The Sonoma Valley Woman’s Club was founded in 1901 to help beautify the City of Sonoma and to enhance its cultural life. The club’s first project was creating the Plaza, which began with a committee planting an Arbor Day tree in Vallejo’s honor. Members then convinced the City Trustees to build gravel walkways, and to add lighting and park benches. They commemorated the Bear Flag Party with a rock monument and built a water fountain for people, horses and dogs at the south entrance to the Plaza. In fact, they were responsible for erecting three fountains in the Plaza. It’s possible, that without the help of the feisty group of women activists, Sonoma’s beloved Plaza, would still look like General Vallejo’s parade ground – a great, barren field with scraggly weeds trampled into uneven, dry mud, cows grazing outside the rickety picket fence encircling it.
The women’s civic efforts rippled out into the community, and they encouraged citizens to plant shade trees in front of their homes. They petitioned the City Trustees to pass an ordinance prohibiting livestock from roaming freely about town. The club is also largely responsible for saving the Mission and its bell. The first library in Sonoma can be attributed to their efforts, as well.
Resourceful club members produced numerous creative “entertainments” and fundraisers to pay for their projects. Picnics, garden parties and cigar sales (boosted by the society women dressing up as “Indian maidens”) were poplar events. In 1905, they held a public book shower to supply the library with children’s literature. The women dressed up representing favorite books and celebrated a successful collection of 40 volumes. The 1910 Festival of Nations, a four-day event in the Plaza, featured booths representing world cultures and raised a whopping $1,000 for the Plaza Fund.
The club still meets regularly and holds club fundraisers for community efforts, but their presence is undoubtedly less visible and creative than it was back before women had the vote, when it gave women an opportunity to make their needs and voices heard and the platform to be of consequence in their community.
The club still make annual, financial contributions to Sonoma’s nine school libraries and to non-profit organizations such as Sonoma Overnight Support, FISH, and Pets Lifeline. It also supplies three scholarships to deserving Sonoma Valley High School seniors who might not receive other scholarships. But, where is their dynamic community appeal today?
The average age of the approximately 75 members is, “One-hundred and two,” said Yvonne Bowers, SVWC President, and Jean Miller, Club Historian, simultaneously. Eve Demartini is a 77-year member in her 90s, and 95-year-old Bernadette Fredell joined the organization in 1986. Joking aside,, Bowers is the “the baby” of the group at 64 and seems to be one of its more progressive thinkers. “We don’t want to seem stodgy, like were an old ladies’ organization. We want to be vital,” she says.
Bowers noted differing opinions within the club. “Some say, ‘It’s just a club and we meet, and that’s that.’” Others recognize that they need new members, but they’re not sure how or where to get them. “Younger members want to get things going, so we have to sell the club,” she said. “We want to find a way to make what we do important to prospective members as well.”
The SVWC has a monthly meeting at 1 p.m. on the third Friday, usually with a speaker, sometimes with a luncheon. That’s a hard time for working women and younger women with children.
“There’s got to be something vital, so we look for that and try to get new members through lectures and stuff. Although, we did have one on bedpans a while back,” said Bowers, rolling her eyes. Actually, clarifies Miller, “It was about recycling medical equipment.”
Somehow, it doesn’t seem like a monthly game of Chicken Foot Dominoes is going to draw new, younger members, either.
So, maybe the club’s greatest community appeal and cultural enhancement, at this point, is its rental facility, perfect for weddings, musical or theatrical performances, or even business meetings. The club built the Craftsman style clubhouse in 1916, at 574 First St. E., specifically to accommodate its meetings and events. While some of its members are reluctant to rent their clubhouse, they need to do so in order to help pay for its maintenance and for some pending renovations and upgrades, including a much-needed air-conditioner. It has an auditorium and stage, a kitchen, two bathrooms and outdoor space. Parking is available at neighboring churches.
“We are Sonoma’s best kept secret,” says Bowers. Not anymore.
On January 17, Vox Popluli, Sonoma’s popular rock and roll chorus, held a sold-out concert at the venue. “It’s the best acoustic space in Sonoma, great for both theatre and music because that stage is built to project sound,” said Mark Dennis, the chorus director. “It seems like there’s a new wave of members coming in who are open and inviting and they make it easy to do an event there. I recommend that place very highly.”
The next benefit will be held Feb 15, a dance party, with the dance band “Plan Be.”
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To learn more about SVWC, its events and rental facility, visit Sonomavalleywomansclub.org.