detail, but most of the outstanding accomplishments involved small shops or large residences.

A few years later, in the early 1890s, Olive’s reputation had grown to the point that he was awarded a $25,000 contact, then a considerable sum, to build the “Eastlake” bathhouse in Santa Cruz.  The bathhouse “palace” had a wide, gingerbread-trimmed beach veranda and stained-glass doors opening into a two-story plunge. A balcony in the shape of a horseshoe enclosed a bandstand and bleachers. People in the bleachers could view swimmers on glass-lined slides, diving platforms or trapeze gear stationed over the pool.

The account said, “the steamy air and sunny multicolored skylight made perfect conditions for the palms, flowers and vines, giving a tropical ambiance.” The pool was lighted with submerged colored light and a tank at one end produced a five-foot-tall waterfall over the restaurant’s observation windows.  “The restaurant was dominated by an elegant fireplace and had all the gingerbread and stained glass of a riverboat ballroom,” the “notes” noted, adding that a spiral staircase led to a rooftop sea view observatory.   

By 1909 Olive’s reputation had spread north and he designed the Portola Valley School on land donated by Andrew Hallidie, inventor of San Francisco’s cable cars. Initially, Olive wanted the exterior of the woman’s club building to be in Mission Revival, but he switched to wood instead of stucco. Exactly why he made the change is still a mystery.

In “This Old House,” Foster, the niece of founding club member Aileen Finkler, said she was “sorry” that she failed to discover why Olive’s “beautiful plan for a Spanish Mission building was eliminated” in favor of shingles. 

        The experience at the Portola school, however, gives a clue. Olive wanted the school in Mission Revival but decided on wood because it was less expensive. The operative part of Redwood City, after all, is redwood.

Foster said she had read Olive’s plan for the clubhouse and, except for the outside, it was clear that “the building we have is the one he designed.” The interior rooms are the same as described in Olive’s plans which featured a large foyer, an auditorium stage, and a tea room.

The clubhouse was dedicated on Oct. 19, 1911 with representatives of all the civic and service clubs on the Peninsula present, along with government officials. The dignitaries included Mrs. A.P. Black, president of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs.

 A few days later a flower show opened that allowed area growers to display their bounty, which included carnations, orchids, roses and hot house plants of just about every color. Flowers must have been considered important to the Peninsula economy because the event lasted for three days.

Another Mystery

Why Olive changed his plan is not the only mystery. Another is what happened to the club’s Well Baby Clinic? In the 1930s, the clinic’s work was honored with an extensive article in the California Federation News that noted the club operated the only such clinic in San Mateo County, which, the article, said, “is justly proud of its club women to whom each and every little life is precious.”

From the article, it seems the club became the site of the clinic in the late 1920s and catered mainly to poor mothers, many of them immigrants. When the clinic ceased operating is not certain. However, club records contain reports up to the 1950s.(Eds Note: Readers who have information on the clinic please contact The Journal of Local History at the library). 

At any rate, the method of operation seemed to be constant. The babies were weighed, their height was measured, and a diet was prescribed. The mothers were also advised on how to care for the infants. Doctors Adelaide Brown and Ralph Howe were mentioned in the Federation piece. Club volunteers helped the physicians.

Later, the clinic moved to Washington School where club records for 1937 show there were 354 visits by mothers who were seen by a doctor, “our own Mrs. Nelson Andrews.” By 1940, Doctor Andrews was referred to as “Doctor Bertha Andrews” who by then was giving immunizations against diphtheria and smallpox.

One of the more detailed reports of the clinic’s activities was made in 1940 by Eleanor Poole of the club’s Child Welfare Section. Poole, who volunteered at the clinic, underlined the fact that the clinic, as the name implied, was for “well children.”

Any cases of illness or accident that were brought to the clinic “are immediately referred to the family physician or, if necessary, to the County Health Department,”

Poole reported that between June of 1939 and May of 1940 the clinic staff examined 697 children. There were 33 immunizations, each requiring three injections at three-week intervals, as well as 4 smallpox vaccinations.

The clinic’s reputation drew visitors from the County Health Department, school nurses and students from “social problem classes,” Poole reported.

In a few years, the nation was fighting World War II and the club’s activities increased. Still, the clinic saw 678 babies during a one-year span. The club carried this out while still finding members and time to devote “over 2,000 hours a month in service work,” according to a club report. Among other projects, the club provided flowers for a military hospital, took part in war bond drives, as well as helping the U.S.O. and Red Cross. The women also “met weekly to spend a day sewing or rolling bandages.”

In 1950, five years after WWII ended and the Korean War started, the Well Baby Clinic, hit its peak by examining 817 children, according to a 1966 story in the Redwood City Tribune.

In 1956, polio shots were added to the clinic’s services as well as interpreters who were needed because “many” foreign languages were spoken.

After this, little is known about the clinic. There is no mention of the clinic in the 1958 report by the club’s president. Apparently, the county had taken over the clinic’s function. A club report in 1972 said the clinic, now operating out of a union hall, was being administered by Public Health Nurses from the County Health and Welfare Department.

The year 1911 was a good one for women in Redwood City. Not only did they open a clubhouse, they also got the right to vote. On Oct. 10. 1911, men approved an amendment passed earlier by the legislature. San Mateo County men, however, voted thumbs down, along with male voters in San Francisco and Alameda Counties.

Opponents could be found everywhere in the cities where the saloon and liquor trades openly opposed the measure, according to Molly Murphy MacGregor, co-founder of the National Women’s History Project.

“They argued that if women had the ballot, it would be bad for business for every brothel keeper, every keeper of a dive and low saloon,” she said.

 MacGregor said the anti-suffrage forces warned men that if women got the right to vote prohibition would follow. They were right, but that’s a different story.

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Jim Clifford retired in 2000 after a 40-year career as a news reporter, a span split between United Press International and the Associated Press. He writes the “Rear View Mirror” history column that appears in the San Mateo Daily Journal. He also writes history stories for several magazines, including Climate, The Journal of Local History and La Peninsula.

Clifford, the author of “Philip’s Code: No News is Good News — to a Killer,” is veteran of both the Navy and Air Force. He and his wife, Peggy, met when they were students at San Francisco State. The native San Franciscans moved down the Peninsula to Redwood City where they raised seven children. “Times were good,” Clifford said.

Jim Clifford

Jim Clifford retired in 2000 after a 40-year career as a news reporter, a span split between United Press International and the Associated Press. He writes the "Rear View Mirror" history column that appears in the San Mateo Daily Journal. He also writes history stories for several magazines, including Climate, The Journal of Local History and La Peninsula.

Clifford, the author of "Philip's Code: No News is Good News - to a Killer," is veteran of both the Navy and Air Force. He and his wife, Peggy, met when they were students at San Francisco State. The native San Franciscans moved down the Peninsula to Redwood City where they raised seven children. "Times were good," Clifford said.