Nancy Whitlock, current president, stands in front of portraits of past presidents.

12 Decades of Service at Rockford Woman's Club

You may be surprisd to learn just how many ways this 120-year-old club has positively influenced our community. As the role of women has evolved, so too has the role of this club. Peggy Werner shows you to why this club’s mission endures.

Nancy Whitlock, current president, stands in front of portraits of past presidents.
Nancy Whitlock, current president, stands in front of portraits of past presidents.

Whether or not you know it, it’s likely you’ve been touched by the Rockford Woman’s Club.
This year the club is observing its 120th season; in 2018, it will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its handsome building at 323 Park Ave.
Nancy Whitlock, president of the Rockford Woman’s Club since 1996 and a member for more than 30 years, says the organization has adapted to changing times, but never gives up on its mission to make a difference in people’s lives through philanthropic projects.
“When the club formed, women didn’t have a voice or the vote,” Whitlock points out. “Now that women are so integrated into life as a whole, that purpose has changed. The club is redesigning itself to continue with its mission of always wanting to be relevant in the community.”
The woman’s club exists to promote and encourage philanthropy, civic and cultural improvement, and education in the Rockford area. It also supports and offers opportunities for women to grow and serve. It is member-owned and receives no outside funding.
It may come as a surprise to learn how much impact the club has had in the Rockford area over the past 12 decades. It’s credited with starting the school lunch program and the teaching of home economics in public schools; with the opening of school libraries; with the opening of the city’s first senior center; with giving the Rockford Literacy Council its current home; and with founding the former Montague House, which helped immigrants acclimate to American society. The club also was instrumental in the formation of the Public Welfare Association, which later became known as the Community Chest and today is the United Way.
In its earliest days, members campaigned for a new jail, city garbage collection, woman’s suffrage, the freedom to work an eight-hour day, city beautification and the pasteurization of milk. They also convinced the public that playgrounds are important, which resulted in a playground director being hired by the Rockford Park District. During World War II, the woman’s club joined with the American Red Cross in rolling bandages for wounded soldiers. Members also hosted dances for service men and women at Camp Grant.
The club paved the way for many “firsts” for women in the community, including the creation of the local chapter of the League of Woman Voters. Club members were behind the hiring of the first woman probation officer and the first woman to serve on the Board of Education. They also organized the Rockford Business and Professional Women’s Club and were the impetus for other area women’s clubs, including the Junior Rockford Woman’s Club.
In the late 1800s, about 20 woman’s organizations were operating in the community, attempting to help with relief work following the financial collapse of 1893. In time, the women decided they could be more effective by working together, so representatives of each group met in the home of Mrs. Seely Perry to talk about consolidating their efforts. Later that year, a Federation of the Woman’s Clubs of Rockford was organized and Perry was named its first president. The club’s first project was to plant vegetable gardens on vacant city lots to help feed the hungry and unemployed. In 1904, the group’s name was changed to Rockford Woman’s Club.
Whitlock is related, by marriage, to the late Jessie I. Spafford, a dedicated, driven, astute and intelligent woman who served as the club’s sixth and longest-serving president; Spafford presided for 43 years. She was a phi beta kappa Vassar graduate, bank vice president, the first woman president of the Rockford School District and a Rockford College professor.
Spafford was the daughter of Amos Spafford, who came to Rockford from New York to farm; he eventually became one of the founders of Third National Bank.
“Jessie loved the club and was one of the major forces behind it,” says Whitlock. “Many of our accomplishments and our mission today are the result of her direction. Jessie would be proud we’re still here and that we continue to make an impact on the community.”
Modern life has taken a toll on the club. Membership has dwindled to about 150, down from a peak of 1,200. In the 1970s, there was a waiting list for membership. Nevertheless, the club continues to do its work.
Robbin Nelson, who recently joined the club, understands the time constraints today’s women face.
“My mom is a member and has always been after to me to join, but I didn’t have time, with family and work,” says Nelson. “I finally decided to get involved because the Rockford Woman’s Club is an institution in Rockford, does good work, and now I have the time. The club is an important part of Rockford history and I like the idea of supporting it and want to see it continue.”
Whitlock is working to increase membership and involve the club in causes that attract women of all ages. Two big items on her agenda are reopening a restaurant in the lower level of the club and selecting the next club-wide philanthropic project.
One way the club is trying to attract new members is through special events. “Each One Bring One” challenges members to get other women to join. Whoever brings in the most new members in 2017 will win a one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry in January 2018.
Also, the first in a series was held in November with “An Historic Afternoon with Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Kennedy,” featuring Leslie Goddard and Laura Keyes portraying the first ladies. They reminisced about life in the White House and the challenges they endured after their husbands’ assassinations. The event included a social time, luncheon, and the presentation.
Goddard is a former museum director with a Ph.D. in American Studies and U.S. History from Northwestern University and Master’s degrees in theater and museum studies. Keyes works at the Freeport Public Library and has a Master’s degree in library science from the University of Wisconsin.
The next such presentation will be May 3; Goddard will play Eleanor Roosevelt.
Many new events are being planned and some long-time traditions are being maintained. The club is in its 93rd year of sponsoring Creative Writing Awards. Each year, high school students enter their own poetry and prose and a winner is chosen from each school. Last year, there were 153 entries. Each winner is awarded a cash prize, a copy of a booklet with all the winning entries, and a chance to recite their work at the woman’s club in front of members, family, and friends.
The woman’s club makes a long-term commitment to the people it chooses to help. The club is divided into departments; each has its own charitable cause and monthly meeting times. In addition, the entire club dedicates itself to one large philanthropic project for as long as needed.
“We hang onto projects for a long time, until we turn them over to another agency or the need is being met in other ways,” Whitlock explains. “We’ll maintain whatever projects we’re working on, as long as they’re helping people and as long as we have women interested in helping.”
Such is the case with “Sharing Our Closet.” For more than 10 years, this effort has provided low-income women with work clothing and appropriate job interview attire. During the worst economic times, the women held several closet sales a year. Due to the large number of secondhand stores and clothing outlets, the project has been handed over to the Auxiliary Thrift Shop at MercyHealth Hospital on Rockton Avenue.
Elise Cadigan chairs the Rockford Woman’s Club Philanthropic Committee, which is made up of department representatives tasked with choosing the next club project. Cadigan has been a member of the woman’s club since 1979, has chaired her department several times and currently serves on the all-club board.
Since September, philanthropy committee members have met regularly and invited speakers to educate them about the needs of children in Rockford. The next woman’s club project will collaborate with an organization that aims to improve the lives of children.
“Everyone is concerned with helping children and the goal of the next project is to interest club members of all ages and attract new members,” says Cadigan. “One thing we know for sure is that life is much more difficult for children today. They have problems they didn’t have generations ago. There are more broken families, some have no extended family, they’re assimilating into new communities, many are homeless, there’s daily exposure to drugs and alcohol and widespread threat of sex trafficking, and the negative emotional impact of social media, specifically cyber-bullying.
“There’s a whole new world out there for children to deal with and a lot of kids are just in survival mode as they struggle with self esteem and finding their way in the world.”
Over the decades, many philanthropic causes were funded, in part, by The Food Shop, a restaurant in the Woman’s Club which opened in 1920 and closed in 1998. At its peak, The Food Shop was a Rockford hot spot, packed during the lunch hour every day and booked with banquets every weekend.
Plans are underway to bring a restaurant back to that location.
“A restaurant in the former Food Shop space is necessary to bring activity back to our lovely building and the timing is good,” Whitlock says. “It may take awhile to find the right partner, but we’re talking to people and are in the process of making it happen. We’ve always been a mainstay in downtown Rockford and always will be.”
Whitlock also is working to get the building on the National Registry for Historic Sites.
The land and an adjacent building were donated in 1915 by the Emerson family, Rockford pioneers in the agricultural equipment industry. The Rockford Woman’s Club moved into its new building in 1918. It was paid for with interest-free loans from members, gifts, a bond issue and many fundraising activities.
“I am always asked if our building was built as a home,” says Whitlock. “It feels like a home, but it was designed as an elegant club house with a restaurant, theater and many meeting rooms. Although we’ve done a lot of upgrades – plumbing, air conditioning, bathrooms, the addition of an elevator and, most recently, installing a new roof over the theater – the character and basic structure of the building has been maintained.
“The building is in excellent shape and that’s one of the things I’m most proud of. When people walk in, they’re impressed with the care we’ve put into the structure. There are many woman’s clubs in the country, but very few with a restaurant and theater. Our founders looked at other clubs and knew what would work for us,” she says.
People can rent parts or all of the space, including meeting rooms, banquet rooms, a bar and the theater.
The 800-seat Rockford Theater has its own entrance, box office and lobby and is fully equipped with sound and lighting equipment. The theater is acoustically sound and has hosted a wide variety of events, from musical performances and dance recitals to lectures and beauty pageants.
Women who have been a part of the local club have a lifelong affection for its work and members, Whitlock says.
Carolyn Plummer, 93, whas been a woman’s club member since 1946 and was president from 1976-78. She joined the club because her mother-in-law was a member and encouraged her to participate. Over time, she was president of every department she belonged to at the club.
Although she hasn’t been able to attend meetings for two years, Plummer still pays membership dues to support the club. She recalls being at the club every day, when there were 18 departments with 60 members each. Every interest was satisfied, including gardening, the arts, philanthropy, investing, travel, literature, and much more. Today there are three departments.
“There was something going on every day of the week and The Food Shop was the place to go for lunch,” she recalls. “The food and service were great and the atmosphere was elegant.” Even though we were in bustling downtown Rockford, there were French doors to a serene and scenic rock garden with flowers, plants, trees, limestone steps and a bench.
“The Rockford Woman’s Club has meant a lot to me. Between the club and my church, Trinity Lutheran, I stayed very busy and both places have given me a lot of satisfaction in all that I’ve done in my adult life. Even though I’m no longer active, I still want to help. The Rockford Woman’s Club has been one of the joys of my life and I will continue to support it for as long as I live.
“I hope the club will always be there and that there will be women with time to give. The club is not like it used to be, but it’s doing a wonderful job and doing a lot and always looking for what more can be done. A lot of women used to join for the social life, but today they mostly want to help,” shew says.
For more information or to rent the building, contact the club at (815) 965-4233.