Even before they could vote, there was a strong sense of individuality among women across the America. So strong in fact that many began forming their own groups and clubs in order to come together with like ideas and philosophies.
A scrapbook kept at the Nearly New store in Ennis holds years worth of memories for the Madison Valley Womens Club. Photo by Ben Coulter.
The history of one group in particular, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, can be traced back to a female journalist in New York, Jane Cunningham Croly, who wrote under the name “Jennie June.” She was denied access, along with other female journalists, to a press club event honoring novelist Charles Dickens because of her gender.
From there, she organized her own club for women. She soon realized her idea was not original and that there were other groups of women around the country creating their
own such associations. In 1890, Croly invited women’s clubs from across the country to join her at a ratification convention in New York City. To make a long story short, the GFWC was formed.
Our own Madison Valley Woman’s Club formed in 1920. The roots are uncertain, but it is said the club originated from a women’s sewing group called the Priscilla Sewing Circle and morphed from a purely social organization to a more fundamental one during both World Wars. Involving their time in community projects and volunteer hours, the women of the Madison Valley possessed a strong desire to provide their services to the local area.
And so, the MVWC began with their first president, Lucy Maynard. Another member at that time was 16-year-old Florinda Francesca Womack, who remained active and then honorary until her death in 2005. Today, the Madison Valley group meets in Ennis every month and is one of the largest of Women’s Clubs in Montana.
With 140 members to date, 26 of those are honorary members who are 80 years old, or older. The group meets once a month at the Madison Valley Baptist Church, a space large enough to hold the 45 to 55 members who attend each gathering. Current President, Toni Scully notes that a lot of members are only summertime ladies, but even in the wintertime, attendance rarely falls below that mark.
One of the MVWC’s biggest accomplishments is the Nearly New Shoppe, a thrift store filled with donations from residents of Madison County and beyond.
The Shoppe has provided Ennis with everything from gently used clothes to used sporting goods for almost 42 years now. The Shoppe was first built where Antler Art now resides and later moved to where the Masonic Hall is on First Street, until finally finding a home in the old Angle Hardware building on the east end of Main Street.
The story goes that the owner of the building to first house the Nearly New was certain the project would fail and did not charge the club rent for the first month. His pessimism was misplaced and the club and their Shoppe have been amazingly successful. For the past two fiscal years, the Shoppe has exceeded $100,000 in revenue. Of that at least $60,000 has been donated back into the community. The Madison Valley Caring and Sharing Food Bank, the Madison Valley Public Library, the Ennis School District, Madison County Search and Rescue, Meals-on-Wheels and the Madison Valley Medical Center are just a few recipients of such donations.
Scully says that the Nearly New Shoppe is “doing something for the community. It’s about volunteerism and service. But we have so much fun doing it.”
The Nearly New is run completely by volunteers who are members of the Women’s Club. Even the building maintenance is donated by locals to keep the business up and running.
A highly impressive and organized business, the Shoppe is divided into sections, which at least one or more women are in charge of. They sell baby clothes, teen clothes, shoes, books, household items and knick knacks. There is a little bit of everything in the store.
“Random, fabulous things,” says Scully. “And the prices are so reasonable. It gives the community a place to go without having to drive to Bozeman. We provide a necessary shopping experience for locals.”
Some of the Nearly New volunteers have been manning the shop for more than 20 years. According to Scully, the idea for the store started when a few of the women in the Club had friends coming from out of town who donated items to thrift stores in bigger towns. Instead of funneling items elsewhere, the women had the idea to open their own store to be able to raise more money than just dues in order to fund larger projects.
And nothing is wasted. What the Nearly New cannot use, gets picked up from Bozeman and sent to Texas, where items are separated and washed and sent out to countries in need. Even what can’t be sent overseas gets recycled into rugs or other such projects.
The Nearly New is selective about what it puts out for sale. Every item is examined for holes, stains, missing buttons and functionality. The ladies have great pride in their product and service to the community and it certainly shows when you walk in the store. Displays are detailed and spaces are neat and organized.
What may be even more impressive than the celebrated business they have created may be the fact this group of women preserves a branch of history not found in every county. The Vintage Attic, a collection of clothes and accessories dating back to the 1800s fills racks upon racks in the upstairs of the Nearly New Shoppe.
They loan out the ‘costumes’ for events such as the Vintage Ball and even proms and weddings. They charge a small fee to cover the cleaning and preservation of the extensive wardrobe. There are even vintage paper doll books and clips from magazines from various eras around the Attic. The images are mingled in between hats, boots and jewelry of those particular decades.
Shauna Laszlo, a member of the Vintage Attic Committee along with 10 other members of the MVWC, volunteers once a month to help keep the Attic in working order and organized. The committee sifts through the items to ensure they are stored properly to live to see another day.
“I think as a non-profit organization, (the Woman’s Club) gives the most back to the community,” Laszlo said. “I also have a great interest in the preservation of the Vintage Attic.”
For more information about the Woman’s Club or to help out with their efforts, stop by the Nearly New Shoppe and visit with one of the club members certain to be volunteering.