Monday, November 18, 2013
Lake Lowell: The Friendly Neighbors Club
The Friendly Neighbors Club
A Rural Idaho Women’s Tradition
as seen in IDAHO Magazine
By Amy Larson
“Would you like to go to lunch with me sometime?” said Jean, a senior lady I’d just met. She was short, and her sparkling eyes, crisp voice, and white hair reminded me of an elf. It was 2001, and we’d just moved out to the rural Lakeshore Drive area near Lake Lowell. Each home in the neighborhood had at least an acre or two, and I was out exploring. Jean walked to her mailbox at the same time I trudged up the steep gravel road, and our chat led to a lunch invitation. Initially worried that I’d be lonely living the rural life, I said, “Sure.” She was a spitfire, and I had plans to be that way at her age. I was ready to watch and learn.
A few days later, Jean picked me up in her sports car. I got inside and simply held on, certain she was a Nascar fan. We stopped to pick up Thelma, who lived nearby. Thelma laughed a lot, and told great stories. Three seemed like a good number for a get-to-know-you lunch, but at the restaurant, I was surprised to find nine others waiting there. They called themselves the Friendly Neighbors Club, comprising women who lived around Lake Lowell. They needed new blood . . . and that was me.
I can’t say I minded. Each had a tale that would familiarize me with area names, farms, and who was who. I got a crash course in rural Idaho by attending a two-hour, once-a-month luncheon. These ladies were really funny, and their club was an entertaining diversion from doing our business’s paperwork and our house’s housework.
I continued to ride to meetings with Jean and Thelma, who amused me with their Abbott and Costello act. Sometimes Thelma would pass along a recipe she’d clipped from a magazine, knowing I had a family to cook for. When I walked or drove up the hill, I’d either wave or honk at Jean. She became “Grandma Jean” to my children, who visited her every now and then. During morning workouts, when I rode my bike past Thelma’s little house down the road from mine, I’d wave at the big picture window I couldn’t see into, just in case she was nearby. She often spotted me.
Phyllis, another member, was a published writer, educated and well-spoken, who gave great devotional readings. Ruth made me laugh so hard I’d have to gasp for air, and she regularly invited the kids and I over for lunch and a dip in the pool. Charlotte, both smart and funny, was an artist who knew how to create just about anything. Midge, under five feet tall, shocked me at many a luncheon by ordering a big, juicy hamburger, and then eating it all. Soft-spoken Idella and her husband lived on our road, too, and year after year I took the kids trick or treating or Christmas caroling there.
Peggy, who claimed never to have had a toothache, earache, or headache, had supervised a corn topping crew in her forties, even during pregnancy. She never sat still, canned hundreds of quarts of this or that, crocheted blankets or anything else possible to crochet, and bowled with her league, who named their team Peggy’s Pickles in honor of her famous pickle recipe. “The secret’s in the water,” she told me. “It’s my special well water, and no one else can duplicate it. Many have tried.”
Our entire family went yearly to the July potluck picnics held on Peggy’s front lawn under her huge shade trees on Walker Lake Drive. Because of these ladies, I never felt lonely living at the Lake Shore house. They took in my family and I. Nor was I the only one who felt that way about the club. Several of the members shared how they’d been transplants from other states, had needed friends, and the club had been there, making them feel that they had a place. The ladies were there for each other with a comforting sort of steadiness. Together, they mourned losses and celebrated gains. Their children were practically like siblings.
One summer, I developed a bike route past the houses of Thelma, Peggy, Idella, and Charlotte, which I rode almost every morning. The hunting dog of Peggy’s son followed me down the road one day and was struck by a speeding delivery truck. The dog didn’t survive, and I was heartbroken. A family came out of their home to help with the dog while I wondered how on earth I’d tell my friend. I rode back to Peggy’s and knocked on her door, but got no answer. At home, heavy-hearted, I called Peggy, and when she finally answered, I told her what had happened.
After a long pause, she said, “I just lost my son two weeks ago to an accident. He loved that dog, and now his favorite dog is with him in heaven. It’s okay, Amy.”
I cried a little, not having heard the sad news yet. Peggy, in her strong, corn-topping-while-she’s-eight-months-pregnant-way, consoled me, and after a moment said simply, “I sure miss him.”
I’d been a member of the club for five years before I had the good fortune to be entrusted with “the box.” One of the secretaries asked me to keep it for her. The cardboard box was clean, white, and carefully tied up with a thin turquoise string. At home, I went through it like a hungry child. It turned out to be filled with journals, minutes, old black-and-white photographs. What I learned filled me with a deep reverence for the club and the women who’d been a part of it all of this time.
I learned from its contents that the Friendly Neighbors Club had been formed on April 5, 1928, by farmers’ wives and mothers of school-age children. The first meetings were held twice monthly in a small building that became the district’s first schoolhouse. The club wasn’t unique. Many of the surrounding farming areas had such groups, and their heads would gather every so often to find out who was doing what within the communities, and sometimes coordinate their activities.
The Friendly Neighbors saw many needs to meet, one of which was proper school lunches. Long before a lunch program was instituted in the schools, the FNC made sure students had a good midday meal. Within the club, there were committees for just about everything, among them: flowers (weddings, funerals, illness), programs, membership, school, press and publicity, helping hand projects, ways and means, amusements, showers, books, decorations, the Marsing Auction, a scrapbook, and welcoming.
From about 1930 on, meticulous club meeting minutes were kept, which had the incidental effect of capturing the members’ cleverness. For example, each roll call featured a theme, as a way for people to get to know each other better. Here are some of them: “Name a Current Event,” “Name a Woman Writer,” “Yes or No: Does the Modern Girl Make a Better Homemaker Than Her Grandmother?,” “What I’d Do with a 25th Hour,” “My Secret Ambition,” and “What I Do When I Do What I Please.”
The minutes also provided evidence of stunts, riddles, card playing, games and contests, book and movie reviews, gift exchanges, spelling bees, and jokes played on husbands. Once, the members even held a “little kid party,” for which they all dressed as children.
The meetings often included the Pledge of Allegiance, readings of part of the Constitution or Gettysburg Address, and prayers. The “club collect” or motto, written by Mary Stewart, was: “Keep us, O God, from pettiness; let us be large in thought, in word, in deed.” Activities changed with the seasons: a family picnic in July, spook stories in October, family Christmas dinners and parties in December, Irish jokes in March. In the spring there was an early bulb and seed exchange, and the anniversary luncheon in April was always a big, fancy affair.
Within the box, I also found tiny, handmade booklets titled, “In Memoriam.” One for each year contained the names of lost members, frequently with the same quote beneath each name, “As if a rose had climbed the garden wall and blossomed on the other side.” It was evident that as the list got longer of original members who’d passed on, the ladies found ways to celebrate their lives. Instead of a regular monthly meeting, candle ceremonies were held and memories shared of the friend lost.
The women were conscientious, determined to make their contribution to society, and the minutes showed their specific concerns: Public Welfare, What the Community Hall Needs, Winter Care of Poultry, Favorite Breed of Chickens and Why, What Can I Do for My Community, Ways to Conserve Sugar, What I Can Do to Help Win the War, Suggestions for Club Work for the Coming Year, Putting Something Christmassy on Helen Johnson’s Nursing Home Door.
The Lakeview School attended by their children was their pet project. They oversaw last-day-of-school picnics, teachers’ receptions, tokens of appreciation for cooks and custodians, presents for the teachers, blankets for emergency use, and assisted with the repair and/or purchase of the furnace. I believe they even helped to purchase a piano one year.
Most of them were mothers, and children were welcome at club meetings. After a fire at the schoolhouse in 1967, students were bussed to different schools, but the tight-knit farming community and the club helped them to stay in touch.
If a farmer decided to sell or went bankrupt, club entrepreneurs discovered a way to make money. A crowd of people would descend upon those farms on the day of the auction, which many times continued during lunchtime. The Friendly Neighbors set up shop, selling home-made goodies to hungry buyers and bystanders. The money they made went right back into the FNC fund, which was often used to help each other or someone else.
Turning the pages of minutes and journals, I was amazed at the many ways these women had made their mark. It seemed they’d been everywhere in their heyday, lending helping hands and making donations to the Salvation Army, Red Cross, American Cancer Society, March of Dimes, Marsing Disaster Fund, Children’s Home, Lizzard Butte Easter Association, Hope House, Mercy House, Youth Ranch, and Polio Fund. They donated turkeys during the holidays, granted modest scholarships, baked cakes for receptions, sent cards to anyone they knew going through a loss or a hardship, sent money to heart transplant recipients, and bought get-well gifts. They even “adopted” a resident of the state school to give birthday and Christmas gifts.
It wasn’t all work, though. The minutes revealed pranks played on members’ husbands, who often did the heavy lifting for events and fundraisers, in exchange for a hearty and tasty meal or two. The members were famous for their cooking. By way of pranks, one year the husbands got a little good-natured revenge during a club meeting. When the ladies went to their appointed luncheon at Lakey’s on Highway 20/26, they were told reservations had not been made, and that the restaurant had not been expecting them. Not sure what to do, the women sweated it out for a few minutes before a back room was suddenly opened with tables neatly set up for lunch and their smirking husbands inside, who were no doubt proud of themselves for finally getting even with their prank-playing wives.
At one time, membership had climbed to fifty or more. The club was quite the social event at its height, with mothers, daughters, in-laws and sometimes grandmothers on the roster. Longtime FNC member Mabel Farner created a book called Yesteryears in Lakeview, documenting memories of the area before there was a lake, the farming life and other histories, and of course, the club. Mabel had passed away before I’d moved to the country, so we’d missed each other.
In 2006, when the Friendly Neighbors Club held its eighty-third anniversary luncheon, I was made an “honorary” member. I laughed, thinking I’d been a member all along, yet the main criteria for being in the club had been that the women were from the Lake Lowell area (what was once called Lakeview), and by then, I had moved back to the suburbs. Perhaps this was their way of letting me know that I still belonged, no matter where I lived. They were, after all, friendly neighbors.