Pioneer Ladies Club folding after 98 years

A large group of members of the Pendleton Pioneer Ladies Club gather in their finery to have a tea in the early 1940s. Mrs. Walter Moore is in the pouring position on the far left.

Just two years short of celebrating their 100th anniversary, the Pioneer Ladies Club has dissolved.

The club, one of the oldest social clubs in Pendleton, was formed in 1918 to document and preserve the stories of Umatilla County’s pioneers. In March, club president Sonja Erickson Hart notified the club of the decision to disband. The decision came after two years of consideration and a vote by the membership.

The club’s membership, which once numbered over 100, had dwindled to five.

“I’m sorry to see it end. I wanted them to go to 100 at least,” said member Dorys Grover, whose mother was a member of the Bowman family and a charter member. “There’s no more pioneer women left.”

Originally, the club required 25 years of residence in Umatilla County for membership. Hart said they changed that standard several years ago, allowing anyone with an interest in history. Still, the club struggled to recruit new members. The meeting time — Tuesdays at 2 p.m. — could have been one factor, Hart said.

She added, “there’s just not much of an interest in social clubs anymore.”

The pioneer ladies, frequent collaborators with the Pendleton Women’s Club, held events like ice cream parties, charity dinners and award banquets. But they also preserved a history that represents “many towns, cities, states throughout the United States that were built by that same determination and tremendous hardships of the immigrants — individuals and families who made us the great country we are today,” Hart wrote in a letter to club members.

The women kept historical scrapbooks and artifacts, such as old clothes. The Vert Club Room where the ladies met, a space named for charter organizing officer Jesse S. Vert, was like a museum, Hart said. She plans to distribute the club’s assets to the Children’s Museum, Pendleton Arts Council, Umatilla County Historical Society and Pendleton Underground Tours.

The club endeavored to immortalize the pioneers with monuments. The renaming of Cabbage Hill to Emigrant Hill was coordinated by the ladies. They also erected a memorial bench for Aura M. Goodwin Raley in Pioneer Park, a sign for Minnie Stillman in Stillman Park and a wall around the grave site of Dr. W.C. McKay, who worked as an assistant surgeon on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Among the club’s greatest accomplishments was the publication of their book, “Reminiscences of Oregon Pioneers,” in 1937. The book includes narrative stories, essays and poetry from Pendleton’s earliest white citizens, including the first mayor, dentist and school teacher. Significant historical figures like Nancy DeSpain, J. H. Raley and Minnie Stillman wrote extensively.

“It paints a picture of what life was like in the old days,” said Rebecca Frostad, manager and membership coordinator for the Heritage Station Museum. “The town felt more like a family at that time. They didn’t really have the option of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”

The book sold well locally and was reprinted in 1993 with funds from the Umatilla County Historical Society. Frostad said it’s the only book of its kind, a critical first-person record of early European life in Umatilla County.

“Reminiscences of Oregon Pioneers,” once for sale in the Heritage Station Museum, is currently sold out. The club’s supply will be donated to libraries in Umatilla County, as well as the Pendleton Underground Tours, Friends of the Library and Historical Society. Frostad said a second edition, made more accessible to modern audiences by maps and footnotes, has been discussed as a future project.

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